The Final Years
When James R. Moffett was appointed Moderator of Synod in 1947, he told the brethren that in 1941, when he first became acquainted with the United Original Secession Church, there were 13 ministers. Now, he said, there were only 5 of them left in the Church – two had passed away; six had withdrawn from the Church. Clearly he saw their situation as precarious.
There were already serious questions being asked about the continuing viability of the Church as an independent body.
The Minutes of the Synod of 18th May, 1943, reveal that there was already disquiet about their future: “An Overture from the Presbyteries of Glasgow and Ayr was laid on the table and found to be in order. It called for a Committee of the house to consider by what means the future of the church can be secured.” When this Overture came to be considered, it was dealt with in “an informal conference”. There is no minute of what happened; and no evidence that any specific action was to be taken on the matter.
However, the matter was not allowed to rest and the following May (1944) Robert Robertson, minister in Birsay, Orkney, brought the matter to the attention of the Synod in more specific terms. He presented an Overture, transmitted via the Presbytery of Perth and Dundee, which laid out the situation as follows:
“Whereas an overture to last Synod from the Glasgow Presbytery stated that owing to the number of ministers who had withdrawn from the church and owing to the lack of prospective students, a critical situation had arisen;
“And whereas since last Synod another minister has withdrawn from the Church;
“And whereas the anomalous situation exists of our vacant congregations being supplied by preachers who do not belong to the Church;
“And whereas another congregation of the church has just been dissolved;
“And whereas, face to face with the other existing Christian denominations in Scotland, the continued existence of the Secession as a distinct Church is no longer justifiable …”
In other words, the Church was in decay, it was already dependent on help from outside its borders, and had nothing distinctive to offer. The Overture presented as a premise that the Church could not continue. What the Overture wished to be done was also clearly stated:
“1. That the continued separate existence of the Original Secession Church is no longer essential, justifiable nor desirable;
“2. That congregations be recommended to consider with what other branch of the Christian Church in Scotland they might connect themselves.”
Note that these were not proposals for discussion, but for approval – there was really no choice. The only option was with which other Christian Church they were going to connect themselves.
However clear about their prompt demise Robertson and others might be, all were not equally clear about the matter. Robertson, seconded by David Walker, Carluke, moved that these proposals be sent down to Presbyteries and Sessions for their approval.
John Howe, Dundee, moved that the Overture should lie on the table. This latter proposal was carried by 10 votes to 5. Howe and George McMorris, Arbroath, then moved that “the Synod appoint a small Special Committee to examine the present situation of our Church, to obtain all helpful information, and to place that information before the Synod at its next meeting for its guidance as to future procedure.” This was carried and a Committee was formed, under the Convenership of John Howe.
Tweeking the Testimony
This Special Committee did its business, it would seem, with no particular urgency. Perhaps that was why it was appointed. In May 1945 the Synod continued it with a revised remit: (1) to enquire into the Church’s present attitude towards its Testimony; (2) to discover the debatable points in practice, and (3) to consider the question of corporate or federal union with kindred churches.
This was progress of a sort, but it was still far short of the position that Robertson advocated earlier. He wanted a definite commitment to merging with another church. To him there were no barriers to that; the only question was with whom should the linkage be effected. Howe seemed to be wanting to look at what they had committed themselves to in the past and see what adjustments could be made in order to facilitate some arrangement about the future. He also introduced the idea not of connecting themselves with others so as to have no independent existence as a Church but of some sort of federal structure that would allow them in some way to maintain their identity.
By the next meeting of Synod in May 1946, there was no real progress reported. Work on the Testimony had been going on but the Special Committee were then “empowered to confer with kindred Churches on the question of a Federal Union.”
This raised the question: what was a kindred Church? From the historical point of view, the closest kin to the UOS Church, were the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland. The UOS in its best days had been very close to the Reformed Presbyterian in regard to its maintaining a continual obligation to covenanting – following the pattern of the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant. And it was close to the Free Church inasmuch as the issue which caused the seceders to secede originally was the same issue in principle which brought into being the Free Church at the Disruption of 1843, that is, the interference of the state in spiritual matters, especially in regard to the settlement of ministers.
It seems to have been with them that the Special Committee made contact. So Howe could report to the Synod of May 1947 that they had had four meetings with the Free Church. But all that was discussed was a federal union, rather than an incorporating one. That was so, because, it was thought, the UOS would not accept an incorporating union. The federal union, Howe seemed to have in mind, envisaged an arrangement by which the UOS Church could work closely with other churches while maintaining their identity as an ecclesiastical entity. But all that came out of this, at a practical level, was that the Special Committee were to continue with their remit.
However, not all were happy with the way things were going – or, perhaps we should say, not going. The Carluke congregation, of which David Walker was minister, brought to the Assembly a strongly worded Overture: “This meeting views with serious disquietude the continuing decline of our denomination and is strongly of the opinion that it can no longer function as a separate entity … as a Protestant Church. We believe that there is now no principle, fundamental to our Protestant and Presbyterian faith, which separates us from the Church of Scotland, and so we can find no justification for a continued separation from the Mother Church. We therefore urge that all appropriate steps be taken immediately to seek a union of our Church with the Church of Scotland without further delay.”
The thinking behind this was quite different from what lay behind the plodding of the Special Committee. They didn’t want any discussion of debatable areas of their Testimony; the distinctives of their Testimony were swept aside. There was no thought of dealing with those Churches which, historically considered, were their kindred. A relationship with the Church of Scotland was claimed. Formerly the Church of Scotland would have been seen as the one that had driven the orginal seceders from it; now she was the mother Church. Above all, there was no room for continual deliberation: they wished to seek a union with the Church of Scotland without further delay.
But the time for union had not yet come. The motion that the Overture be received was defeated by nine votes to four, and it was agreed that the Overture be left on the table until the Special Committee had completed all its work.
So the matter continued at a snail’s pace. In May, 1948, Howe reported that both the Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Free Church had refused further discussion on federal union proposals. It remained for them to continue to work on how their Testimony was reflected in the questions put to men at the time of their licensing, ordination or induction.
By May 1949 an alternative scheme of questions had been drawn up and approved. The question which touched on covenanting now read: “Do you own and acknowledge the morality and perpetual obligation of public covenanting, as exemplified in our Covenants, National and Solemn League?”
This was a long way, it would seem, from a previous one: “And do you own and acknowledge the perpetual obligation of the National Covenant, frequently sworn by persons of all ranks in Scotland, and, particularly, as explained by the General Assembly, 1638, to abjure the hierarchy and five articles of Perth; and, also, the perpetual obligation of the Solemn League aud Covenant, for maintaining and carrying on a work of reformation in the three kingdoms, sworn and subscribed by all ranks in Scotland and England in the year 1648, and, particularly, as renewed in Scotland in the year 1648: And do you promise, through grace, to adhere to these Covenants, and, according to your station and opportunities, to prosecute the ends of them.”
This new question only required an acknowledgement in principle of the idea of public covenanting. At the same time, one must ask: what difference did they think this difference would make?
Incredibly, no one seemed to know what to do next and the question of whether the Special Committee should be continued was left till the following year’s Synod.
The following May, another Committee was appointed but its remit was to revise the Testimony. This Committee reported back to the Synod in 1951 and its remit was continued. By that time they were working on publications in support of their Testimony. They produced one designed for children in 1952 and continued work on publications until the Synod of 1954. Patience had run out by that time.
The End of the Line
Paisley congregation then presented an overture asking that they should make an endeavour to heal the breaches in the Scottish Church. The Carluke congregation also asked that their overture, which had been tabled in 1947, should be reconsidered.
It was then agreed unanimously to “remit the matter to Presbyteries, Sessions and congregations for their full consideration and report to next meeting of Synod, and that the Synod agrees to appoint a small committee to explore the situation, obtain information and pass it on for the guidance of presbyteries, sessions and congregations.”
The outcome was that in the course of the year, congregations were asked to vote, the options being expressed in the following way:
“On the basis of the information with which I have been furnished by the Committee of Synod:
that the Synod of the UOS should negotiate with a view to accession to the Church of Scotland.”
The congregational returns were recorded in the minutes of Synod in May 1955. There were 1466 members in the UOS in Scotland, that is, excluding the Irish congregations. This means that only 67% of the church members voted and only 54 % of the total membership expressed themselves in favour of accession to the Church of Scotland. Nevertheless, of those that voted, 80% were in favour – and the big congregations were in generally solidly behind the move.
In the light of the returns made it was agreed that “this Synod in view of the acceptance of the special Committee’s report on Overtures by an overwhelming majority of the members of the church, Kirk Sessions and Presbyteries, now proceed to take steps to accede to the Church of Scotland and appoint a committee to negotiate with an appropriate committee of the Church of Scotland.
On 29th February, 1956, a long detailed report on the practicalities of Union was accepted.
The proposed agreement was fairly detailed and included the following provisions. Congregations with ministers or those with a right to have a minister will not have readjustments forced on them for the duration of the present incumbent or for 12 years whichever is longer. This will not apply if a congregation is divided and the dissidents retain the property.
Glasgow, Mains Street, and Glasgow, Bridgeton, and Edinburgh, Victoria Terrace, would be continued as vacancies and would be free to seek whatever arrangement they wanted.
The student, Andrew Howe, the son of John Howe, Dundee, would be received as a Church of Scotland student. William McKane, who was a minister of the UOS Church but who held an academic post, would have a seat on the Glasgow Presbytery of the Church of Scotland. The Seoni Mission would be taken over by the Church of Scotland.
The Presbyteries had to send in a minute of agreement by 10th April, 1956.
On 16th May, 1956, the Synod met. It was noted that three of the vacant congregations had declined to enter the Church of Scotland.
On Thursday, 24th May, the final act of the UOS Church was performed. As the Minutes state:
“The Synod of the United Original Seceders by this act was now automatically dissolved and is now merged in the Church of Scotland by ACCESSION.”