A GLASGOW congregation which is leaving the Church of Scotland because of the Kirk’s stance on gay ministers held its last service in its building yesterday.
The pews of St George’s Tron in Buchanan Street were busy as 500 worshippers came to hear its minister, the Rev Dr Willie Philip, deliver the final sermon.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Philip said that church members had been frustrated by the way matter had been handled by the Kirk.
“Some of our older people have been here all their life, and some of them in the past five years have given all their life savings into refurbishing this building,” he said.
“You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel angry, and it would be very, very easy to become bitter. But we don’t want to become bitter people.
“We want to focus on the future, draw a line under things and put the past behind us. It’s sad, but we didn’t want today to be a funeral service.”
The congregation announced in June that it was leaving the Church of Scotland over the issue of allowing openly gay clergy, which will be voted on by the Kirk at its General Assembly next May.
Since then, church members have been engaged in increasingly acrimonious negotiations with the Kirk over the ownership and use of the recently refurbished church building and its manse.
There has also been a dispute over money said to be owed to the Church of Scotland by the congregation.
The situation came to a head last Wednesday when Sheriff Court officers, on behalf of the Church of Scotland, entered the church during a prayer meeting and served interim interdicts on Mr Philip, preventing the congregation from removing any of the fixtures and fittings and claiming ownership to any that had already been taken.
Before beginning his sermon yesterday, the minister told members that all further services were being held at a hall in nearby Bath Street.
Acknowledging the “pain” that some members were feeling on leaving St George’s Tron, Mr Philip’s sermon focused on the difficulties faced by those who, he said, would stay true to the Bible’s teachings and “make a life investment with Jesus”.
He made reference to the Church of Scotland’s “refusal of any terms on which we might continue to use the facility”, and that they would now “bid a fond farewell to a building which has been a wonderful place of fellowship for many years for some of us”.
He added: “But the real temple of the Lord is where He himself dwells, and He dwells not among dead and empty edifice but in the midst of the living stones, His own people, whom He loves and has promised never to leave nor forsake.”
The hymns chosen for the last service also underlined the congregation’s sense of defiance at having lost the battle for ownership of the building: In the Hour of Trial, A Safe Stronghold our God is Still and The Son of God Rides Out to War.
Following the service, a photograph was taken of the congregation before Mr Philip shook hands and embraced members as they stepped out on to one of Glasgow’s busiest streets.
One man clasped the minister’s hand and shaking it firmly, said: “We’re behind you 100 per cent of the way. Nothing changes.”
Church members expressed a mixture of sadness and anger at what they feel was the injustice and heavy-handedness by the Kirk. Norrie Miller, 76, who had been attending services at the Tron for 57 years said that the decision to leave the Church of Scotland had been difficult.
“My whole family are here, daughters and grand children, so it’s been an emotional time for us,” she said.
“I’ve been a life time in the Church of Scotland, and we’re really appalled at their aggressive tactics. But we move on with great anticipation for new beginnings and a great sense of unity, young and old, and 99 per cent support.”
Terry McCutcheon, 38, who has attended the church for ten years, said: “There’s a real sadness that our church family is having to leave here today. It’s a vibrant place, there are hundreds of us. It’s not a dying church, it’s a living church.
“The saddest thing is that it’s not a Communist regime that’s shutting us down, it’s the national church. It’s a scandal”.
He said the congregation had sunk £2.6 million into the refurbishment of the building, but the Church of Scotland would not listen to its requests to be allowed to stay.
The Church of Scotland has insisted that because the congregation has chosen to leave the Kirk, it has no right to the building, manse or contents. It also says that the congregation owes the Kirk almost £1m in unpaid contributions and an outstanding loan. The Kirk has denied the accusations of heavy-handedness and aggression, pointing out that the congregation’s leaders had been recalcitrant during negotiations, only allowing Kirk officials in to carry out an inventory when threatened with legal action, and had yet to hand over the congregational records.
A Kirk spokesman said yesterday: “We are disappointed that they’ve chosen to leave the Church of Scotland before the matter was dealt with by the General Assembly. We were prepared to discuss matters with them, but it has been difficult to do this when they would not speak to us.”