I’ve heard suggestions that the Kirk will survive our current predicament because we’ve been through previous tough times.
It’s true that the Lord always remains faithful but all situations are not equal. In our current situation, suggesting that past success indicates a similarly positive outcome resembles encouraging someone in palliative care that they’ve always made it home from prior hospital visits.
The Church of King Jesus will never die. And faithful witnessing communities of Christians will always be present in Scotland. But that does not mean that the Kirk is going to survive the ecclesiastical Hunger Games that is presbytery planning (a colleague suggested the handful of CofS millennials may wish to think ‘Church Squid Games’).
Things are not going to be ok. They are going to continue being difficult and very uncomfortable. And again, we need to carefully consider the fallout and collateral damage.
In recent weeks a number of colleagues have demited, moved to pastoral work outside of the Kirk or have simply left. Some had years of ministry left before retirement. Others may simply have retired a little early or just wanted a change. But we should take heed, we are making a huge assumption that after Presbytery and Parish restructuring and after the forthcoming retirement exodus, there will be sufficient remaining ministers to serve our structures. And we should note that we are banking on unquestioning commitment from those who must be committed first to their King and his Kingdom over their denomination. Some may need to place family, sanity and calling before the latter.
There is much talk of non-stipendiary ministers and the empowering of the ‘laity’ but often denominations based on this model end up having to employ paid pastors. Similarly, asking for widespread ministry for free is unlikely to meet present ministry expectations or requirements. For example, how many special commissions and years of training will be required before bread and wine are more easily dispensed? Or perhaps a video epiclesis will be provided to each ‘lay’ led outpost?
To return to the point, of those current ministers that remain, how many will be in a position to cooperate? The problem of empowering Presbyteries to make the hard decisions locally, is that it may leave, widespread, damaged local relationships. Will anyone work happily with the colleagues that removed your ministry allocation or shut your beloved building.
There is no doubt that change is necessary in Kirk structures. But the impact of the specific change and its delivery in different parts of Scotland is going to be significant. And it’s likely to require either immense good will and commitment, or the imposition of further structural changes to achieve.
Similarly, we need to consider how well we are managing change. What are we putting in place to support churches and leaders in their proposed new responsibilities? Do we imagine that most will easily make the leap to overseeing multiple communities? And do we imagine that combining multiple declining congregations under over-stretched ministers and elders will conjure growth? Perhaps that will be covered when Hogwarts joins the list of training institutions! Liam J Fraser rightly recently highlighted the potential benefits of our present state of decline. But the benefits are not automatic; they will not be realised without intelligent planning and intentionality. Throw in the likely disarray of the coinciding formation of Mega-Presbyteries and it will certainly take the Lord’s voice to speak creative order into the impending chaos.
There is a bright future for Jesus’ Church in Scotland. And that may include the Church of Scotland. But we must avoid institutional somnambulation and comforting platitudes. It’s not simply going to be ok. It’s going to be difficult and painful. And it’s going to require great grace, commitment, vision, kindness and mutual support.