You will recall the lapidary opening of Dickens’s famous novel of London and Paris in the period of the French Revolution. Headed ‘Book I—Recalled to Life: Chapter I: The Period” it begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . .” For reasons that will quickly become clear, I want to present the full passage with every second line put in emphasis:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
In the United States, I am often asked about the current situation of Christianity in Scotland. When that question comes from Protestant questioners it is often a way of asking about the Kirk, the Church of Scotland, the National Church. My father, until his conversion to Roman Catholicism in the early 1960s, was a member of the Kirk, his father was an elder of the presbytery, and his father a Kirk member, and so on in turn back to 1560, the year the Scottish Reformation Parliament adopted a Protestant confession of faith, and prohibited the practice of Roman Catholicism.
For some years my grandfather lived with us, and while he did not know of his son’s conversion—it would have been too awful a thing to stand between them—my grandfather was aware that, because of the conditions of my parents’ Catholic marriage, I was being educated by the Jesuits. In spite, or more likely because of this, my grandfather did his best to catechize me in the reformed confession and to educate me in the great contribution of the Kirk to the development of Scotland in the modern period.
I am grateful for his tutoring and I retain respect for the good done for my country (and through its missionaries for other places also) by the Church of Scotland, and for the high educational standard and rigour long associated with the Presbyterian ministry. I am afraid, however, that these good works are increasingly part of the past. The reality is that the Kirk has lost its way, lost its confidence and largely lost its faith. I fear it is finished as a significant force in Scottish society and is visibly dying.
I have thought this for a while but I am writing it now having received earlier in the day an email from a prominent agency of the Kirk, which, I fear, may be an expression of its desperation and lack of supernatural sense. I reproduce the main part of this message below and provide a link to the attachment that came with it here. Let me say that I am not disclosing private correspondence, for this is a pro-forma letter that has been sent out to a large number of leaders of groups and institutions on behalf of the Church of Scotland Church and Society Council. Here is the message:
Scotland is changing and we want to make sure that it is changing for the better.
The Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council is currently running a campaign called Speak Out! 10,000 voices for change. Over a four month period, we are asking over 10,000 people—from every part of Scotland—to tell us about the key issues that inspire or concern them. As a result of what we hear, we will identify up to six core themes for our work over the next decade. These will be the issues which, if we address them together, will help to make Scotland a fairer, more equal, and more just nation in a fairer, more equal, and more just world.
Nowhere in the message or in the supporting material is there any mention of God, creation, revelation, scripture, covenant, sin, redemptive sacrifice, atonement, sacraments, repentance, salvation, death, heaven or hell—only of “the issues which, if we address them together, will help to make Scotland a fairer, more equal and more just nation in a fairer, more equal and more just world.” The latter stands rather, as once a passage of scripture did, as the text for sermons and homilies. It begins “Scotland is changing” and in the accompanying material “Imagine Scotland in 2035—it is a fairer, more equal and more just place. . . .” Whether it will be I have no idea, though I suspect, as with the claim that the 20th and 21st centuries are ones of moral progress, it forgets the recurrent facts of human folly and wickedness; facts which for the Christian have a clear and compelling explanation: sin.
Of course, ‘justice matters,’ but the justice which a Christian Church has the duty to teach is the justice of God, not that of man, save to measure the latter against the former. The need of God’s justice as of His mercy arises from sin, but that also goes without mention. The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer wrote of how “The concept of original sin is the most common opponent against which the different trends of the philosophy of Enlightenment join forces.” That is to be expected, but it ill behoves Christian churches to align themselves with those forces against the fact of sin. For one thing, scriptures teach and confessions preach that fact; for another its identification as sin, and of its effect as the fruits of sin is an important element in an effective Christian apologetic. As Chesterton had it, “[while] certain new theologians dispute original sin, [it] is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
As regards a changing Scotland, a more urgent matter for the Kirk might be the dying of the Christian light, and I seriously doubt whether in 2035 the Kirk will still exist save as a residual legal corporation. Note in the statements the seemingly pervasive Pelagianism, the adoption of currently favoured secular political rhetoric, the plea to have some say, and the request to be invited along to other people's events; the desperate longing to be seen to be relevant, and not only part of a ‘progressive’ today but part of an ‘egalitarian’ tomorrow. Do you think the accompanying material may include the following words? “We as facilitators have a mission to make Scotland a safe, tolerant, progressive inclusive space for shared explorations of diversity, and to respect and affirm our fellow citizens in their individual and community journeys.” You will have to read it to find out.
A second question I am commonly asked is about what was going on at the Rome Synod on the Family and its likely consequence. First, it has been the usual Catholic chaos: ill-prepared, badly organised, indefinite of purpose, lacking useful procedure, with jostling for position and favour by a few over-promoted prelates and ingratiating functionaries hoping to succeed them.
In general, then, inefficient and unseemly—but, as they say, “here's the thing.” For all that messiness, the upshot will be reaffirmation of existing teachings on sex and marriage. No printer or publisher should invest in the possibility of a reprinting of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, though they might hope for some small short-term commissions for pastoral letters in Washington and Munich. The absence of ‘progressive movement’ will lead to a fairly speedy decline in the ‘popularity' of Pope Francis and a resumption of the attacks on the Catholic Church as the last bastion of resistance to making ‘a fairer, more equal and more just world'.
There will be further lay and clerical dissent, defection and lapsation, closing of parishes for lack of priests, insolvency of dioceses, closures of Catholic agencies, including schools, apostasy among colleges and universities, and so on. In that sense its decline could look like that of the Church of Scotland. The difference, however, is that it will be because ‘having tested everything it is holding fast to what is good'; and it will still be there in two generations when the turn will come.
Here it is hard to resist quoting the well-known passage from (the non-Catholic) Lord Macaulay's 1840 review of von Ranke’s History of the Popes:
The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. . . . She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.
—or, I may add, ‘on the grassy Mound in Edinburgh to draw what was once the General Assembly Hall of Scotland’s national church’.
It is an interesting question discussed by historians whether the Scottish Reformation could have been avoided. The most plausible answer seems to be “no,” given the condition of the late medieval/early modern Church, and the political ambitions and avarice of the nobility. What is slowly coming to be recognized, however, is that it represented not only a ‘disruption,' as was later suffered in the 19th century within the Kirk itself, but a breach that has weakened Christianity in the country and is now leading to the death of the reformed part of it. That wound and its effects was recognized long ago among some of the learned ministers of the 18th century such as the great philosopher Thomas Reid who wrote in a letter to an unnamed Catholic priest (probably John Geddes, Vicar Apostolic of the Lowland District of Scotland):
I give you the right hand of fellowship. Among the other wonders of our day, let the pure wine of Rome and Geneva mix, leaving the dregs behind.
The course of events in Edinburgh and in Rome, as in Canterbury and in Washington, in Munich and in Moscow, call for and in this century will, I believe, lead to a kind of reunification of the faithful, recognizing the supremacy of the see of Rome among the apostolic churches, and the leadership of the Bishop of Rome if not as a definitive magisterium at least as a common Christian leader. Then might the refrain be heard:
It is the better of times, and among its wonders, let the pure wisdom and belief mix, leaving the dregs of the age of incredulity and foolishness behind.
John Haldane is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, Texas, Professor of Moral Philosophy at St Andrews University, Scotland, and Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture.