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Wee Frees are singing: The Church of England Newspaper, Nov 26, 2010 p 6. November 30, 2010

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Hymnody/Liturgy, Presbyterian/Church of Scotland.

First published in The Church of England Newspaper.

The sound you may hear from a Wee Free chapel might just be singing.  After 147 years, the Free Church of Scotland, the “Wee Frees” have relaxed their ban on musical instruments and hymn singing.

On Nov 19 following two days of what was described by the church as “harmonious” debate, a special synod of the Free Church of Scotland voted 98-84 to allow individual congregations to decide whether to permit the liberty of using music in worship services.

Formed in 1847 following the secession of evangelicals from the Church of Scotland over what they saw as the state’s encroachment on their spiritual independence, the majority of the Free Church returned to the Church of Scotland in the last century.  However, a dissenting group based in the Highlands and the Western Isles remained outside and continues the name and polity of the Free Church.

The church’s canons had called for the “avoidance of uninspired materials of praise and musical instruments” in worship, leading the Wee Frees to focus their musical efforts on Psalm singing, as the Psalms, being part of the Scriptures, were inspired, while modern hymns were not.

In 2005 the moderator of the Free Church, the Rev. Donald Smith, opened debate over relaxing the ban, and a motion was brought to the 2010 synod by the church’s Board of Trustees to confirm its ban on music.  However, the motion was opposed by moderates within the church led by the Rev. Alex Macdonald who urged adoption of a “local option” on hymn singing.

The General Assembly resolved that “purity of worship requires that every aspect of worship services, including sung praise, be consistent with the Word of God and with the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith approved by previous Assemblies of this Church.”

Each Kirk Session was given the “freedom, either to restrict the sung praise to the Psalms, or to include paraphrases of Scripture, and hymns and spiritual songs consistent with the doctrine of the Confession of Faith; that each Kirk Session shall have freedom whether to permit musical accompaniment to the sung praise in worship, or not.”

However, hymn singing could not be imposed upon a congregation without the approval of its minister.  While the majority concluded that music could be used in worship to glorify God, the General Assembly recognized the “divisive nature of the issue” and affirmed its “commitment to unity and urge[d] officebearers and members to find ways of continuing in unity after the Assembly.”

The debate over hymnody in the Free Church of Scotland has followed the same path as the Nineteenth century debate over music at worship in the Church of England.  Modern hymnody was introduced by Evangelicals by the close of the Eighteenth century, who cited its utility.  High churchmen opposed the innovation, saying a warrant for hymn singing could not be found in the Book of Common Prayer or Scripture.

In 1819 the rector of St. Paul’s Church in Sheffield, the Rev. Richard Cotterill, published “A Selection of Psalms and Hymns” adapted for use in the Church of England.  The evangelical Mr. Cotterill was brought before the Archbishop of York’s Consistory Court upon charges of violating the rubrics of the Prayer Book for using hymns in worship.  The chancellor found Mr. Cotterill guilty, ruling that hymn singing was irregular.  However the court declined to impose costs and suspended the imposition of a sentence, citing the benefits of hymn singing.

The issue was resolved by Mr. Cotterill withdrawing his hymnal, and publishing a new less Evangelical edition that contained the imprimatur of the Archbishop of York. The court’s decision gave tacit permission for hymn singing, which was not formally approved for use in worship until 1872.


1. john ross - December 6, 2010

This article contains gross inaccuracies, is facetious and rather unfriendly.

First, the Free Church of Scotland has always been a singing Church, the fact is that until now we have almost exclusively sung Psalms.

Secondly, in the last two decades of the Nineteenth century the Free Church permitted both instrumental accompaniment and the use of hymns. Indeed, the Church produced a number of notable hymn writers including Robert M’Cheyne, “I once was a stranger to grace and to God”; Horatius Bonar, “Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul”; Walter Chalmers Smith, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise”; Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand”; and Anne Ross Cousin, “The sands of time are sinking.” As early as 1857, Horatius Bonar published his collection, ’Hymns of Faith and Hope’, in which he expressed no narrow denominational or sectarian doctrine but ‘the Church’s ancient faith.’ Five years later, Jane and Sarah Borthwick of Lochearnhead translated a collection of German evangelical hymns, including, Spitta’s “O happy home, where Thou art loved the dearest;” which they published in 1862 as ‘Hymns from the Land of Luther.’ Lamentably, all this was brought to an end in 1905, after the 1900 union of the majority Free Church with the United Presbyterians to form the United Free Church of Scotland.

Thirdly, we do not meet in chapels, but churches. We are not Non-conformists (the term has no meaning in Scotland) and so such disparaging terminology is inappropriate.

Fourthly, the the Free Church of Scotland was formed in 1843, not 1847.

Fifthly, the “dissenting group based in the Highlands and the Western Isles [that] remained outside” can only refer those who did not go into the United Free Church in 1900, and has nothing to do with the formation of the Free Church in 1843.

If one of my students had handed in such inaccurate material he would have achieved a D-.

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