Durham's Revenge on the Scots

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THE last Bishop of Durham to have much influence on Scotland before Dr. David Jenkins was probably one who helped improvise the defeat of a Scots invasion at the Battle of the Standard near Northallerton in 1138. The Scots King David I retired across the border, kept out of English politics thereafter, and created the basis for the medieval Scots kingdom.

Durham's revenge was delayed until Christmas 1993, and was inadvertent. As his retirement approached, Dr. Jenkins still enjoyed the customary homage which the British media pay to his liberal theology each Christmas and Easter, in the sure and certain hope of reaction from traditional believers in the bodily Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, and the stable at Bethlehem. He was not to know that the Scottish press, yawning for copy over the long holiday, would discover that the successor to John Knox's old pulpit seemed to hold similarly liberal views about some biblical passages or that the Moderator of the Kirk's General Assembly would be tempted into the affray, risking damage both to his reputation and to his office.

Had the Scots media inquired earlier, they would have found that the minister of St. Giles', Edinburgh, the Rev. Gilleasbuig Macmillan, may sometimes convey as esoteric a theology of the Incarnation as the Bishop of Durham. He once speculated in the Kirk's magazine -- during an era of unusual editorial tolerance -- that Christians might be wrong in |gazing with reverent wonder on the Nativity of our Lord as if it were a finished fact requiring only our appropriate response to make it fully productive', and adding a curious allusion which seemed to put Christmas stories in the same context as |romantic accounts of Peter Rabbit'.

But a Kirk where all ministers are equal and many are strongly opinionated can only exist on a live-and-let-live basis, and Mr. Macmillan was and is unscathed. The serious rumblings of discontent only began when the Moderator, the Right Rev. Dr. James Weatherhead, preached a sermon in St. Giles' (where he is a member of congregation) which not only supported its minister and the Bishop of Durham but appeared to treat the Virgin Birth as merely symbolic -- though of what was not entirely clear.

He later said his intention was to reconcile, though on rather liberal terms: |I'm not saying it's wrong to take the Virgin Birth literally, nor that everybody must believe it's symbolic,'. He wanted to reassure Christians who found the Virgin Birth an uncomfortable test of orthodoxy.

In Scots Presbyterianism a Moderator's views on doctrine are no more important than anyone else's. But by custom the office has been enhanced far beyond the chairmanship of one General Assembly. Moderators are treated and inclined to pronounce like Cardinals on short-service commissions, less through personal vanity than from the media's obsession with spokespeople and hierarchies and a hankering in the Kirk for someone to |speak the mind of the Church'.

That system works tolerably when Moderators stay for their year of office with consensus theology, comfortable words, and committee briefs, or rest their more contentious opinions about current events on views favoured by the General Assembly. It comes under strain when -- as has happened long before Dr. Weatherhead's elevation -- Moderators worry aloud about trends in the Church which they dislike. Almost all recent Moderators have been liberals in a Church whose conservative evangelical element has provided both one of its few growth areas and a disproportionate share of younger ministers.

What made the strain instantly public and therefore more severe in Dr. Weatherhead's case was that he chose to preach in St. Giles' and publicise his sermon just as the largest and most coherent of several groups on the theological right was gathering for its annual conventicle in Crieff. One result, to the joy of the Scots media, was an instantly available protest from 111 ministers. …