John Chalmers: Doctrine getting in way of faith

John Chalmers: 'We need to think about what has left so many people feeling so excluded'. Picture: Alan Rennie
John Chalmers: 'We need to think about what has left so many people feeling so excluded'. Picture: Alan Rennie
Share this article
Have your say

IN ONE of the many wonderful passages of prose in Joan Bakewell’s autobiography, The Centre Of The Bed, she describes being born on Easter Sunday and christened six weeks later on Whit Sunday.

She considers it to have been something of a blessing to have arrived on the most joyous day of the Christian year, and be baptised on its most triumphant.

She recalls how her childhood was rich with memories located in Christian tradition, then she says: 
“I am no longer devout, but I carry the legacy of that sort of faith, simple, full of celebration of something 
good. I still awake happy on Easter Sunday just as I awake sad on Good Friday.”

I have always had a soft spot for Joan Bakewell and meeting her would be one of the things on my “bucket list”. Now, however, having read her autobiography, the desire to meet her has moved even higher up the list. What I’d like to discuss with her is how one moves from such a place of belonging within the Christian faith and its associated community to one where the memory is real, but the practice has been left behind as somehow no longer of any real purpose.

Her story is one that is all too common. It could be summed up by describing it as an intellectual rejection of the doctrines and dogmas while retaining some latent sympathy, if not hunger, for what lies beneath. In another place she describes how her faith simply ebbed away, but that she did and does “love the liturgy, the ritual, the beautiful expression of Christian ideas, without accepting the doctrine”.

How many people are like that? People who have a warm memory of their Sunday School God, whose common values are accrued from their Judeo-Christian tradition, who still love the sacred spaces provided by kirks and cathedrals and who cannot live without the time for quiet reflection that was instilled in them during the Sundays of their youth.

I think there are many people like that and we have allowed them to drift away from our churches, 
because instead of tuning into their real spiritual needs we have prescribed for them a formula to which they must subscribe, and somehow the formula does not speak to their deepest needs.

In the world of “respectful dialogues” that I have called for during my year as moderator I would encourage women and men across the Church to engage in serious conversations with those whose connection to the Church, and with it their connection to the faith, has simply ebbed away. Ask what would reignite their interest in belonging to the community of faith. Do not assert that their belonging depends on their ability to tick certain boxes of belief, but ask what would make it possible for them to break into the circle of your church. Then invite your minister and kirk session to make space for respectful dialogue with the spiritual refugees of several generations.

Don’t insist on belief before belonging – faith comes with belonging. I know that in my own life experience the most assured connection with Christ is in the context of being part of the community which is his body. Where else would you meet an incarnate God if not in the community where God is again and again incarnated.

In our church life, we need to think long and hard about what it is that has left so many people, who still want to belong, feeling so excluded.

In the course of the next year I hope to engage in conversations with a range of people from all walks of life who, for one reason or another, have nothing more than fond memories of the Church or whose memory has turned into opposition or deep disdain.

I believe that the space and the message of the Church, which has provided the moral foundation for so much of our common life, still has relevance and resonance for those who appreciate the need to balance the demands of body, mind and soul. «

• John Chalmers is the moderator of the Church of Scotland. This article will appear in the August issue of Life And Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland. Read more at