Illustration: St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh
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The Scottish Reformation (6)
Mary’s insistence on retaining her right to hold Mass in her own chapel so provoked the people that only with great difficulty was a mob prevented from entering her chapel and disrupting the service. Today we would take such freedom for granted but in the 16th century it was perceived somewhat differently since it was commonly understood that monarchs were required to be of the same religion as their subjects! Indeed, both queen and people agreed on this. The difficulty was that the queen demanded that the people conform to her religion, while the people required her to conform to theirs!
As one of the leaders of the Reformation, Knox was repeatedly summoned to an audience with the queen but less from any desire on her part to learn the Reformed faith than to defeat him in argument and thereby discredit the Reformation! But Mary was both charming and deceitful, a clever actress, and, as her subsequent behaviour proved, a poor judge of men! Although Knox has been unjustly caricatured as one who bullied the young queen and reduced her to tears, he was simply being forthright, plain and sincere, not rude. Indeed. Knox was always deferential, courteous and respectful, never once seeking the royal presence but appearing when commanded, and only when the great concerns of salvation were touched upon did his stern inflexibility appear! On one occasion when the queen artfully asked whom she should believe – the Reformers or the Roman clergy – Knox answered, “Neither, Madam, only the Word of God”. During the six years of her reign Knox was summoned on at least four occasions to be rebuked by her!
Mary’s marital difficulties, compounded by her sheer folly, intrigue and immoral pragmatism and tainted with violence and crime such as Lord Darnley’s murder, eventually did more to discredit her than her religious views. Civil war followed between the protestant forces under the Earl of Moray, Mary’s half-brother, and Mary’s supporters, resulting in Mary’s defeat at Langside in 1567. She was then deposed in favour of her infant son, James VI, and forced to flee Scotland to England where, for the rest of her life, she was kept under confinement. During this period she remained a constant centre of plots by secret Romanist emissaries, seeking the overthrow of the Reformation both in England and in Scotland by placing Mary on the throne of both kingdoms. Finally, her evident complicity in a plot planned with Jesuit help led to her trial and execution by order of Queen Elizabeth who was acting on the strong advice of her own government.
In the midst of political turmoil, trials and difficulties, the Reformed Church continued to make sure but steady progress among all classes of the population. Its work of consolidation as a national church was helped not only by parliamentary approval of the Scots Confession but by other documents produced at the same time such as the First Book of Discipline, the Book of Common Order and Knox’s Liturgy – a necessary requirement for the infant Church to ensure Reformed orthodoxy and dignified, reverent, consistent public worship throughout the national parishes when so few able and qualified preachers were available. The most important of these documents was the First Book of Discipline that set out the blueprint for the Reformed Kirk.
The original draft of the First Book of Discipline called a ‘Book of Reformation’ was revised to include sections on superintendents, schools and universities, and was presented for approval to a convention of nobles, including the Privy Council, meeting in Edinburgh in January 1561 who, with some reservations, consented to its implementation. Its proposals were far-sighted and revealed Knox’s concern to provide for a pious and educated ministry, the evangelisation of the realm, the education of the rising generation and care of the poor. The rich patrimony of the pre-reformation church (its tiends or ‘tithes)’ was to be divided to secure these laudable aims but was frustrated by the covetous self-interest of those nobility who had already seized possession of pre-reformation church lands and their tiends. The temporary expedient of superintendents was to ensure the ‘planting of kirks’, manses, schools and schoolmasters in parishes destitute of Gospel ordinances. The parish system remained intact with its churches retained for congregational reformed worship and the people given a voice in the calling of their ministers. Elders were appointed to assist the minister in spiritual oversight and discipline, and deacons for the administration of church finances. In all these practical matters the Reformers’ aimed at God’s glory and the nearest pattern to apostolic simplicity and practice.
By 1567 the Reformation had largely won the battle for the people’s support. Although Knox died in 1572 yet sufficient progress had been made so as to make it impossible for the Roman Church to return to her former status. Knox was undoubtedly the dominant instrument in the Scottish reformation, not indeed its instigator, but its intrepid organiser. He brought the initial thrust to an ordered conclusion and his enduring legacy was to leave behind him a visible church more biblical in form and government than any other church in Europe – with the possible exception of the French Reformed Church. But it was not to the Reformed churches of Europe – not even to Geneva – that the Scots reformers looked for their model of a reformed visible church – but to the Word of God. Holding Christ to be King of nations as well as the only Head of His Church, they believed in an established church supported by the state but exercising her own independence in spiritual matters.
Despite his enemies’ attempts to vilify his character, Knox’s personal life remained unblemished to the end. A faithful husband and dutiful son-in-law, he proved himself in all his relationships to be a man of consistent integrity, sincerity and uprightness, hating covetousness, seeking the glory of God and the spiritual and temporal welfare of his fellow-countrymen above all personal advantage or consideration. A true Christian and patriot, he is deservedly recognised as the greatest Scotsman in history. As the regent Morton (no true friend of Knox) testified at the great Reformer’s graveside: “Here lies one who never feared the face of men”.