Free Concern - The real dividers

The Free Church Defence Association has been subjected to intense criticism by those who previously had been involved in a body known as Free Concern. In this article we will look at the development and history of Free Concern in order to see the hypocrisy of many of those who now speak and write against us.
On the 2nd of October, 1996, the Commission of Assembly had decided that there was no evidence of a conspiracy of ministers and elders against Professor Donald Macleod and also that Professor Macleod had written some things which appeared to be in contradiction to the teaching of the Church and that these writings should therefore be investigated by the Training of the Ministry Committee. A meeting of Professor Macleod’s supporters was held in Perth on 7th October 1996 under the leadership of the Rev Alex Macdonald. This group wished to overturn the decision of a duly constituted Court of the Church. The way forward was mapped out by them as follows:
  1. Set up a committee.
  2. Arrange a Memorial Petition.
  3. Arrange Public Meetings.
  4. Provide statements for the press/media.
At this same meeting in Perth the idea was raised of replacing Assembly and Committee Clerks. The seeds of division were further sown by Professor Macleod who said at that meeting, “If the Commission goes against you, you have to be prepared to leave the Church....If you are forced out, take as many people with you as possible”.
The Memorial, which followed from this meeting, was signed by ministers, elders and members and contained the words: “We support Professor Macleod in his intention not to submit to this investigation for heresy by the Training of the Ministry and Admissions Committee”. By signing their names they resisted and rejected the authority of the Courts of the Church.
The next meeting took place on Friday 18th October 1996 in Smithton-Culloden Free Church. It approved the minutes of the Perth meeting and confirmed that all those nominated there had been appointed to the Committee, which was as follows: Rev Alex MacDonald(Chairman), Rev Iver Martin, Rev Prof. Alasdair I. Macleod, Rev Kenneth Macleod, Rev David Meredith, Mr Murdoch Macleod, Rev Derek Lamont, Rev Neil Maclean, Rev Principal Emeritus C. Graham, Mrs Marion Morrison, Rev John Mackay, Mrs Marilyn McDonald, Dr Eric Mackay, Mr Alastair Fraser, Dr Ian MacIver, Mr. Kenneth Robertson, Dr Neil A Macdonald, Rev Sandy Sutherland, Rev David Robertson, Rev Roddie Rankin, Rev Ronald Morrison, Dr Isobel Grigor (Clerk).
The name Free Concern was given historical credibility in the newsletter which was produced. It stated: There is of course a historical precedent for this. Last century when James Begg and others felt that the Free Church was under threat, they formed the Free Church Defence Association. In effect Free Concern is a Free Church Defence Association, determined to retain the radical ideas of our forefathers. Further meetings of the committee were held in Smithton. Minutes followed the same pattern as that of the Church Courts: Constitute, sederunt, minutes, and next meeting by adjournment. They laid great emphasis on the freedom of information and on making the minutes available. Yet at the meeting in Perth, one person was asked to leave though he simply took notes and took no part in the discussion. Mr K Robertson, Tain, was made treasurer, opened a bank account to handle funds and distributed forms for members to claim expenses. Free Concern had an agenda listing their concerns (2/11/96):
  1. Collapse of the Church’s adherent base - linked to growth.
  2. Style of worship.
  3. Empowerment of the people.
  4. Congregational freedom and variety.
  5. Links with other Presbyterians and other evangelicals in Scotland.
  6. Body ministry.
  7. The role of the minister.
They had expectations of continuing in existence for many years as is shown in the following minute:
It was decided to arrange two Conferences each year, one in the North and one in the South, again addressed to a major issue concerning the Church and its witness. It was agreed that in future years one Conference should be arranged for late February. A date was set for the first Conference in 1997, Saturday 17 May, to take place in Edinburgh (the suitability of George Square Theatre to be explored) on the theme of body ministry. It was agreed that effort should be made to engage the support of a generally younger grouping to organise this Conference.
Public meetings were held in Dingwall, Stornoway, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. A pre-Assembly rally was held in Edinburgh on 17th May 1997 in Carrubbers Christian Centre, an advert for which appeared in the Monthly Record. A newsletter, edited by the Rev A J Macdonald, was started. The long-term existence of Free Concern is reflected in the resolution that the newsletter “should be produced, initially quarterly”.
At the meeting on 18th October 1996 mention was made of a requisition “for the calling of a Commission and an Overture had been prepared with assistance from Principal Graham and forwarded to the Moderator under the name of Rev A G Ross”. The Memorial was to be circulated to all ministers and to be presented to the Commission of Assembly from Free Concern.
The recalled Commission of Assembly met on 31st October 1996 and rescinded the decisions of the Commission of 2nd October. At the Free Concern meeting of 2nd November, “particular appreciation was expressed for the contribution of Rev Principal Emeritus C Graham who had presented the Report of the FLA Committee”. Although the Commission rose late in the night of 31st October, yet by the next day in the mail to all ministers we had the report from the FLA, the finding of the Commission and two pages of extracts from the speech made by Principal Graham.
At the meeting on 13th December 1996 discussion took place about its future role. It was reported that the subject had been raised in certain Presbyteries. It was reported that certain members had expressed the view that the task for which Free Concern had been appointed had been achieved and the group could therefore disband. The view had been expressed also that Free Concern could have a divisive effect upon the Church.
In discussion it was affirmed that there is a continuing need for vigilance and that, in keeping with the mood shown at Perth, there is a need also to confront deeper problems, reflected in a loss of people from the Church and diminution in witness to a needy world. It was agreed that Free Concern has a continuing role, of seeking to address these two aims in a positive spirit, promoting an environment in which people throughout the Church can have the opportunity to apply their minds to the issues of their faith, talking, praying and acting on the things which concern them. By the same token, any who do not wish to engage in this process may so choose. Following the Assembly in 1997 it was decided that Free Concern cease to exist as a distinct group. By now the FCDA had come into existence to defend the Free Church from further inroads and it was thought that the disbanding of Free Concern would wrong-foot the FCDA and force them to disband before they had achieved any of their objectives. In other words the disbanding of Free Concern was in order to consolidate their gains. That announcement was carried in the Monthly Record (June/July 1997). The Rev A J Macdonald stated, “It should not be thought that this is the end of our concern, or even the beginning of the end. It is the end of the beginning”. The tone and atmosphere struck at the Perth meeting has lingered in the Church long after Free Concern has gone. Has it really gone?
The FCDA has been likened to an alternative Presbytery. That has to be set alongside Free Concern, which boasted of having a representative from every Presbytery on its committee. Furthermore, the Rev A J Macdonald was allowed, as the chairman of Free Concern, to address the Commission in presenting the Memorial. The gift of hindsight is easily exercised in venturing the opinion, as some of their supporters now do, that Free Concern was wrong. It is unfortunate that such an opinion was not publicly expressed by them at the time. To describe Free Concern as intended to be a temporary phenomenon, flies in the face of the facts and underplays its significance and input to our present problems. Those who complain about a divisive spirit presently in the Church, must look to those who created that atmosphere of distrust and planted the seeds which have now blossomed. (The quotations given in italics are from Free Concern Committee minutes).

Any comments or questions please E-Mail me or Rev William Macleod the Editor.

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