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THE Free Presbyterian Synod opened last night in the plain,

stone-built church on Chapel Street, Inverness, where it meets every

second year. A large congregation enjoined 80 ministers from around

Scotland and the dominions in opening worship conducted by the retiring


Unaccompanied psalms were sung, all stood for prayer and a long,

extempore sermon was preached. The synod began as it always has since

the 1890s.

But last night there was a vague sense of unreality about the

proceedings. For one thing, the retiring Moderator was an African: the

Rev. Aaron Ndebele of Zimbabwe, where the Free Presbyterians have a

substantial mission. He was replaced last night by the Rev. Lachlan

Macleod of Greenock -- but the latter is a member of the Southern

Presbytery. He will be at the Bar with his colleagues when Mr Ndebele

resumes the chair today for the most dramatic debate in the Church's


Last November Edinburgh elder Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Lord High

Chancellor of Great Britain, was suspended by the Southern Presbytery

for six months for attending a requiem mass. Lord Mackay had gone to a

memorial service for Lord Russell of Killowan, a colleague and Roman

Catholic Judge, in July 1986. It was argued that the Free Presbyterian

Church has always regarded the mass as idolatrous therefore Lord Mackay

had to be disciplined. This afternoon the Synod will hear an appeal on

his behalf by the Edinburgh kirk session.

The case has aroused great fury and bitterness among the Free

Presbyterians. Hardliners argue that the Church must maintain a clear

witness against Romanism, and even its most important members have to

obey the law. But moderates are angry at the whole handling of the case.

In the entire history of the Free Presbyterians not one member has ever

been disciplined for going to mass. Why now, and why this elder of all


On one side are the ''new right'' of the Free Presbyterian Church.

There are the two men who raised the Mackay case in the first instance.

Initiating the complaint to the Edinburgh kirk session was Mr Roy

Middleton, elder of the Barnoldswick congregation in Lancashire.

Originally a group composed of English non-conformists, the

''Barnoldswick Presbyterian Church'' joined the Free Presbyterians at

the 1977 Synod, attracted by their reformed tradition and sound

scriptural logic. Mr Middleton, an intense librarian, cultivated the

friendship of such influential ministers as the Rev. Donald Maclean of


When Mr Middleton came across press reports of the Lord Russell

memorial service, he swiftly spread the news around the Church -- aided

by another Englishman, Gairloch elder Mr Tom Maton. Mr Middleton claimed

that Lord Mackay's attendance at mass had become a ''fama'' or scandal

in the Church.

With the support of Perth minister the Rev. Donald MacDonald -- an

educated Lewis man who was born in the Church of Scotland -- Mr

Middleton petitioned the Edinburgh kirk session in June, 1988. The case

was unanimously thrown out and they were told there was no proof Lord

Mackay had broken his ordination vows. They appealed to the Southern


Enter the Rev. Donald Maclean, perhaps the most powerful man in the

Free Presbyterian Church. As assistant clerk to the synod in the 1960s

and 70s Lord Mackay's legal skill at drafting compromise motions often

frustrated plots by the Church right wing to remove unco-operative


In 1978 his diplomacy prevented the almost-certain suspension of the

Rev. Fraser Tallach who had been quietly campaigning for change on the

Church's ban of ''protest'' at synod. In 1980 two ministers unwise

enough to table a synod protest were suspended and Mr Maclean ignored

Lord Mackay's advice in subsequent procedure. In the ensuing lawsuit the

Rev. John Brentnall and the Rev. Moshe Radcliffe won subtantial damages.

An embittered Mr Brentnall, who had been closely involved with Mr

Maclean for years, published a typescript of all the jibes and

criticisms he had heard the synod clerk utter about fellow Free

Presbyterians. One was: ''Lord Mackay? We can do without him.''

The Southern Presbytery met in Glasgow on November 4. By that time the

story had broken and the Church was besieged by reporters. Mr Maclean

insisted that the court meet in private. He also moved for the

appointment of a temporary clerk because Mr MacDonald of Perth would be

at the Bar.

The Rev. Fraser Tallach had arrived to give Lord Mackay moral support:

in a startling break with presbyterian courtesy, Mr Maclean prevented

his association with the presbytery.

The minutes of the debate show clearly Mr Maclean's control of the

situation but also that he was hard-pressed by hostile moderates. He was

embarrassed by questions about his comments to the press the previous

day, and strongly denied claims by the Rev. George MacAskill of

Dumbarton that he himself had previously sanctioned Church

office-bearers attending Roman Catholic funerals.

Mr Maclean moved the vital motion for Lord Mackay's suspension.

Technically this was illegal. The presbytery was handling a complaint

arising from a petition, not a formal ''libel'' of sin based on

scripture. But the resolution carried. Lord Mackay was suspended by

seven votes to five.

His minister, the Rev. Angus Morrison, promptly appealed to the synod.

Three other ministers dissented. Mr Maclean overruled Mr MacDonald's

plea for an interim suspension: it could not take effect until after the

synod appeal.

Mr Maclean's role since the presbytery meeting is likely to come under

angry examination by moderates today. He has appeared on television in

connection with the case, and written to the press defending the

suspension. As virtual Church spokesman, he has also been accused of

spreading ''misinformation''.

Mr Maclean has repeatedly told the media there are more than 7000 Free

Presbyterians in an effort to minimise a pro-Lord Mackay petition signed

by more than 1000 adherents. But the Free Presbyterian Year Book --

published ironically by Maclean loyalist the Rev. Donald Boyd of Daviot

-- paints a different picture. Detailed attendance records show that

only 2700 adults regularly gather in the Free Presbyterian Church each


In two large congregations -- Glasgow and Stornoway -- the petition

was banned. In several others there was no-one to organise it. Synod

members themselves were ineligible to sign. A detailed breakdown of

those figures suggest that as many as 60% of active Free Presbyterians

may have signed the petition -- in which case the Church is divided from

top to bottom.

The petition was the first sign of reaction from the Lord Mackay camp

-- the Southern Presbytery minority, ministers of the large moderate

Northern Presbytery, and a small group of Inverness businessmen. But it

attracted great hostility from the right wing.

Stornoway minister the Rev. John Macleod has tried to have the

petition organiser, Mr William Fraser, suspended. The Rev. Donald

Maclean has preached against it. Dingwall minister the Rev. Donald B.

Macleod wrote to petitioners in his congregation demanding that they

withdraw their names.

Mr Macleod is the editor of the Free Presbyterian magazine. Moderates

were demanding an explanation today for his conduct in publishing a

series of ill-timed articles on the mass, Church discipline, and liberty

of conscience. It was this one-sided campaign that provoked the pamphlet


In fact the first pamphlet to appear was strongly anti-Lord Mackay --

the expensively-produced Free Presbyterians and the Requiem Mass. This

took the Church by surprise when it arrived anonymously at dozens of

Free Presbyterian households in mid-March. Moderates were furious to see

that further copies were on sale at the Free Presbyterian bookshop in

Glasgow: was this any longer a sub-judice case?

Mr Middleton and Mr MacDonald were joined in the preparation of the

book by the Rev. Donald Boyd, who may well be the man to watch today.

Like them Mr Boyd is not a Free Presbyterian by birth but comes from a

Church of Scotland background in Kelvinside.

A doctor by training, he is widely disliked by many in the church who

nickname him ''Donald MacClone''. It is unlikely to trouble him.

Passionately committed to preserving Free Presbsyterian purity and not a

member of the Southern Presbytery, he will play a key role in the Lord

Mackay debate.

But the Mackay campaign, meanwhile, had already written their first

tract in the pamphlet war. The Rev. John Tallach's A Plea Against

Extremism came out early in May and was something of a disappointment --

short, abstruse, and shoddily-edited. The racy One is Your Master by his

brother, Fraser, published last week, has been well received.

For 20 years the Free Presbyterian Church has been ruled by a small,

right-wing oligarchy. It controls the large congregations, the

magazines, the synod clerkships, the theology training, and the Church's

standing committees. But that oligarchy has been increasingly under


The vacancy of the huge Free Presbyterian congregation in Inverness is

a threat to it: the majority of the membership seek popular moderate the

Rev. Malcolm Macinnes as their minister and have been repeatedly

frustrated. Hard-liners were alarmed when the Edinburgh congregation

called the able and likeable Rev. Angus Morrison in 1986. And the

restoration of the Rev. Angus Cattenach -- suspended in 1979 in chaotic

circumstances by the Outer Isles Presbytery -- at the 1987 synod was a

clear sign that the right was losing its grip.

Many Free Presbyterians believe that the right has seized on Lord

Mackay in a bid to reassert its authority. It has brought down the

tallest poppy. And by unscrupulous manipulation of Church procedure, the

magazines and the media it has brought the Free Presbyterian Church

almost to the verge of disintegration.

Some may protest that hard-line Free Presbyterians are merely standing

where the Church has always stood, that there has always been a witness

against attending mass. That may be so. Perhaps they should speak to the

Rev. Duncan Maclean, former minister of South Harris. Mr MacLean's wife

is a converted Roman Catholic, and when his mother-in-law died, he was

asked if he should attend the requiem mass. He called a senior minister

for advice.

''No problem at all,'' said the Rev. Donald Maclean.

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