A CHURCH of England minister will make history this weekend when he becomes the head of a Free Church of Scotland congregation in St Andrews.
The Rev Paul Clarke has been appointed to a three-year placement with St Andrews Free Church, whose congregation has been without a minister since 2012.
Mr Clarke, widely regarded in Anglican circles as one of its most promising preachers, previously served at one of the biggest congregations in England – St Helen’s Bishopsgate in inner city London.
Yesterday, Mr Clarke said of his move: “My family and I are absolutely delighted to be joining the Free Church congregation in St Andrews.
“We look forward to working alongside the other churches in St Andrews as we seek to make Jesus Christ known in this wonderful and historic town.”
The Rev David Robertson, minister of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee and director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, acknowledged that appointing a minister from the Church of England was an unusual development and would surprise many, but said it was “great example of biblical ecumenism at its best”.
“Who would have thought that an Anglican would be appointed to minister in a Free Church congregation – it certainly challenges the tired, worn out cliché of the Free Church just being a declining Highland church.
“With a former Church of Scotland minister being appointed to the Free Church in Perth this year as well, this is a sign of how things are changing,” he said.
Mr Robertson said that Mr Clarke had been looking for a “new challenge”, and that his religious beliefs did not differ greatly from the Free Kirk’s. “The theological tradition of St Helen’s is very similar to ours.”
So while the form of church government differs, the theology is very similar. So it’s not a great change for him, but it will be surprising for many,” he said.
Mr Robertson added that while such an appointment would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, it pointed towards a shift away from links defined purely by denomination.
The Most Rev David Chillingworth, Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church said: “I hope that the Rev Paul Clarke will become part of the network of clergy in St Andrews and of the mutual support of churches working together in our shared mission.”
The announcement comes just days after it was revealed that 50 Church of Scotland congregations had been in talks to join the Free Kirk as the Kirk continues to be divided over the possible ordination of openly gay ministers.
Church of England
• State church in England
• Founded at the end of the sixth century
• A wide range of theologies
• Roughly 16,000 churches, 18,000 clergy and 800,000 people attend services every Sunday
• Decline of 50,000 in attendance since 2007
Free Church of Scotland
• A breakaway denomination from the state church in Scotland.
• Founded in 1843
• United conservative and evangelical theology
• 100 congregations, around 80 ministers, and 12,500 weekly worshippers
• Nominal rise in attendance since 2007