Sunday 27th November, 2016
On Thursday last week, I spent some of the day at a roadshow organised by the Church of Scotland’s Mission and Discipleship Council. They are touring the country with this event which, it is claimed, is designed to hear the voice of the local church and give opportunity to determine the priorities of the Church of Scotland and shape its strategy over the coming years.
After a brief act of worship, the event was introduced by the new Convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council, a nice man who is minister in Granton Parish Church in Edinburgh and who was at university around the same time as me. He outlined some of the challenges the Church of Scotland is facing. Over the last 20 years, membership has declined by 30% and the number of ministers by 24%, which somewhat unexpectedly means that there are proportionately more ministers to members than before, but fewer overall. He reminded us that if you are a minister under 50, you are in the youngest 20% of ministers. You can imagine how good that made me feel, but the serious point is that very soon, nearly all the ministers we have the moment will be retiring. All this is very familiar staff, but it does no harm to be reminded every so often. I was interested, though, that we weren’t told how many congregations had been amalgamated and how many buildings disposed of in the last 20 years. My impression is that the number would be quite small, meaning that fewer ministers are serving smaller congregations but spread more thinly through much the same number of buildings.
The Convener then rehearsed a litany of other issues – declining income, greater regulatory burdens, difficulty getting elders, difficulty getting people willing to commit. You could see participants there, elders and ministers alike, nodding in recognition. It was all a bit gloomy. I sat with people I didn’t know who turned out to come from some pretty posh areas of Edinburgh and, in a way, it was comforting to learn that their struggles are very similar to ours.
We were encouraged to talk about things we thought the central church administration could do to help us address the problems we all face. As you might expect, given my predilections, I kept chipping in with suggestions that we try to deepen our relationships with other denominations. I hope my suggestions were received with profound gladness. But, as the day wore on, I became increasingly concerned. Concerned because what was coming from the Mission and Discipleship Council were suggestions that, with a tweak of the rules here, a change of procedures there, then things would be fine.
Let me do a straw poll. Hands up if you would like elders to be able to celebrate Holy Communion.
What is being discussed is that, given the right permission and encouragement, elders will eagerly undertake many functions previously reserved to ministers. If the Mission and Discipleship Council are listening, they will hear that actually the opposite dynamic is happening. Ministers are more and more having to do things that previously elders and other members would have done as a matter of course. I spoke with one who is acting as his own session clerk, for example.
But my concern is not that, in my view, the solutions on offer simply won’t work, but because they are not grounded in an understanding of theology. I believe very firmly that every major thing the church does must have a theological reason behind it. If it’s doesn’t, if it is just a technique borrowed from the world of business, it probably won’t work.
Take the shortage of ministers, for example. Make training easier, shorter – that’s the suggestion. By the way, it is always training now, whereas back in the day when I was at the bottom end rather than the top end of the youngest 20% of ministers, it was education for the ministry. Ministry, it seems, is being reduced to set of tasks, whereas there’s actually a lot more to it than that. But where in this thinking is the theology of vocation. Is God calling dozens of people to be ministers who are refusing to call because the training takes too long? Has the church stopped believing that everything is possible with God, or indeed has it stopped believing in Christ’s promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, and that as long as God wants a church on earth, here it will be.
I came away thinking that what the Church of Scotland is seriously lacking at the moment is not money, or people or ministers, though evidently it has less and fewer of all these than before. What it is lacking is a story, a story it can tell coherently, a story about our life in the world.
Which is mindbending. Because all we really have is a story, a story from which everything else flows, a story which gives everything we do meaning. We may not be much good at being a big institution any more, but we still have our story, and we ought to be confident in telling it.
And today, as we enter the season of Advent once again, we begin again our annual telling of the story. The part we read from Matthews Gospel can seem fearful, gloomy even. In a way, it is just a scene setter, a reminder of the ordinary things of life. It is into ordinary life that God comes. It is among ordinary life that the church serves. Don’t dwell on the image of one been taken of the other left. We are the ones were taken, not away, but into Christ’s service.
It is an image which has been used to scare people, to change their behaviour, but that was not the way Christ worked. He reached out in love. He invited people in. He came with a message of peace and hope. As Isaiah says, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,” and as the Psalmist says, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” This is an invitation to be received in joy and gladness, a promise which gives us hope. No longer are we to be gloomy. No longer are we to be afraid, because the promise is that God will reign in perfect justice; no longer will people go to war; division will be replaced by unity; tranquillity will displace strife; and prosperity will take the place of want.
This is the beginning of the story we tell, as Christians, as the Church of Christ. It is the story which unfolds with the birth of Jesus, through his life to his death, resurrection and ascension, to his giving of the Holy Spirit. This is the story we believe, the story we say defines who we are. It is time to cast off gloom, to trust in God and live the story we believe.