Primarily, this post is a reflection on the recent actions of the Church of Scotland but I’ve taken it as an opportunity to try out a new rhetoric style I call, because I am pretentious, temporal displacement writing. That is to say, I’m writing as though present events are being reflected on as happening years ago. In this context I’ve chosen to do so through an essay question. It may work, might not, feedback appreciated.
I’ve taken a certain amount of imaginative license in dealing with future events. All past events are, to the best of my knowledge, accurate.
Church History Exam 2025
Q3: How integral a role did the St George’s Tron play in the demise of the Church of Scotland?
Five years ago the Church of Scotland was disbanded, the great domination brought to a premature death with a speed that surprised many. Even as late as 2011 many expected the decline of the state church to be a prolonged and gradual affair taking at least a generation. There is a common misconception that it was St George’s Tron departure from the Church of Scotland in June 2012 that was the stone that caused the proverbial avalanche to fall. This essay will argue that this represents a false narrative and that it was not until the actions of the Kirk in October 2012 that the bell sounded on the beginning of the end of the Church of Scotland. Beforehand October little concern was shown either by congregations or ministers into the reasons for the Tron’s departure. The actions of the Kirk changed this and created the Separatist movement that was so vital to the eventual demise of the Church of Scotland.
The reasons for the Tron’s departure are readily apparent. Shocked by even the airing of a debate about homosexual ministers and frustrated by the General Assembly’s obvious move to prolong the debate as long as possible the congregation of the Tron under the leadership of Rev Dr Philip voted to secede from the Church of Scotland. In his press release Rev Philip spoke of his disappointment in the attempts of the General Assembly to normalise the issue of homosexuality. In a strongly worded statement he said:
“In doing so the highest court of the Kirk has marginalised the Bible, the written Word of God. We believe the Church of Scotland is choosing to walk away from the biblical gospel, and to walk apart from the faith of the worldwide Christian Church.”
His claims of the lack of faithfulness to the Bible would be taken up in the years to come by the Separatist movement. However, what is often forgotten is the response of the other ministers in the Church of Scotland to the issue. Broadly speaking, at the time the denomination was spilt into two groups: the so called ‘liberals’ who tended to a more modern interpretation of the Bible and were the main supporters of the homosexual minister proposal. And on the other side were the ‘evangelicals’ who held to the traditional view of the Bible. Whilst reality was likely more nuanced the Separatist movement is best framed through this division. It is important to note that the structure of the Church of Scotland was such that it was mainly the evangelical churches who were bucking the continued decline of the Church of Scotland and bringing in much of the financial resources.
It is unknown whether the Tron congregation expected the support of fellow evangelical ministers. If so they were sadly mistaken and as one eminent historian has said: ‘the public silence of the evangelical churches to the Tron’s departure was deafening’. Fortunately access to the private words of some evangelical ministers has recently come to light and whilst there are expressions of regret there is also a tone of annoyance to the whole issue as though the Tron congregation had only served to exasperate an issue best left alone.
This is a necessary correction to the commonly perceived narrative that the Tron’s secession from the Church of Scotland paved the way for many more churches to follow. The truth of the matter is that the majority of evangelical churches did not want to follow. It should be remembered that staying in the Church of Scotland was the most pragmatic response to the situation. Most ministers and congregations were loath to risk their buildings, manses, pensions and denominational ‘branding’ for such a minor matter as homosexual ministers. The prevailing attitude was to live and let live with their liberal brothers and that leaving the Church of Scotland would limit their access to both the resources gained from denomination membership and the congregation members who would only attend a state church. Combining this eminently practical viewpoint with a lack of strong, decisive, leadership then there was no uniting force in the other evangelical churches prepared to fight the issue.
The turning point came from the grass roots of the evangelical Church of Scotland. And even then such a movement only sprang into existence after the events of October 2012 for it was then that the Presbytery of Glasgow evicted the congregation of the Tron from its building following a report that was in the words of Rev Philips: “…marked by falsehood, fantasy and enmity.” The Presbytery was stepping down hard on the Tron in a likely attempt to stop any more congregations leaving the Church. And it almost worked. For in the preceding months not a single evangelical minister made any public statement regarding the actions of the Presbytery.
Yet underneath this apparent apathy there was a storm brewing. It is hard to trace the exact point at which the Separatist movement began. It happened almost simultaneously across many different evangelical churches as church members began to question the actions of the Presbytery of Glasgow. The movement started simply as an objection to the way the Tron congregation had been treated. The argument ran that whilst following the letter of the law the decision of the Presbytery showed, in a letter of one member to his minister “a distinct lack of grace, love and kindness that should be the marks of all Christians.” The Justice movement, as it became known as, was regularly heard to quote Micah 6 v 8: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This informal grouping grew quickly, spreading through word of mouth and over the internet, grass root leaders stepped forward to channel and shape the objections and by the early months of 2013 internal research by the Church of Scotland showed that over 40% of members were part of the Justice movement. Such vocal objection to the treatment of the Tron meant that in April 2013 eight evangelical ministers wrote a letter to the Times requesting an investigation into the actions of the Presbytery of Glasgow – the first public disapproval voiced by evangelical ministers.
As the movement grew and spread it also evolved into a much wider debate. Questions were asked as to why the Presbytery had been so hard on the Tron and the rhetoric of the moment changed. Rather than seeking to change the existing decision the emphasis centred around separation. “How can we expect ungodly men to make godly decisions?” went the commonly repeated question (it later went on to become an internet meme). Arguing that light should have nothing to do with darkness and from 2 John 1 v 11 that: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.” the movement took on a new identity and reformed as the Separatist movement, standing for biblical faithfulness, traditional interpretation and a separation from the liberal elements of the Church of Scotland.
With growing pressure put on them by congregations evangelical ministers began to turn against the Church of Scotland, a browse through the sermon titles of 2013 reveals many a sermon on faithfulness and the holy separation of God. In November 2013 the majority of evangelical ministers held a openly secret meeting about forming a new denomination and leaving the Church of Scotland on-mass. Events preceded quickly, aided by an increasingly nasty debate with many accusations levied on both sides. In the new year the evangelical churches left the Church of Scotland to form the Scottish Presbyterian Church. In one fell swoop the Church of Scotland lost its main financial supporters and even the sale of multiple church buildings only delayed the inevitable. In March 2020 the Church of Scotland was disbanded with membership barely scrapping a few thousand.
In conclusion, the Tron’s departure from the Church of Scotland was integral to its demise but not in the way that is commonly understood. For it was not the departure per ce that created the Separatist movement but the subsequent actions of the Presbytery of Glasgow that shocked members of evangelical churches into questioning their denomination affiliation. Ironically, the Church of Scotland was a victim to its own political manoeuvring and as one minister wryly reflected it was ‘hoist by its own petard’.