Vol. 45 No. 6 · 16 March 2023

In Time of Schism

Fraser MacDonald on Kate Forbes and the Free Church of Scotland

3858 words

Thereis a small but interesting literature on the sociology of schism. The classic studies draw on observations of revolutionary Marxists and Scottish Presbyterians, archetypes of fissile conviction, and show that schism isn’t always a mark of decline. The energy of opposition can bring renewal: Presbyterians sometimes split to survive. In the Highlands rival congregations exist side by side: the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), all of which claim to be the true Church of Scotland (these are the main groupings, but let’s not forget the United Free Church of Scotland, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Associated Presbyterian Churches). It’s intriguing, given all this, that Kate Forbes, a Free Church of Scotland member who is standing to be the new leader of the SNP and thus Scotland’s next first minister, decided to use the pitch: ‘I’m a unifier.’ Forbes, the SNP cabinet secretary for finance, launched her campaign as the favourite of the UK press and commentariat. But almost immediately the scrutiny of her religious beliefs began, and everyone lost their mind. When the press asked what she believed, Forbes set them straight. Same-sex marriage? Nope. Children out of wedlock? ‘I accept them,’ she said of unmarried parents. ‘That’s choices that they’ve made.’ Journalists and politicians were agog. Nicola Sturgeon’s ability to hold rival factions together, to work productively with the Scottish Greens and to survive the fallout from Alex Salmond’s formation of a new party, Alba, may appear miraculous in retrospect. Now is the time of schism.

I grew up in the Free Church of Scotland. I knew it as a community of urban Highlanders with Calvinist theology and socially conservative politics in which everyone knew everyone, not just at the congregational level but across the country. It was its own world and only an anthropologist’s kinship chart could capture the full web of connections. Such a chart might show that I am the first in five patrilineal generations not to have become a Free Church elder. I’ve never been a member of the church, only an adherent, and although my theology and politics have changed, I consider it a cultural home – but one to which I cannot return. That is both a sadness and a relief. But it’s the reason the present debate in the SNP seems to me like a fever dream or a bad bout of Covid. I cannot believe this is happening; where am I, and why does my face feel so weird? People are speaking but no one is making sense. I want to make it make sense, but that means breaking a Highland omertà – I’ll probably be sad about that too.

The nub of it is this. Kate Forbes has sincerely held but unpopular views that elevate an ideal of how to live that is antithetical to the liberty of many of her fellow citizens. Some of these views derive from contested interpretations of the Bible that are held by Free Church members and that put her at odds with many in her party and her country. Forbes claims she is still an electable unity candidate, that her unpopular views are matters of faith or conscience and should be put to one side when SNP members evaluate her character and political platform. Even asking about her religious beliefs is a kind of discrimination, her supporters say, and is happening because she’s a Christian or an evangelical or a woman. Ian Blackford, the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, who was leader of the SNP in the House of Commons until last year, is also a Free Church member. Why didn’t his religious beliefs warrant the same attention? The reason is that Blackford’s voting record and political positions on abortion or LGBTQ rights have been aligned with the party rather than the church. Forbes has a different record and she’s running for the leadership of the party, and the country. In any case, Blackford’s vote in favour of the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland did attract a fair bit of attention. A former moderator of the Free Church, David Robertson, wanted to see him in a church court because he had failed to let his faith influence his politics. ‘He is part of our Christian family,’ his local church in Skye announced, ‘and as in all families we will discuss things lovingly and privately with him.’

The public disquiet about Forbes isn’t really about her faith. What’s controversial are the political positions she holds that are associated with evangelical Protestantism, a wider movement that is fast rolling back LGBTQ and reproductive rights in the United States. These seem to be reasonable matters to raise with the aspiring leader of a progressive party. The Scottish electorate knows well enough that the acquisition of state power by evangelicals is not always accompanied by the careful distinctions Forbes is offering. ‘I’m a servant of democracy,’ she told STV’s Colin Mackay. ‘I’m not sitting here as a dictator saying that I will absolutely impose my views.’ But precedent suggests that wherever evangelicals hold power their beliefs do inform their policies. That’s the point. You can see it in Republican states in the US but also, on a different scale, in the schools of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the local council in the Western Isles. In December 2020 the members of the all-male council withdrew Scottish government-backed teaching materials about sexual health and gender identity. There are arguments to be made for local autonomy, but it can’t be claimed that religion obediently stays out of politics. The same is true nationally. For all she says about being a democrat, Forbes has stated she will not defend the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill now that Westminster has withheld Royal Assent. If there was a special test to see which would win out when her personal convictions came into conflict with Scotland’s self-determination, that was it.

Forbes’s conservative supporters seem to think that she should be given a Get Out of Jail Free card: it’s not her fault, it’s her faith and that of her community. Underlying this is a theological ‘blackboxing’, as if these beliefs are the axioms of her church and should be beyond criticism. There are two problems with this idea: the obvious one is that some of these beliefs would serve to proscribe the actions of others; the other is that the views of the Free Church of Scotland are not stable truths. In the 1970s, for instance, when I was a child, most Free Church ministers would have considered it immodest for a woman to attend worship without wearing a hat. Not now. They used to be strict about singing only Scottish Metrical Psalms. Instrumental accompaniment by an organ was once taboo, but choruses and praise bands are now widespread. Dancing is no longer a sin, or going to concerts, pubs or the cinema. No one drowns their bagpipes or burns their fiddle as a hallmark of grace, as once happened in the Highlands. In the 1960s, one Free Church minister took Sabbath observance so earnestly that he forbade his congregation from observing British Summer Time, on the grounds that the clocks had changed at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Church members can now watch television or take a ferry on the Sabbath, a far cry from the days when the entire western seaboard was locked down every Sunday. I can’t even remember the last time I heard someone arguing that the pope is the Antichrist.

All of these prohibitions were once supported with the same conviction as the church’s current position on abortion or LGBTQ rights, and were justified with a similar artillery of chapter and verse. For conservative evangelicals, ‘This is what the Bible says’ turns out to be a malleable, contested thing. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the direction of travel in the Free Church is slowly but inexorably towards liberalism. It often goes the other way. Darwinian evolution, for example, was not a controversial idea in the 19th-century Free Church, but attitudes hardened a century later. The church hasn’t budged an inch on the ordination of women. Opposition to reproductive and LGBTQ rights has gradually assumed a more central and defining role, with ideas about gender now owing as much to the American ‘Biblical Manhood’ movement as to the traditions of the Highlands. (In my grandfather’s time, Highland guisers at Halloween and New Year would often cross-dress. And if more lasting attributes of one gender were found in people of the other – women with facial hair or men with none – responsibility was often ascribed to the minister for having given the ‘wrong’ name or pronoun during the baptism, an inventive and compassionate formulation.)

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Thatcher’s lord chancellor, was an elder in the even stricter Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which considered it sinful to attend Roman Catholic mass. In the mid-1980s, Mackay attended funeral masses for two judges. ‘I went there purely with the purpose of paying my respects to my dead colleagues,’ he told the FP synod. They still suspended him from the church. And so the Associated Presbyterian Churches walked out of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (splitters gonna split). Mackay’s example shows that the boundaries of personal and public morality need not be coterminous and that there can be integrity in this distinction, even among people who have what everyone is now calling deeply held beliefs. It would be possible for Forbes to believe that abortion is wrong but because of her commitment to democracy in Scotland to say that it’s not the role of government to assume sovereignty over the body of another – such decisions are between a woman and God. That is not her position.

To anyone outside this world, such debates must seem recondite. Plenty of folk in Scotland feel the same way, but worry that something consequential is at stake – about independence, yes, but also about the character of political life. Splits can be energising for a spell as people rally around a notion of doctrinal rectitude, but it’s no way to build a wider movement, even one focused on the mother of all splits – independence. Will the SNP enrage a swathe of its own membership and rip up the coalition agreement with the Scottish Greens in order to defend social conservatism? Maybe. That would be a different kind of Scotland from the one we thought existed. And it’s the reason, whoever wins the SNP leadership contest, that the present campaign marks an inflection point: the modern self-image of Scotland as a left-leaning liberal democracy has been disturbed by the return of the repressed.

I wonder whether this campaign would be quite so clamorous if Forbes were still a member of the Church of Scotland. She is a Free Church member not because of her family background (her family were missionaries in the established Church of Scotland) but because of theological preference. That’s fascinating to me. Many Scots are embarrassed by the very existence of the Free Church. We thought that the archetype of the censorious Free Church minister – the forbidding black-clad superego of many Scottish writers – was safely buried in the kirkyard. The dour Presbyterian was a staple of popular comedy, from Rikki Fulton’s lugubrious TV cleric, the Reverend I.M. Jolly, to the non-fictional ‘Ferry Reverend’, Angus Smith, whose protest against the introduction of Sunday sailings to Skye in 1965 came to an end when police carted him off the slipway. Such images inspired Tom Nairn’s counterblast that ‘Scotland won’t be free until the last minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post.’ We know where we are with such images: they speak to an urban, educated relief at the slow retreat of conservative Presbyterianism from public life.

A sense of national unease about the Free Church of Scotland has been there from the outset, the Disruption of 1843 when the evangelical party walked out of the General Assembly in Edinburgh. The issue at stake was ‘patronage’, the idea that a landowner could override the spiritual independence of a congregation by imposing a minister. This assertion of spiritual liberty was one of the defining political events of Victorian Scotland, with more than a third of the 1200 parish ministers leaving to start a new church, free from patronage but deprived of church buildings, manses and training colleges. Step off the train in Edinburgh and the skyline tells its own story: the imposing towers of New College, built for the Free Church, makes its presence felt. Countless churches were built here, as they were in most towns and cities. None of it came cheap, but it was propelled by zealous congregations and, to a small but fateful degree, by Southern presbyteries in the United States that included slaveholders (Frederick Douglass came to Edinburgh to protest).

In the Highlands, the Disruption left bitterness in its wake and some lairds refused permission for these new churches. Patronage was a particularly sensitive issue there: the tyranny of the laird and the slow violence of the Highland Clearances had fomented grievances that were at once spiritual and economic. The rise of Highland evangelicalism before the Disruption wasn’t a political revolution or an appeal for a redistribution of resources. It looked inward rather than outward, focusing on personal salvation, a belief in human sinfulness, the need for repentance and for God’s grace. It was anything but inclusive. In the early days most Highland evangelicals did not even consider themselves worthy of taking communion.

It’s possible to see this religious movement as a symptom of the capitalist reorganisation of the clan system (one of the ‘social and psychological consequences of the collapse of the old order’, as the Highland historian James Hunter put it). I prefer to think of it as a revolution in feeling. It absorbed the unfathomable excitements and terrors of a turbulent age, of displacement and famine and emigration and landlessness. Before the Disruption, it was led not by ministers but by a few itinerant catechists who looked and sounded wild, disregarded clerical authority, and had a magnetic spiritual power. Another historian, Douglas Ansdell, described the ‘violent intrusion’ the evangelical movement made into families and communities. That’s not an exaggeration. The Free Church of 1843 captured the potency of this moment, both its religious intensity (bodily shaking was common) and the restless political energy that came to be directed at those sinful Moderates of the Church of Scotland and their landed supporters in Parliament. Sporadic outbreaks of violence against Moderates were both threatened and enacted, especially in Forbes’s hinterland, Easter Ross. Something in this movement wrested agency and meaning back into the hands of people who had no land, power or representation, but it also introduced new fractures – not crofter and laird, but saved and unsaved, the elect and the damned, communicants and adherents. In turn, those with education and land were deeply suspicious about where this newfound agency would settle next. Scorn was their chief weapon. Religious fervour was dismissed as uncouth and unreasonable: they were ‘a simple, credulous people’ as Tom Steel said of the St Kildans, who were ‘made slaves’ by ‘the stern faith of the Free Church’.

Some of the recent criticism and defence of the Free Church in Scottish public life draws on these older histories and enmities. It’s the reason Forbes supporters who might not share her theology or politics see her as an avatar for something that doesn’t otherwise have ready expression: an intelligent young Gaelic-speaker, distinctively Highland in disposition, accent and affinity. Many in the Highlands will happily criticise the Free Church, but they’re much less keen to see urban commentators do so, especially if they use the term ‘Wee Free’. I heard the label often enough growing up and, although I still don’t like it, it points to a historical distinction that aids our understanding of present difficulties: today’s Free Church is not the same as the post-Disruption church.

The 19th-century Free Church grew so tired of splits it even tried to unite with other denominations (which precipitated more splits). In 1900 most of the Free Church joined with the United Presbyterian Church to become the United Free Church of Scotland, but 27 mainly Highland ministers dissented, claiming that they and their congregations remained the real true authentic Free Church. The two groups ended up in court, contesting the assets of the pre-split church: the House of Lords found in favour of the minority. Every Highland village was riven by the dispute and resentment persisted. That’s where the term ‘Wee Free’ comes from. But it was always about more than size. The post-1900 Free Church was smaller in every sense: narrower in theology, less ecumenical, much less integrated into Scotland’s political and intellectual life, and, as a consequence, more sensitive to not being noticed or liked.

The Free Church of Scotland is routinely described by journalists as ‘socially conservative’. This is true enough, but covers a multitude of sins, most of them to do with sex. Inevitably it’s this that Forbes’s interviewers want to focus on, to her evident discomfort. It is a near impossible task to believe that sex outside heterosexual marriage is wrong, while somehow maintaining that this belief isn’t important or consequential in a political leader. So Forbes parried with a discussion of political philosophy. The awkward interview had ‘brought to light a fascinating question at the heart of Scottish political discourse: what does liberalism mean?’ (Perhaps we could ask one of the gay Free Church ministers who were deposed or resigned before they could be charged with ‘contumacy’.) Forbes’s evangelical supporters appeal to plurality of thought, to liberty of conscience, even to protected characteristics, though they are not always known for extending these considerations within the church. How many Free Church members openly make the case for LGBTQ rights? None, so far as I know; most of them would see this as defining the limits of Christian profession.

After Forbes’s first interviews as leadership candidate, a Free Church spokesperson issued a statement complaining of the ‘anti-Christian intolerance’ that, they said, ‘does not represent authentic Scottish identity which is historically grounded on hard work, common sense, respect, truthfulness and the family’. It wasn’t just intolerance, it was ‘bigotry that has no place in a pluralistic and diverse society’. Forbes asked if we have ‘become so illiberal that we cannot have these discussions … because if some people are beyond the pale then those are dark and dangerous days for Scotland.’

Some of her supporters seem to see limits to liberalism. On 20 February the Free Church Daily Mail columnist John MacLeod tweeted that ‘Kate Forbes was thrown untold gotcha questions today about same-sex marriage etc, but handled them well. I unaccountably missed all the interviews when Humza Yousaf was asked about how he felt about suicide-bombers and the sort of folk who fly planes into skyscrapers.’ Before it was deleted, the tweet was retweeted by one former moderator and liked by another. By Free Church standards, these are mainstream figures. One of them, David Robertson, has for years been a serial reply-guy to Yousaf, who is one of Forbes’s opponents for the leadership. In September 2019, when Yousaf, then justice secretary, tweeted about structural racism after the news presenter Naga Munchetty challenged the BBC, Robertson replied: ‘Who are “people of colour”? Who is not a person of colour? Why do you use such discriminatory language?’ In June 2020, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, Yousaf made a speech at Holyrood about Scotland’s failure to confront its own racism. ‘One of the most racist and divisive speeches I have ever heard,’ Robertson said. ‘A middle-class, private school privileged man, playing the victim.’ He asked Yousaf if he was going to ‘take the knee’ for victims of ‘Asian grooming gangs’.

Robertson has moved to Australia, but maintains an active following in the Free Church and has been writing articles (one was published in the Spectator) and giving TV interviews in support of Forbes. He finds a ready audience for his gospel of clickbait and culture wars, often amplifying the views of those on the radical right, from Jordan Peterson to Laurence Fox, Tommy Robinson to Rod Liddle. He has compared abortion to slavery and to the Holocaust. Some of his ministry is waged on Twitter and some of it on his blog, ‘The Wee Flea’, where in May 2014 he published an anonymous open letter to Lorna Hood, the incoming moderator of the Church of Scotland, who had complained that certain congregations were still debarring women from entering the pulpit. The author of that letter, revealed by the Daily Record as Kate Forbes, said:

It is a great injustice when we ignore God’s plan for women, as Mrs Hood suggests we do in the Church. His plan clearly states that, specifically within the Church, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man’ … My femininity is not a cultural, social or religious construct. It is a God-given mandate. Psychologists, doctors and even politicians are under no illusions of the differences between the sexes. Difference is to be embraced and enjoyed. Yet, too often, women are under phenomenal pressure to become men.

Forbes may have changed her views since she was 24. And she’s not responsible for what Free Church men have written or liked on the Presbyterian darknet. But it’s reasonable to situate her as a political figure where she situates herself.

The SNP leadership contest may yet prove to be clarifying, though I never asked to see Scotland as it actually is – who would want that? The point of a delusional self-image is, surely, to keep us all together. A saner voice says that a bit of attention on the Free Church of Scotland is not a bad thing, that it’s about time that it reckoned, for example, with its racial prejudice, past and present. ‘The question over whether the Free Church today “regrets” receiving money from slave owners is meaningless,’ a spokesperson said in December 2020. ‘We cannot be held accountable for the deeds of former generations.’ Meanwhile, the Church of Scotland has set up a Legacies of Slavery Project Group to report to the next General Assembly. If the Free Church did something similar, it would mean it was willing to think about the church as a human institution beset by human failings; to examine its history in light of the values it professes; and to think critically about why racism can be met with tolerance, but LGBTQ Christians are beyond the pale. Airing these contradictions feels a bit like hanging out the washing on the Highland Sabbath of my youth. It’s a roch wind right enough.

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Vol. 45 No. 7 · 30 March 2023

I was somewhat surprised to find my name mentioned in Fraser MacDonald’s article about Kate Forbes and the Free Church of Scotland (LRB, 16 March). Apparently, MacDonald thinks that I am a right-wing influence on the Free Church. I realise that it is de rigueur in certain progressive circles to label anyone who disagrees with you as ‘far right’, thus sidestepping the need to answer any criticism. MacDonald has tweeted that he will not engage with me because I am ‘far right’, though I doubt he could name one ‘far-right’ policy I support. I would like to correct the record.

I do not engage in clickbait or culture wars. I try to write serious comment on the issues of the day on my blog, the Wee Flea. I have not been a ‘serial reply-guy’ to Humza Yousaf. I wrote a couple of articles on his attempts to reintroduce a blasphemy law into Scotland under the guise of his authoritarian hate crime bill. I wrote one article criticising Tommy Robinson but defending his right to speak. Citing Jordan Peterson is not amplifying the ‘radical right’. I also cite Lenin, Stalin, Benn, Corbyn, Obama, Trump and many others.

Any person ignorant of the Free Church reading MacDonald’s article would come away with the impression that it is a predominantly Highland church, an inbred, reactionary, right-wing group of hypocrites, followers of American evangelicalism, threatening a theocracy, unstable, repressed, racist, slavery-defending, exclusive, wild, weird, disputatious, schismatic, anti-LGBTQ, Sabbatarian.

The piece is a polemic against Kate Forbes through an attack on her church (the SNP establishment has already seized on it as ‘proof’ in its anti-Forbes campaign). But it is historically wrong, logically flawed and hysterically inaccurate in its description of today’s Free Church. For those who are interested I have written a full response on my blog. MacDonald’s article is witty, erudite and interesting. But I am reminded of the words of John Donne: ‘Thy giant wit o’erthrows me, I am gone;/And rather than read all, I would read none.’

Rev. David A. Robertson
Sydney, New South Wales

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