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Learning from Lord Mackay by J. Cameron Fraser

Gregory E. Reynolds

Learning from Lord Mackay: Life and Work in Two Kingdoms, by J. Cameron Fraser. Lethbridge Alberta, Canada: SoS-Books, 2017, 128 pages, $12.00, paper.

This is an unusual book written by a Westminster Theological Seminary fellow student and friend, Cameron Fraser. Until I read this book I had never heard of Lord Mackay, considered “one of the most brilliant Scottish scholars of all time” (38). I am very pleased to have made his acquaintance. Fraser was once the editor of The Presbyterian Guardian. In his subsequent career he has ministered in Canada, although he was raised in Scotland where he knew the subject of this book, Lord James Peter Hymers Mackay. The book explores the sterling character of Lord Mackay and how he navigated the two kingdoms of his British context.

The subtitle of the book, “Life and Work in Two Kingdoms,” is of special interest to Orthodox Presbyterians, as Fraser notes in his preface (7). So, after a foreword by Sinclair Ferguson, Fraser looks at the origins of the “two kingdom doctrine.” He begins with Andrew Melville’s (1545–1622) famous humiliation of King James VI, when he reminded the king that he was merely a member of the Church of Scotland (11). Fraser traces the development of the two kingdom doctrine through Luther, Knox, and Calvin, concluding with the enshrinement of many of their ideas in various Reformed confessions (12–17).

Fraser contrasts the British version of the Westminster Confession with the American revision, which took place prior to the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America (18). “The establishment of national churches, opposed by the Constitution of the United States and the American revision to the Westminster Confession of Faith, was the norm” (20). While the structures of establishment exist in England, “pluralism and secular values … hold sway. How is a Christian in the tradition of the Westminster Confession to conduct himself in such a context?” (20). Enter the story of Lord Mackay, one time Lord Chancellor of the British government, who outranks even the Prime Minister.

Born in 1927 in Edinburgh, Mackay was raised in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, in which his father was an elder (25). After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, he went on to practice law in Scotland. He became Queen’s Counsel and leader of the Scottish bar (the Faculty of Advocates, 27–28). In 1979 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appointed him Lord Advocate of Scotland, “the chief legal officer of the government and crown in Scotland” (30–31). As part of his responsibilities in this position he represented the UK in the European Court of Justice. In 1985, he was appointed Lord of Appeal in Ordinary of the House of Lords (32). His integrity and brilliance had brought him to a high place. This ascent culminated in Mackay’s appointment in 1987, by Mrs. Thatcher, as Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain (34–35). His view of his role in this new position is seen in his first press conference: “ ‘If you are humane and compassionate at heart, and judges should be,’ he said, “it is an awesome responsibility to send [individuals] to prison knowing the conditions they will face when they arrive at the prison gate’ ” (37).

Mackay strongly favors the continued Union of Britain and Scotland (united since1707) (41–42). He also opposed Brexit. On St. Andrews Day in 1996, he played a vital role in returning the Stone of Scone, on which ancient Scottish kings were crowned, to Scotland (40). He ended up leaving his beloved Free Presbyterian Church after being censured for attending the funeral mass of a dear friend and colleague (51). Cameron and his wife, Margaret, have enjoyed a long-term friendship with Lord Mackay. Despite criticisms for his unwavering stand on the Bible and the Christian faith, Mackay maintained a humble attitude.

The third chapter explores lessons to be learned from Lord Mackay. The first lesson is the effect that his consistent Christian character had on his legal associations. He treated everyone with respect, not the norm for lawyers when it came to reporters (59). “Lord Mackay has become known in the legal profession, in political circles and the media as well as in the church, for his unassuming humility, personal loyalty, and gracious character” (58). This character was cultivated by faithful Lord’s Day observance (61).

In the public sphere Mackay became known for his advocacy in child and family welfare. In favoring no-fault divorce law he parted company with many Christians and conservatives. But he did so, not in order to make divorce easier, but in order to prevent the poisoning of the negotiations in a divorce. He believed that the acrimony created by the necessity of finding fault was damaging to the children and the couple (67, 105). His ideal, as stated in his speech in Parliament (Appendix 1, 1995), was marriage between a male and a female for lifetime (106). In dealing with law he always sought the most humane solution through principled compromise (73–74).

Chapter 3 concludes with Mackay’s views on church establishment (cf. Appendix 2, a 2013 lecture). Fraser suggests that Mackay’s views “are closer to the revised version adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States” (80). Mackay believed that it was the duty of the state to “protect the free practice of all faiths in this country” (80). However, he did not oppose church establishment entirely, as he said in his 2013 lecture:

Since both church and state receive their mandate from the God who is revealed in Christ, the provision of Establishment may be seen as providing valuable, God-given opportunities in furthering the church’s vital task of bearing witness to the supreme kingship of Jesus before the principalities and powers of this present age. (124)

The fourth and final chapter locates Mackay’s position on the two kingdoms in the contemporary context. Fraser quotes extensively and with approval from Tim Keller’s Center Church,[1] which provides a helpful summary of the weaknesses of both the transformationalist and the two kingdom positions (84–89). One of Keller’s criticisms of the two kingdom position raises a good point that has always intrigued me. “Much of the social good that Two Kingdom people attribute to natural revelation is really the fruit of the introduction of Christian teaching—special revelation if you will—into world culture” (86). The problem is that I doubt that many two kingdom advocates would disagree with the reality of this influence. I certainly don’t. David VanDrunen weighs in on the charge of Docetism by simply saying that he doesn’t advocate everything articulated by those who claim to hold a two kingdom view (89–90). Fraser then mentions another two kingdoms advocate, Darryl Hart, by quoting a “sympathetic reviewer” to the effect that Hart holds to “two airtight spheres” (90). I wish Fraser had given Hart a chance to respond.

According to Fraser, Mackay

does not self-consciously operate on the basis of either model. But his concern for personal godliness coupled with his realistic view of what can be accomplished in a fallen political system seem to me to place him closer to the two kingdoms model. (93–94)

Fraser goes on to assert his own opinion: “All too often Christian involvement in politics seems to involve baptizing the political agenda of either the right or the left, whereas neither has a monopoly on biblical priorities” (94). While I agree with Fraser in principle, there may be a less polarized party system in the UK and Canada than in America presently.

I wish Fraser had commented on Mackay’s thoughts on Islam and Islamic terrorism in the context of participation in democratic societies.

The discussion of the relationship between church and state will no doubt continue until the end of time. This little book makes a nice contribution to the conversation. More importantly it provides an inspiring example of a serious Christian serving in church and state.

Endnote

[1] Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, December 2017.

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