The evangelical church in Scotland: An interview with Matt Baines

Matt Baines is originally from Sydney where he has been working as an assistant minister at Minchinbury Anglican Church until August this year, when he and his family moved to Edinburgh. Here, Matt shares with us some of his early reflections on the evangelical church in Scotland.

Matt, tell us a bit about why you’ve moved to Edinburgh. 

We’ve moved to Edinburgh so that I can undertake postgraduate studies in historical theology in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. I’m undertaking a one-year Masters by Research followed by a three-year PhD. My PhD will focus on the Francis Turretin’s doctrine of faith. Turretin was pastor and professor at Geneva about a century after Calvin, and within the academy he is considered one of the leading lights in the century after the Reformation. I hope to make his work more widely known, and to better equip myself to serve the church.

What’s your overall impression of the local church in Scotland so far?

The first word that comes to mind when I think of the church scene is ‘fractious’. With the passing of same-sex-marriage legislation July 2013, the two oldest denominations in Scotland, the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church, have been divided over whether to bless same-sex relationships. As a result, several congregations have left these denominations, and other congregations have been divided or severely depleted. Just a week before we arrived in Scotland, St Thomas’ Corstorphine decided to leave the Scottish Episcopal Church over the issue of same-sex marriage. Some of these Christians and congregations have joined the Free Church of Scotland, but not all. There are many independent churches, some with loose affiliations through networks such as the Scottish Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC).

The sense I get from talking to local Christians on the ground is that in the five years since same-sex legislation was passed, the pressure on Christians to conform to a strident secularism has increased quickly and dramatically. In October, many Christians (and many people of other faiths and no faith at all) were shocked when the Scottish Government and Police Scotland launched a campaign targeting hate crime. Part of this campaign addressed so-called religious “bigots”. I and many other people of faith felt targeted, with the sense that beliefs that were widely held over thousands of years and across all cultures only a few years ago are now seen as hateful and intolerant. David Robertson has written some useful blogs on the issue.

What would you say are the priorities of the local church? Is evangelism a strong area?

For many Christians and churches who have made the decision to leave the older denominations, healing is a big priority. The invisible scars caused by these divisions run deep, and many church leaders and elders have paid a very high price, in terms of their mental health and their family life, by seeking to honour Christ.

That said, those who have made hard and costly decisions have seen God be faithful amid adversity, and many of the churches that gave up significant relationships (as well as significant assets) have seen God provide not just material things but also amazing gospel fruit. The Tron Church in Glasgow is one example of this, but there are several others too.

The backdrop of liberalism within the churches and strident secularism in society actually creates a sense of urgency about the need to share Jesus and the gospel. There are many, many faithful men and women who are working in churches and in parachurch organisations like the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) to shine light into dark places. 

Are there noticeable church differences in church polity or preaching style?

We haven’t had a great deal of experience of different churches in Scotland. We recently joined Edinburgh North Church (ENC), a relatively new independent Presbyterian church. ENC is led by Rupert Hunt Taylor, who previously served as associate minister at the Tron Church in Glasgow. We also had the opportunity to visit Charlotte Chapel, a large Baptist Church in the heart of Edinburgh, where Moore Theological College alumnus Paul Rees serves as lead pastor. Both Rupert and Paul studied preaching at the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course in Glasgow. The preaching we have experienced at these churches is driven by a deep love and understanding of God’s word and a passion to see Jesus proclaimed to a world that is perishing. By contrast, I’ve sat under a couple of sermons in the mainline churches, and even though I’m generalising, I’ve been struck by the lack of urgency to teach Christ crucified. 

The church that we attend is very similar to many evangelical Anglican churches you might find in Sydney and around Australia. There are obviously more churches with Presbyterian rather than Anglican polity. One of the striking things about living in the city where John Knox lived and preached is that some Christians are deeply aware of their Reformed heritage, but for others it’s almost like the Reformation never happened. Thinking about what Edinburgh and Scotland meant to the cause of the Reformation is both inspiring and depressing given the spiritual state of many of the churches in Scotland today.

What can we in Sydney learn from the church in Scotland?

I think there is a lot we can learn from the church in Scotland. Firstly, there are many examples of people who have made hard decisions because of their love for Jesus, and who have followed Jesus faithfully. They have been hurt; their relationships with other Christians have often been strained and sometimes broken; they have had to give up vast amounts of time and money to honour Jesus as Lord. These people have been a great source of inspiration for me and I think their example is an excellent one for us to follow in Sydney.

Secondly, Scotland (and the rest of the UK) shows us just how quickly the strident secularism of our age and the new ‘tolerance’ can limit our freedom to talk about Jesus without fear or favour. There is a tricky balance here. On the one hand, the only mandate that we need to share the gospel is the mandate given by Jesus Christ. On the other hand, it is noticeably more difficult to share Jesus without experiencing more resistance than we might have feared or expected in the past.

Thirdly, Scotland teaches us the urgency of keeping the main thing the main thing: people need Jesus. There are countless examples of churches and Christians who have lost the centrality of Christ and the gospel. Ironically, they are finding themselves less relevant. From what I’ve seen, those churches who are holding the line on biblical orthodoxy actually enjoy a vitality and a sense of purpose and mission that other churches and other Christians desperately desire.