A period of relative tranquillity, 1560-1638.

It is easy to be swept along on the emotive issues of the Covenant and  the persecution of its adherents in the seventeenth century, and thus overlook the cementing of the building blocks of the new church which underpinned the worship of the majority of ministers and the people.

The speed at which the Reformation from Catholicism to Protestant Presbytery took place was breathtaking and at first tenuous, as Mary Queen of Scots sought to reassert the royal will. But James VI came to the Crown as an infant in 1567 and the early years of his reign was by Regents, including Lord James, Earl of Moray, a leader among the Lords of the Congregation. Thus the young Kirk was given a breathing space to consolidate itself among the people and to attend to its own administrative needs. It was after about 1580, when James was a teenager, that he began to take an active part in management of his realm and ruled through a Privy Council and his favourites.

John Knox died in 1572 leaving a church that had been created on Scriptural lines of Presbytery, although the working church at the time was managed by the kirk session. It was the arrival of Andrew Melville from Geneva in 1574, who took up the role of mentor, that saw the formalisation of the role of the presbytery within the church structure.  This prompted Gordon Donaldson in Scotland: Church and nation through Sixteen centuries, p71, to observe that:

"  the John Knox of mythology is very largely compounded  of the Andrew Melville  of history, for it was Melville and not Knox who was the originator of Scottish Presbyterianism."

It was from Melville (1545-1622) that came the more zealous Puritan cum strict Presbyterian, views with concepts of life long lay elders, the parity of ministers (so irksome to the Stuart kings), the authority of the presbytery, the right of the Church to  ecclesiastical teinds or tithes, and the supremacy of the church officials in the government of the church.

A relatively slow evolution and gradual change contributed to a strong kirk with policies that were well thought through. In the day to day administration, however,  the kirk session was the focus for management - it was not until the 1580s that presbyteries began to be organised. The evolution included the role of bishops, not as in the medieval prelacy, but as persons within the administration who had the role of `oversight`. From the outset there had been a need for  ten `Superintendents` forced upon the administration through lack of qualified ministers ( there were only 12 in the whole country). The Superintendents included five of the Six Johns who had created the First Book of Discipline, some of whom also contributed to the Second Book of Discipline that Melville presented to the Glasgow General Assembly in 1581. The latter is the foundation stone for the modern Kirk.

Extract from Hewison, The Covenanters, Vol 1 p 85-6.

Walter Foster in The Church before the Covenants, makes the very valid point that in his widespread researches among the original records

 "  the overwhelming impression of numerous kirk session, presbytery, synod and assembly records is not that of a thousand parishes which for eighty years debated the question of episcopacy. More pressing was the need to curb immorality, preserve the sanctity of the Sabbath, and see that the pure word of God was preached ......"

- as well as combat the residual Roman Catholic practices, superstition, improve education of both populace and ministers, rebuild the physical fabric of the kirk and manse, and secure an acceptable income for the ministers.

The role of the kirk session.

The role of the kirk session at the beginning depended to a large extent on whether there was a minister in residence, since only then could matters of discipline be considered. Thus there was a transitional phase where it was necessary for visitations to be made and nearby ministers brought to oversee the new session, or in some instances the presbytery ( if established) did the work directly. In most instances the session met regularly, issued baptismal certificates and marriage  testimonials, collected fines that had been imposed, but did not  deal with serious disciplinary matters that, in equity, required moderation. Election to the session was usually annual, although firm rules  about the conduct of meetings, election of members, elders and deacons were often dependent on the presbytery who would provide or change them as necessary. The elders were not always the most prominent persons in the community or congregation, but the second rank of citizens - the moderately wealthy local farmers, craftsmen and the like, who undertook the routine work of the session. In the burghs especially, there was an overlap of jurisdiction regarding offences, and baillies, deans of Guild, and provost might be elders, or sit in on the session meetings. By the 17th century a uniformity in the way kirk sessions were constituted had been established and were enlisting the lay leadership in the active management of the session.

Importantly the Kirk Session continued despite the installation of bishops and changes to the management of Presbyteries, Synods, and General Assemblies. Their role did not change during the upheaval of the Articles of Perth, and it was about 1625 before they lost the disciplinary action against adulterers to the presbyteries. Throughout the entire period the kirk session provided both continuity and stability in the community with the exercise of discipline, and catered for the deserving poor. Without them special funds sought by the higher bodies would never have been collected, and it was the session who pursued the repair and furnishing of churches, manses and established schools.

The role of presbyteries.

Once established the presbyteries were charged with regularly examining the work of the kirk session during visitations, often interviewing the  minister alone ( without the presence of lay elders). Negligence was the subject of rebuke and a black mark against the individual whether minister of elder. Visitations were not, however, always as frequent as required and Synods would occasionally rebuke them for their failure. An important moral task that was visible to the people, was excommunication. The sentence was backed by several civil laws that ordered no intercommuning with the offender, and from 1609 excommunicants were placed on par with bankrupts with all estates, properties and chattels  `upliftit to his maiesteis use`. They dealt with all trials and were able in some instances to deal with highly influential members of the nobility, such as the recalcitrant papist the Earl of Abercorn.  But the disciplining of  prominent  members of communities for such as adultery, sent a clear message about morality to the congregations at large. Admissions to the ministry were appointed to their benefices and, over time, often with warrant from the bishop. After 1610 the role changed with excommunications (which were far fewer by 1635) and appointments passing to the bishop.

The routine supervision of the kirk sessions remained unchanged, while the influence of presbyteries gained strength as more were established under the bishops. The regular meetings aided communication between sessions, and the ministers. It also facilitated a uniform approach to the Reformed theology on practical matters at parish level. The presbytery continued to be responsible for the admission of readers and schoolmasters, despite attempts of bishops and burgh councils to take over responsibility. Their particular importance was their ability to deal with the more serious cases of discipline, being sufficiently remote from local politics to be able to deal objectively with matters. Thus they established law and order within the bounds of their jurisdiction. After the imposition of episcopacy, there was some diminution of their autocracy but they continued to thrive and keep an important place in the pastoral and disciplinary work of the Kirk.

The role of Bishops.

Knox had refused to officiate at the inauguration of John Douglas as Bishop of St Andrews on Sunday 10 February 1571-2, stating his reason being of conscience

 " and that the Kirke of Scotland  suld not be subject to that ordore which then was used, considdering the Lordis of Scotland had subscryvit, and also confirmed in Parliament, the ordore alreadie and long agoe appointed, in the Buike of Discipline. (Laing, Works of John Knox,Vol 6, p 625)

However, the great man was not totally inflexible in the matter and he reluctantly acceded to the need for Superintendents. Shortly before his death in 1572 he wrote to the General Assembly that all vacancies for bishops should be presented  "according to the order taken at Leith", which were then more like Superintendents than a superior rank of clerical managers. It was James VI who forced the issue when in he opposed the doctrine of parity, and the Basilicon Doron  urged the re-establishment of the three estates of Parliament. This was a response to Melville and other zealous ministers overstepping the mark in 1596 when Melville famously called the king "God`s sillie vassal" ( meaning weak person)  and David Black minister of St Andrews was insulting to the point of treason with comments about the King and Queen. Thereafter James seized the initiative and began his campaign for the revival of episcopacy by manipulating the dates of General Assemblies in 1586-7 and the appointment of clerics/bishops favourable to his views. By 1606 James was finally in a position to restore the episcopal temporalities (the lands of bishops), and his appointments reflected the return of previously seized lands in 1587. The opportunity was also taken at this time to sweeten the nobility by restoring some temporalities  and abbacies to those who, in many cases, had held the land in question for many years. The episcopal honeymoon finally came to an end in 1609 when legislation was brought forward to reinstate the Bishops in Parliament, and the visible changes to such as the time and manner of conducting the Sacrament of the Lord`s Supper were enforced.

What is sometimes forgotten in the heat of debate is that from ca 1600 the `bishops` were more than civil administrators. They were former ministers of the church and continued to preach, administer the Lord`s Supper, and baptise. Moreover, they took an active part in improving the ministers` lot, improving stipends and adding to the churches` material resources. Their formal positions in Parliament,  and occasionally as Lords of the Articles and on the Privy Council, gave them status and enabled them, when so minded, to exercise considerable influence on behalf of the Church. Overall it seems that objections to episcopacy were founded more on the `by royal appointment` aspect conjoined with opposition to Erastianism, rather than any innate failure of the bishops to fulfil a meaningful and Christian role.

The bishops must be given due credit for pursuing the physical maintenance of kirk and manse and over time caused new churches to be built. They were responsible for improving the standards of ministers who  by 1600 had caused university degrees to be a common requirement. By 1641 there were few if any ministers  who were not a `Mr`, and were  examined in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, interpretation of the scriptures, the controversies in religion; abilities in exhortation,  and in holy, ecclesiastical history and its chronology. In return for these higher standards the ministers `  were rewarded with significantly improved stipends that had grown from a meagre 60-300 merks (20-200 Scots per annum) to an average of some 500 merks (333,16.4d Scots) in 1601 - a living wage in those days. Many in the bigger towns, cities and colleges were paid much more and all were able, if so inclined, to supplement income by chaplaincies, pensions, income from tithes, vicarages and the like. By the end of James I reign in 1625 the prospect of there being an agreed national minimum stipend had become a real possibility. The hard task however, remained - getting the stipend, and especially any teinds, actually paid in the minister`s lifetime.

Overall, the changes in management of the Kirk and the gradual intrusion of the royal prerogative is reflected in the meetings of the General Assembly  Between 1560 and 1596 there were some 64 gatherings. But between 1597 and 1638 there were only 12 official assemblies. Once Charles I came to the throne in 1625, there were no meetings at all until he was forced to concede that of Glasgow in 1638.

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