Departing from orthodoxy: what it was like to split from the Church of Scotland

Peter Dickson is currently Scotland Team Leader of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), which encourages and supports leaders of affiliated Christian Unions (CUs) throughout the UK to engage in evangelism and help Christian students grow in their faith. Peter is married to Eleanor and together they have two children, Esther and Jamie.

Peter served at the High Church, Hilton Church of Scotland in Aberdeen for fifteen years before leaving the church in November 2011 and founding Trinity Church, Aberdeen, with fellow minister David Gibson. Many other ministers and congregations subsequently left the Church of Scotland in the wake of a string of decisions by that Church’s General Assembly in the last decade to accept the legitimacy of same-sex relationships.

Here, Matt Baines interviews Peter to hear about his experience of leaving a national church, and the joys and difficulties of what lay beyond.

MB: You and members of High Church, Hilton, Aberdeen were the first to leave the Church of Scotland as a result of recent decisions of the General Assembly. What was that like?

PD: Leaving the Church of Scotland was a prolonged process. Although we left High Church, Hilton in November 2011 we first heard that a congregation in our presbytery was going to ask a minister who had openly stated that he was in a same-sex relationship to be their minister in 2008. So there were three years of negotiations, discussions, church courts, decisions meetings and correspondence which led to our leaving, finally, in 2011.

It was also a relationally difficult period. People were seeking clarity and unity in relationships within congregations, among elders, between ministers, within presbyteries, between denominations, across the country, and internationally. Conversations were often marked by frustration, a lack of clarity, mixed motives, differing opinions, conflicting priorities and a huge amount of fear, distrust and even threat.

It was a transition of immense upheaval but one in which people’s ultimate allegiances and beliefs came to the fore. This clarifying of people’s theological opinions was both encouraging and disappointing. Relationships were strained and broken, friendships were formed and forged and deepened, church families were split and assumed loyalties were tested.

In summary, leaving the Church of Scotland was painful, inevitable (for those of us who hold the beliefs we do), protracted and extremely costly.

MB: In 2015, you became a founding elder of Edinburgh North Church (ENC). What have been the major challenges over the past four years?

PD: A new and young church without a pastor or a permanent church home or wider presbytery to belong to is inevitably going to find itself in a vulnerable and somewhat shaky position. The challenges have included, initially, organising logistics and meeting people’s early expectations. But, since that time the challenges of finding a pastor, setting priorities and ultimately joining a presbytery and establishing a congregation with a membership and a constitution have all been tricky things to do. Many of us have only ever been in churches where these things have been long established and are simply a given. But leadership in a congregation where different people have different views about what church life and church ministry should look like calls for good communication, loads of patience and constant reminders, from the Scriptures, of grace required and a gospel to make known

MB: Many evangelicals have left the Church of Scotland and founded new churches. Some of these churches have joined existing denominations, like the Free Church of Scotland and the International Presbyterian Church. Other churches have remained independent. What has ENC done and why? Given the massive shifts that have taken place in society and the denominations in the past decade, how do you think the evangelical movement is fairing in Scotland right now?

PD: ENC is part of and under the external oversight of a small presbytery known as the Didasko Presbytery. There are five local churches within the Presbytery but all are part of this group because of a conviction that we do not want to be independent.

There is significant growth across evangelicalism in Scotland. While the churches within the national and largest denominations are often facing rapid decline and financial constraints, there are many evangelical churches across Scotland where there is growth and new life. There is also growth in training schemes in Scotland and there are many younger men and women finding their way into church teams and ministry positions in churches. There is significant overlap and co-operation among evangelicals where (whatever the distinctives in terms of beliefs about baptism, or church government) people thinking of future ministry are part of a thriving network of ministries and gospel missions where opportunities to serve and grow and learn are being multiplied.

MB: What do you think the future will look like for Bible-believing churches in Scotland?

PD: I imagine that as Scotland continues to live as a very secular and unchurched country the Bible-believing churches within Scotland will have growing opportunity for evangelism and growing experience of opposition and difficulty.

Some of the conversations that took place at the time of churches leaving the Church of Scotland involved misunderstanding between people which makes communication very difficult indeed. However, in communicating the claims of the Lord Jesus there has always been the possibility of poor communication on the part of the church and misunderstanding on the part of those listening to the church’s message. I think many Christians are getting better at explaining what we do believe and what we do not believe. Yet there will always be deliberate misunderstanding of the gospel and culpable misunderstanding of the gospel, however clear the message of the church is and however great the level of integrity and grace found in Christian families and churches.

MB: What advice would you give to Christians and Christian leaders in Australia who are also experiencing the emergence of a more stridently secular society and pressure on churches to compromise their beliefs in order to remain relevant?

PD: The right thing to do is not always the easiest thing to do. And while some of us in our context have lived through the repercussions of difficult decisions, it is surely better to live with the knowledge that you are aligned with faithful believing Christians around the world than to live with the regret of avoiding difficult decisions.

Having said that, there are very few decisions that have to be taken instantaneously. For all that the leaving process for us was protracted and almost unbearably complex, I am grateful that we took the time that we did and explored every avenue before deciding that we had to part company with a denomination that had changed its view of the authority and teaching of Scripture.

Contexts are different, cultures are different, congregations are different. It would be wrong to offer advice to people in a country that I haven’t visited and a culture that I have little knowledge of. But the Scriptures of full of advice and commands for all Christians in every age and every culture. So my advice would ultimately have to be: keep the clear teaching of the Bible, and the church’s commitment to its truth, central.

Cherish the unity shared with every Christian believer throughout the world and in your local community. And, as Galatians would teach us, beware of elitism. For as we strive to be true to the gospel, it is possible to become wedded to a church system that can no longer say with Paul: “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).

Postscript:You can read more about the history of recent developments in Scotland in David J. Randall’s book A Sad Departure: Why We Could Not Stay in the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2015).