We were facing “the most significant crisis in generations”. One friend referred to the annual meeting as potentially “the most divisive since the Disruption of 1843”, another said that “on the 31st of December, the Church of Scotland no longer exists”. That’s that date the plan to cut Presbyteries from 46 to 11 is finalised.
There may have been no mass exodus, but there was a palpable sense of anxiety, regret and fear. That apocalyptic phrase, said to all the Commissioners and thence to the Kirk at large, might have been more stinging except for the fact that variations of it have been pronounced for as long as I have been a member of the church.
In some ways, it is true. The numbers do not lie. Since the Queen came to the throne, church membership has declined from 1,320,00 to just over 300,000. Moreover, membership is not the same as attendance. You may wish to stay “on the books” for the hatches, matches and despatches; but actually turning up on a Sunday is a different matter entirely. I know this from personal experience. Leading worship in rural churches, I have not yet hit the “less than ten”, but the day, I fear, is fast approaching.
The Kirk has two mottos. “Semper reformanda” – “reformed and always reforming” – and “nec tamen consumebatur” – “yet it still burns” and the latter might be more applicable than the former. The number of ministers will be reduced, and many churches will be closed. To speak personally, where I live instead of 11 full time ministers a decade ago there will be 5.5, and I confess I have never understood what a half minister does (put their feet up half way through the week?).
We are instructed to “dispose of redundant buildings”, but the definition of this is rather unclear. Churches are not all cathedral-like, and it is true that many of the places of worship do not conform to the Kirk’s ghastly slogan of having “well-equipped spaces in the right places” (a phrase worthy of Dominic Cummings at his best). I know this for a fact, having once been told that I should go to the smallest room in the previous church, as the next building had no loo. But these “places” have a connection to the local community. The small country churches often have baptisms, marriages and funerals which keep them viable. It may be a nice idea to have “new ways of doing church”, but I cannot imagine anyone wanting their grieving or joyous relatives finding sanctuary in the local hall, swimming pool or supermarket. This is not an argument derived from nostalgia. As Christians, we should make our faith known in halls, and leisure centres, and in the shops.
The General Assembly might have lacked drama, but it did have import. There was a clear sense of where the faultlines really are, and they go deep. On one hand, the Church’s recently appointed Chief Officer, David Kendall, said his instinct on taking the position was the Church should “run everything from one high-level plan”. This did give one of the few moments of utter comedy in the General Assembly when he went on to say “to put it simply” – and the live-stream promptly cut out.
Churches will close, Presbyteries merge (where I am it will stretch a good hundred miles), and all this is in the name of a “more streamlined, leaner and fitter church”. It’s as if it was a business. It is not for nothing that a late minister I know always referred to 121 George Street as “the Kremlin”, and another as “the Whitened Sepulchre”. On the other hand, there were those who spoke out against this drive to centralisation, speaking about “our God being a God of the details” and that “the centre should only do what the local cannot”. That seems to me to be the essence of why I am a Presbyterian. Presbyterianism means that the most amount of power and responsibility is devolved to the largest number of people. I do not think that John Knox foresaw a day when bureaucrats and bean-counters fretted over whether or not a church was viable.
It might well be that struggle is the best thing for the Church now. That it is in a parlous state is indisputable. It certainly did not help that ministers stood up to give sob-stories about their heating bills – I think they might find their congregations have the same problem – and to vote for (weasel-word) support seemed very much like the shepherd fleecing the flock.
Yes, there will be sadness and such self-interest does not help; but as another friend in the church said to me, “just because someone dies doesn’t mean their life was meaningless”.
Churches will become ruins, because they can only be sold to someone who wants to buy. As the Chinese proverb has it, the victorious general said to his defeated rival, “It costs me nothing to let you live, and I gain nothing by killing you”. We will use the word “dwindle” ever more. That, however, is not a reason for giving up. It should rather be a clarion call to action. I have spent many an hour thinking on the lines of William Blake: “Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold, / But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm”.
The Kirk has had many projects – Church Without Walls, Messy Church, Radical Action Plan, Going for Growth, Mission Pioneers, Tomorrow’s Calling, ACORN (Ask, Call, Obey, Report, Notice) – which sounds like something Chairman Mao might have come up with: none have worked. The motto of this year’s Assembly was “See, I make all things new”. Being new is not always better. Let’s face it, the rectangular wheel never quite worked.