Presbyterianism: a multiplicity of committees

I like a good meeting. In fact, I don’t even mind a bad meeting. To me, it always feels like something has been achieved when a topic has had a good airing. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether any action follows, so long as a good chat was had by all. This is not satire it’s the confession of a woolly Presbyterian. Yet I am, a little, apprehensive about the potential to multiply meetings found in the proposed CofS Mega-Presbyteries.

Our Presbytery has already been divided into networks (aka hubs or clusters). These have been adopted with varying levels of enthusiasm. Now it seems that, as predicted, these will be joined by, not only a new gargantuan Presbytery but also, more accessible local groupings. I’m not alone in having noticed that Mega-Presbyteries sound a lot like the return of Synods, supplemented by local groupings that sound a lot like Presbyteries. This is not a criticism, it was inevitable that a bloc from Stirling to Angus would still require smaller regional meetings.

Recently, while browsing the ‘Effectiveness of the Presbyterian Form of Government’ report, I noticed the suggestion that Mega-Presbyteries may require a group of Presbytery Trustees to provide oversight. Will this replace or supplement the Business Committee? There was also the suggestion of Presbytery bodies mirroring national bodies, which I assume means some form of regional duplication of the national structures. And there appears to be the suggestion that the Mega Presbyteries may also need governance that allows them to interact at an international level? Is it envisaged that the central belt Presbyteries will eventually make a bid to rejoin the EU?

Then at a recent Presbytery meeting it was suggested that it might be necessary to form a national forum for Presbytery executive bodies. Perhaps this committee will also liaise with the central structures? Or will we also need additional bodies to allow, for example, the Presbytery Faith Nurture Forum to communicate with the National Faith Nurture Forum etc? And we haven’t even begun to imagine the additional fora and committees that Mega-Presbyteries may precipitate within 121 George Street or the myriad committees within those Mega-Presbyteries.

Admittedly, I am probably unaware of the various meetings and bodies that already exist to oil the wheels of the Kirk governance machine. But it strikes me that the rationalisation and efficiency gains expected through the Mega-Presbyteries may have already been squandered. I suspect it’s typical of ageing administrations, but we appear to be multiplying bureaucratic levels to administer ever diminishing resources and people.

I understand that at its best Presbyterianism aims to maximise participation and disperse authority. This can help to avoid fiefdoms and authoritarianism. But at its worst, Presbyterianism institutionalises the failing to which I admitted above. We multiply meetings, initiate commissions, form forums and create committees and feel that we have achieved something. But these structures are supposed to support an end beyond themselves. They are supposed to free the church to worship, witness, serve and glorify God.

As we make plans for the future shape of the Kirk, how will we ensure that the administration gives life to worship, mission and Kingdom growth? Otherwise, along with a sizeable property portfolio, we will be left with a convoluted bureaucracy having no purpose beyond self-perpetuation.

Choose your crisis

Is it too early to gauge whether Cop26 has been a success? I’ve been persuaded to abandon cynicism by a more optimistic friend who suggested that the fringe activities may have helped encourage and inspire people to care for our world. However, I’m unqualified to comment on whether, or not, the interactions of world leaders will prove effective.

Climate Change has certainly been front and centre for the last few weeks. And amongst the throng of campaigners, activists and protesters, have been churches and Christian organisations. Again, I’m persuaded, for a number of reasons, that this is positive. Perhaps it verges on ‘climate heresy’ to suggest a need for persuasion. But the church should always be wary of uncritically adopting perspectives based on popularity.

For example, while it’s vital that Christians engage with the issue of environmental degradation and climate change, we should not indulge into the wailing of the apocalyptic cult that surrounds it. Care for God’s world and its inhabitants is worship. Engaging with the concerns of our neighbours is an act of love and mission. But we must not live as those without hope.

Despite my thoughts on ‘bannergate‘, there are more pressing crises facing the world. This is where my sympathy emerges for those mildly exasperated by the present emphasis of many churches. Long before Cop26 there existed a trend for churches to express greater concern for the fashionable issue of the day, than for the core message of Jesus. It’s not that these concerns cannot coexist, but arguably some Christians appear more eloquent and confident in sharing the need for climate justice than in sharing Jesus Christ.

There is a great need to care for our environment, but the Gospel teaches that there is an even greater existential crisis at the centre of each of our lives. We are all going to die! And, in geological terms, very soon! If we have been marching, tweeting, posting or blogging about saving the earth, do we exhibit half that passion for the salvation of the lost? It’s not either or, but when I look at my own denomination, climate and other justices are often much more prominent than concern for the ultimate justice of God.

And for me, here’s the clincher. Of those who have read this far, how many are rolling their eyes and thinking that this view is terribly passé and unreconstructed. Because in reality many of us have grown a little ashamed of a simple Gospel. We are uncomfortable with its lack of sophistication and the hint of literalism about sin, death, heaven, hell and salvation.

The World’s most urgent need is…not Climate Change!

Twitter is mainly enraged at what appears to be a banner outside of a church building in Glasgow. It reads:

The World’s most urgent need is churches preaching Christ crucified not climate change

To be fair, some opponents have agreed with the exact statement, if not the sentiment. The world really does not need climate change!

If the banner is meant to enrage the masses, it’s a spectacular piece of trolling which is having the desired effect. But if you’re enraged by this message, don’t be, it’s probably not for you! I doubt that the church in question believe that President Biden is going to pass in his motorcade and ask the driver to pull over while he contemplates the possibility that his policies are flawed.

Instead, the banner is probably a comment on the poor state of the UK church. But again, I doubt they expect it to encourage errant christians and churches to return to a more conservative fold.

Most likely this communication is a form of virtue signalling, admittedly a charge more often made against liberals. The banner sends a clear message, to supporters, that they are standing fast in the face of the misguided woke church and climate alarmists.

And part of me gets it. I have been concerned about the environment for many years. But I am getting a little sick of churches trying to be ‘relevant’. It’s hard to get through a month without being told you need to dedicate the following Sunday to an issue, charity or campaign. And environmentalism constitutes the motherload for activist Christians.

For Christians, preaching Christ crucified is vital. So, instead of trying to argue the importance of mitigating climate change, I want to take the banner at face value.

The reason I wanted to respond is because the banner deals with preaching, one of the main topics of this blog. Sharing the Good News about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a core activity for the Church. Many associated churches will take this statement as affirmation that they are on the right track. We preach Christ crucified at every service. But the question is, who is listening?

Many of us speak mainly to Christians each week. Sunday services are no longer the ‘shop window’ for sharing the Gospel, they are mainly the opportunity for teaching Christians God’s word. Care for God’s world is a Biblical imperative. In fact as Graeme McMeekin recently reminded us, God so loved the world* that he gave his only Son. God’s love for his world is central to the Good News! That’s why all creation is waiting in anticipation of Christ’s return; the world seeks redemption. Therefore, to meaningfully preach Christ crucified to disciples requires us to speak about climate change. And I’m sure the church in question do just that.

But if it’s true that most of us predominantly speak to Christians in our services. How well are we communicating with those who are not part of our churches? How are we engaging outside of our eco chamber (excuse the pun)? And what impact might our external communication have on those outside the Church? This is where the banner becomes interesting. As internal dialogue it is effective.

But will it really encourage unbelievers to take the Gospel seriously? It’s possible some will understand the banner to be promoting the importance of Christ over everything else. But how many will read it as confirmation that Christians don’t care about the planet? How many will see it as underlining that Christians don’t care about matters close to their heart.

The intention of the banner may not be trolling or virtue signalling. Perhaps they are simply trying to remind people of the greatness of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. That may be the intent, but the particular delivery may actually dissuade people from listening the very message the banner seeks to promote.

* I’m indebted to a colleague for the caution that John is talking about ‘humanity’ when he writes ‘world’. It’s probably wishful thinking on my part that the use of cosmos instead of anthropoi might hint at something bigger than just human beings. If I have engaged in eisegesis on this point, I trust it doesn’t detract from all the other biblical evidence for God’s love for all creation.


You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

Matthew 5.1 ESV

The Church of Scotland seems to be in disarray. There is panic at the rate with which we are shedding members and haemorrhaging cash. In response, we are seriously restructuring; nationally consolidating into mega presbyteries and locally culling posts and buildings. And as with many traditional denominations we seek hope in new forms of church and ministry.

During the Q&A at a recent book launch, it was remarked that we must beware relying upon our own innovation instead of the Holy Spirit. That’s an important comment; not simply as a biblical precept but also because it may be a prophetic statement to the Kirk today. Restructuring or new ministries may be answers to the wrong questions. Because the main issue appears to be, we have forgotten that God is living. We are not dealing with a machine. We are not dealing with a maths formula. It’s not just a matter of tweaking the equation or checking that we are inputing the right data.

Scripture testifies that God is a living being with whom we are in relationship. Rebranding, restructuring, refreshing and reforming will make no ultimate difference unless we prioritise our relationship with him. Perhaps another better question we must answer today is are we in good relationship with God? Because if our restructuring is an act of faithful obedience then it may be blessed. But if it’s simply about saving the Kirk, why do we presume that God will bless it?

In our planning for the future of the church there is very little discussion about our obedience and faithfulness to God. Perhaps like prayer at the General Assembly, it is simply assumed? It is also seldom considered as an explanation for the problems we face as a denomination. Why do we ask how to fix our decline without starting with consideration of the quality of our obedience to Scripture? The Scriptures are full of prophetic warning to God’s straying people, calling them to lament, repent and reconcile with Him. Do we imagine that Jesus’ atonement relinquishes the requirement for his people to be faithful?

So, before we invest too heavily in restructuring might we consider the personal and corporate call for the church, in response to God’s grace, to be faithful, holy, just, generous, humble and pure. In other words, as the Scottish nation in general, we should first consider our salt content.

The monastic shift

Over the years, I’ve followed with interest, and occasionally dabbled in, the popular shift towards new monasticism.

In this movement, I’ve found much to commend and imitate and some things that are best left alone. Some of the practices related to new monasticism have become increasingly mainstream, for example, Lectio Divina or the Examen. While Centring Prayer has intrigued and concerned me in equal measure.

I am challenged by those who have adopted a rule and by those who have embraced movements like 24/7 Prayer. But at the same time, the disconnect between some new monastic ideas and biblical Christianity is worrying.

Mike Cosper, the narrator of the deeply significant ‘Rise and Fall of Mars Hill’ recently commented that monastic practices provide a “provocative contrast to the hype, entertainment and expressions of power that drive much of evangelical life.” Along with the growing interest in spirituality, this critique of church life is surely a major cause of Christianity’s rekindled interest in monasticism.

Now, I’m not sure I want to join the new monastics but I do want to help reform the church to value every day along with Sundays. And I seek communal life, work, worship, learning, creativity, hospitality and service that encompass the whole week. And I want to learn to embrace Christlike patterns of prayer, retreat, rest and reflection equally matched by a passion for mission, discipleship and action (social or otherwise).

This thinking has combined with another concern: under used church buildings. Surely, predominately empty church buildings risk becoming a sinful indulgence.

So, like many churches, we have worked hard to populate our buildings with groups and activities that share some of our goals. This has culminated in plans to open a cafe at the centre of our building and communal life.

Initially, we spoke in terms of being a community centre. And to an extent we fulfil that function. But more recently, it has become clear that, without accepting the language or label, our vision sounds a lot like a monastery.

This conception of our building and grounds, acknowledges their central role in mission and Kingdom growth. That’s not to imply an attempt to shove our faith down people’s throats. But it indicates that the wider context for using our building is the rolling of heaven and earth into one.

So, two weeks ago we began daily morning prayer. This is the first step towards establishing rhythms and patterns of Christian faith that weave through the life of our community and facilities.

Clouds descending

I accidentally euthanaised my computer.

It’s a long and possibly amusing story which, along with a horrendous story about running out of loo roll in a church office, makes me glad that I will never warrant a biography.

To be clear I am not writing this as a precursor to fundraising.

But what has struck me is the nagging emptiness and the occasional experience of a phantom limb as I gaze at the space where my laptop once sat.

It’s not grief, so much as withdrawal. I have lost the ability to function on full power without my anodised box of delights. I have lost omniscience and omnipotence. Or at least, speedy access to these, because I am now limited to typing with my thumbs.

Once at university we were posed an essay question equating IT with the Tower of Babel. And to a degree this barrier to global communication might well be divine judgement upon self reliance and delusions of digital grandeur.

But in reality, the whole experience has become a welcome, if externally imposed, fast. It has opened my eyes to the utter idolatry and ritualised worship of our icon clad devices. The bell rings or the tone chimes and we prostrate ourselves before them for another scrap of enticement or encouragement from the cloud of all knowing.


Discipleship is central to the New Testament’s understanding of belief in Jesus of Nazareth. NT belief was not passive; Jesus called people to follow him and learn from him.

But what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus today? How is following and learning from Jesus now manifested?

Following Jesus still means learning from him but rather than literally sitting at his feet, we have the record of his life and teaching in Scripture. Indeed for Christians, the whole Scriptures of Old and New Testament are best understood and valued through their relationship to Jesus Christ. And while we do not have Jesus physically with us, we have his promised Holy Spirit to guide and shape our hearts and minds.

Through the Scriptures we are instructed in the way of Jesus but, most importantly, we also learn what he has done for us and why that is significant. Disciples imitate and serve their teacher, but firstly Jesus’ disciples benefit directly from his act of self-sacrifice and atonement and the gift of his Spirit.

The original disciples were more than lone learners, they were members of a community of followers. The church remains the community of Jesus’ disciples, receiving his grace, following his manifesto and worshipping him as the only Son of the Father. This communal dynamic to Christian life is a powerful antidote to the present consumerism and individualism that infect both the church and wider society.

Ultimately, our understanding of the Bible and Jesus shapes our understanding of discipleship. Disciples of Jesus the political radical will follow suit, challenging the powers and structures of society. Disciples of the cosmic mystical Christ will join him in contemplation. Disciples of Jesus the itinerant preacher will likely have a pulpit focussed ministry. Consequently, it’s vital that we have a balanced view of Jesus, encompassing all of his priorities and characteristics. This is primarily because we do not give him his full glory if we recognise only those gospel qualities that most resonate with us. But also, our discipleship is affected by a skewed view of the teacher we follow.

Similarly, how we view church will also shape our expectations of discipleship and I would like to suggest this is an aspect of Christianity which is seriously off course.

Our current view and experience of the church is often so anaemic that our perspective on discipleship is sadly lacklustre. Church is supposed to be a mode of existence; it’s the community of God’s people, the embodiment of his presence and the anticipation of his Kingdom. But by reducing church to the weekly praise gathering and sermon, we have lost the context for most of Christian life.

The church gathering is supposed to be an important expression of the life of the church, who gather for strengthening and fellowship and then flow out into the world to engage in witness, mission, service, proclamation and ministry. Instead the Sunday service is for many the entirety of their Christian life, squeezed into an hour on a Sunday morning. In this context, discipleship is essentially limited to making church services happen.

So, here we come to some questions.

How do we remove this reductionist view of church? How to we rediscover a Christian community which embodies and expresses the fullness of the Christian life, everywhere on every occasion? How might a new vision of the Christian community empower and reform our view of discipleship, so that it is not limited to coffee rotas and leading the praise band, as important as those tasks are to our gatherings? What other changes are needed to revive discipleship and restore it to the simple yet glorious way of Jesus?

The parish & management culture

Having ventured onto dangerous ground by commenting on the status of the parish within the CofE, I am pleased to be able to share a blog post from someone who actually knows what he is talking about.

This blog from Ian Paul identifies the real culprit, behind current clashes over parish vs plant, as the growing management culture in the CofE. He considers this to be a potentially uniting issue for traditional parish churches and new plants.

I wonder whether this comment is relevant for the Kirk too?

Are we also subject to a creeping management culture?

Love & the Parish

Full disclosure, I have spent some time on the fringes of the New Parish movement which was referenced in the aforementioned presentation by Alison Milbank. Also, I once wrote a fairly poor dissertation on the future of the parish. And for what it’s worth, I am currently a parish minister.

Having got that out of the way, and having perused some of the discussion surrounding the ‘Save the Parish’ movement. Is it possible that a key dynamic is being missed?

Where is the love?

Much of the discussion surrounding ‘Save the Parish’ (StP) is about cultural preference and the identity of the CofE? For example, the parish system is what makes the Church of England, the Church of England; who would we be otherwise? The StP website remarks that “this is your church” and “you have a say.”

Is this where the discussion should start about the nature of church? Should we not start with love for God? What does he require of the church? What type of church would honour him best? What structure would fulfil his divine commands?

And should we not, secondly, look to shape the church around love for others? What sort of church would welcome outsiders? What sort of church would best share the Gospel and make disciples of ‘the way’?

Too much of the discussion around church structures demands a church that meets ‘my preferences’ or bases the structure of the church around pragmatic decisions about money and resource.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether a church is an old fashioned parish church with all that entails, or a funky new plant in a pub’s upper room. Without love, first for God and second for the other, neither approach is appropriate. The structure of the church is cruciform; we crucify our personal preferences for the love of God and neighbour.

The Empire Strikes Back?

Unsplash – Dan Senior

A movement has emerged within the Church of England, although it appears it may be diametrically opposed to the emerging church. ‘Save the Parish’ ( wants a “concerted campaign to save the parish system, as the Church of England has inherited it.” And it appears to be gaining some traction, including the twittersphere.

The patchy website indicates that the movement is still developing goals but notes that, “‘a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of the church’… sounds like an ambition worth having.” Thinking Anglicans also link to a presentation from the esteemed Alison Milbank argueing for the preservation of the traditional parish system.

I’m not an Anglican so the finer points may be lost on me, but it appears that the ‘Save the Parish’ movement is ultimately a protest against the perceived, deliberate, demolition of traditional Anglicanism to make way for new church plants detached from the parish system.

The Church of Scotland has taken a broadly similar, if diluted, approach to that depicted of the Anglican hierarchy. We too have chosen to reduce our traditional structures and buildings. We too have set our sights on the reduction of stipendiary ministries. The question is, will we also experience a protest movement?