On Wednesday 30 September 2015 I made the journey to Edinburgh, to my home church, Mayfield Salisbury to listen to what was billed officially as a conversation between Scott McKenna and David Robertson. Scott is minister of Mayfield Salisbury and David is Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland.
I should say at the outset that I knew both of these men before the conversation. Scott is someone with whom I have had a number of entertaining and informative as well as stimulating conversations. David and I were undergraduate students together in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We knew each other and were on friendly terms.
Scott’s ministry to my parents (who both died earlier this year) in their final years was exemplary and it is in this capacity and in that time that I really got to know him. I have heard him preach and have followed his sermons online. In terms of theological position, Scott and I are broadly in the same camp although there are issues and questions on which he and I disagree.
Dr Morrison, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had, we were told, ‘lost his voice’ and John Chalmers, former Moderator and Principal Clerk of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was the replacement chair. You can make of that last minute switch what you will. I know what I think.
Before the discussion began I asked whether the discussion was going to be recorded and made available online. John Chalmers told me that it would not. I spoke with David immediately after the discussion and he interrupted our brief conversation to ask one of his supporters if they had managed to record the proceedings. I have attached what I presume is the resulting audio file. It is not from the Church of Scotland but it is out there and I have made it available here so that you can listen and make up your own mind about the event. It was certainly online first thing the next day – possibly on the evening of 30 September.
I arrived early and sat at the very front. I was surrounded by Robertson supporters a few of whom spent their time either saying ‘Amen’ to Robertson or making less than positive sounds in response to most of what McKenna had to say.
Scott McKenna came across as gentle, meticulously well prepared, gracious and willing to enter into conversation. David Robertson came across as arrogant and confrontational. He knew the will and purpose of God. Scott McKenna, as you will hear him state, he would excommunicate. Robertson is (according to Robertson) correct. Scott McKenna was more gracious.
In 1979 I would have been on the Robertson side. I found myself missing that certainty and yearning with a degree of nostalgia for the comradeship of knowing that one is in the ‘right camp’ and on the side of truth. I spent a lot of the hundred mile journey home reflecting on the length of my own journey which has stretched thus far from the fundamentalism of my 1979 self to the differently radical theological view of my second decade of the twenty first century self. It will, I am sure, continue as God calls and leads.
How different, dangerous and deluded the evangelical certainty of the likes of Robertson appears when viewed from the outside. It seems so, not because it is wrong. It is everyone’s right to be wrong. It is always wise to hold onto the truth that someone who appears to be wrong may in the end be right. Evangelical certainty of the kind we heard expounded on Wednesday is dangerous and deluded because it is expressed and used in a manner which is so unlike that of Jesus. Those who genuinely believe they are defending orthodoxy fail to appreciate that they are behaving, speaking and missing the point in the same way as do the Pharisees in the New Testament.
It is everyone’s right to be wrong but Jesus’ message is not about rights and it is never OK to be wilfully unkind. I think that David Andrew Robertson who repeatedly told the audience – as he had stated elsewhere before Wednesday evening – that he likes Scott McKenna, misses the point. Who cares if he likes Scott McKenna? What has that to do with anything? He would, he states, excommunicate him (neither Scott nor anyone else seemed to care about that either).
He has doubts about to whom Scott McKenna prays. There is, in Robertson’s mind more than one Christ (although one, I suspect, is prefaced with anti) and the whole of Robertson’s gospel seems to centre around a correct understanding and expression of what God did in Jesus on the cross. Robertson’s defence of scripture came from scripture. McKenna’s valid and correct question about the Old Testament canon and the date of its agreement was swept aside.
Two things in particular crossed my mind as I listened to these two men speak. Jesus told a story about a Samaritan who broke the rules and kept the commandment to love. And when John the Baptist’s disciples asked if Jesus was the one who was to come or not, Jesus’ reply was that they should report what was happening (pretty much that the excluded were being included). I was therefore left a little confused as to how Robertson can separate ‘talking about Jesus’ from caring for others.
He may still be a nice guy but whether I like him now or liked him thirty five years ago is not the question. None of it is for me to judge. And that is the point. Some fundamentalists may be impressed by a hardline, doctrine is everything, presentation of Jesus but it was the Priest and the Levite who kept to the Law and missed the point in Jesus’ parable.
Sadly, I came away with the impression that there are two Christs. There is the one in whom I believed more than half my lifetime ago and there is the loving, inclusive, Jesus who always invited and instructed people to do, to let go, to give away and tended to be mystified by the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. I suspect the Pharisees would have excommunicated Jesus but then they had got it wrong.
I think Wednesday evening was a mistake. It was not – and I cannot imagine that it was ever going to be – a conversation. Nobody’s mind was ever going to be changed. It had the potential to become a pitched battle or a theological and ecclesiastical freak show. It failed (just) to become either. What was achieved? Little, in my opinion, if anything. There was too much judging and too little judgement. Had it been judged less poorly it would never have taken place.
In the end the world will not judge the church on whether its doctrine is good or bad. The world will judge the church on whether it is a good neighbour. Interestingly, so will God, according to Jesus. The unequivocal statement by Jesus on the subject is there for all to read in Matthew 25*. Good doctrine doesn’t come into it and the so called ‘righteous’ come out of it badly.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”