An unikely pioneer
The story of Reverend Aaron B Nde, who rose to become a senior member of the Free Presbyterian Church
Black History Month encourages individuals to examine their own consciences but also the history of their wider community. Few of our major companies, organisations and public bodies have done well in promoting diversity at a senior level. Sometimes, those you’d expect to do well, don’t; there hasn’t yet been a Black leader of a major political party, or a Black editor of the Guardian or the Observer. There are odd instances where pioneers in this regard are organisations that the more openly liberal bodies would look down on. In recent history, we might consider the example of Reverend Aaron B. Ndebele but that will involve first going much further back, to examine the beginnings of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
To do this we must try to unravel, at least slightly, the convoluted history of Presbyterian denominations in Scotland. It is not generally a tale of admirable Christian unity. An exception, perhaps, was the Great Disruption of 1843, which saw the original Free Church of Scotland split from the established Church, a move that was based as much on social justice as on doctrinal purity. However, the emergent Free Kirk was not stable and unchanging; by the 1890s, it was inching towards unification with the United Presbyterian Church (UPC). Some ministers and congregations scented a relaxing of doctrinal soundness and so there was a minidisruption in 1893 (exactly 50 years after the Great Disruption), with some congregations leaving to form the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (FPC). The Free Kirk did indeed merge with the UPC in 1900, becoming the United Free Church of Scotland. And here things become horribly complicated; for a remnant of the Free Kirk resisted the merger, retained the name Free Church of Scotland, and continues to this day.
For a time there seemed the possibility that the remnant Free Kirk and the Free Presbyterians might merge and the FPC ruling body – the Synod, rather than a General Assembly
as in other Presbyterian churches – did debate the matter. However, they were suspicious about the soundness of the Free Kirk and agreement was never reached. Nonetheless, by 1907 the FPC had twenty congregations and twelve ministers, although there was a drift of ministers, congregations and elders to the Free Kirk.
People often confuse the Free Kirk and the Free Presbyterian Church even today; the derogatory term ‘Wee Frees’ is used of both. Without going into abstruse theological and ecclesiological detail, the Free Kirk fairly strictly interprets the scriptures but allows some freedom of practice for congregations; the Free Presbyterians interpret matters even more strictly and leave little leeway.
The FPC Synod meets at least once a year, but sometimes more often, while the Church’s congregations are grouped into six presbyteries. Three of these cover the highlands and islands, the Church’s heartland, while the Southern Presbytery includes the lowlands as well as the Church’s congregations in England, the USA and Canada (one church in each country). Another presbytery gathers distant congregations in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, while the Zimbabwean Presbytery covers the Church’s most active area of missionary outreach.The Church has operated there for over 100 years and there are around 40 congregations in Zimbabwe today. In many missionary situations, converts are directed towards local congregations of national Churches, but the Free Presbyterians organised their own. FPC churches furth of Scotland, whether in Australia, Zimbabwe or Singapore, have local congregations and local leaders, but they are Free Presbyterian Churches of Scotland.
Free Presbyterians have been scorned for many reasons, not least the exclusion of women from leadership roles. That criticism may be valid, but the overseas activity of the FPC showed that they were well ahead historically of many secular organisations in one respect; black people were always viewed as equal to whites and leadership was open to local Christians in the Zimbabwean Mission and Presbytery from an early date.
Aaron B. Ndebele was born in 1925 and trained as a teacher. He started attending a local FPC church when teaching at Zenka primary school. In 1962 he became headmaster of a primary school at Ingwenya and when the minister (a Scotsman) was away he would take the services of the local FPC congregation. He enrolled at the University of Salisbury/Harare and began studying for the ministry. He studied in Scotland for a term and was ordained in Zimbabwe in 1966. He served in a number of different congregations and represented the Church on visits to Malawi, Kenya and to Synod meetings in Scotland. In 1988, he was appointed moderator of the synod becoming, in effect, the Church’s earthly leader.
It is possible to overstate the significance of this appointment. The Free Presbyterians are a small denomination and, from most perspectives, a narrow one, yet they had a man of colour as their senior figure long before many supposedly more open organisations. It was still four years before the UK would have its first Black trade union leader, Bill Morris (now Baron Morris) of the TGWU. Perhaps the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland deserves some credit.
However, after his year as moderator, Reverend Ndebele was drawn back into Scottish Presbyterianism’s latest controversy.The best-known figure in the FPC was Baron MacKay of Clashfern, Lord Advocate, Scotland’s senior law officer, who was an elder. When senior members of the judiciary died, it was his understandable practice to attend their funerals.Two of those funerals, in 1986 and 1988, were Roman Catholic services, and hostile voices within the Free Presbyterians claimed MacKay had broken the Free Presbyterian code by showing ‘support for the doctrine of Roman Catholicism’. Lord Mackay denied the charge, saying, ‘I went [to the funeral masses] purely with the purpose of paying my respects to my dead colleagues’. The Southern Presbytery suspended Lord Mackay both from eldership and his membership of the Church.
The case was reconsidered at the synod in 1989.The new moderator of the synod, Reverend Lachlan Macleod of Greenock, was a member of the Southern Presbytery, so to preserve at least the appearance of impartiality, Reverend Ndebele returned to chair the session at which the appeal was heard.
There were, and remain, suspicions that some forces within the Church resented Lord Mackay’s prominence and fame.The synod confirmed the expulsion and yet another Presbyterian split occurred when several congregations and hundreds of members left to form the new Associated Presbyterian Churches (APC). Lord Mackay was (and remains) a respected figure across all political parties and Christian denominations, so the outcome was dreadful PR for the FPC.The Church’s own obituary of Reverend Ndebele remarked that he ‘rose to the occasion admirably, it has to be said, and presided over the Court in a most competent, dignified, firm and impartial manner’. Perhaps not that impartial, however, for the obituary goes on to say that in ‘the issue which occasioned the departure of those men who formed what was to be called the Associated Presbyterian Churches, he was rock-firm on the side of the Church, as were, to a man, all the other African brethren’.
Reverend Ndebele returned to Zimbabwe. His final visit to Scotland was to the 1995 synod in Inverness. A year later, he was struck by a passing bus outside one of the Zimbabwe churches. This was a great blow to a man of his age, but he made sufficient recovery to be able to preach in churches again. He retired in 2000 and passed away in 2004.
Aaron Ndebele will be at most a footnote in Scottish and UK history, given the obscurantism of the organisation he represented. However it is perhaps worth pondering on his achievement, the one thing, perhaps, that much larger Churches, businesses, charities, political parties and public bodies could learn from the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.