Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Church of Scotland - what of the future?

I was listening to an article on the radio which went into a history of hijacking of aeroplanes by terrorists. Apparently there was one in the 1930's but the modern era of hijackings didn't start until 1970, when Palestinian terrorists attempted a co-ordinated attempt to hijack a number of El Al planes. I remember travelling first on a plane in September of 1969, over to Germany, Edinburgh to Dusseldorf, and I can still connect with the immense thrill of that first journey. We were allowed to smoke on board, and stewardesses distributed food and drink freely! There was no such thing as security. Gosh, how innocent (comparatively speaking), the world was then. Even after the era of hijackings began, things were still fairly laid back in 73, when I remember flying from Venice to London. I hadn't realised it had started with an El Al plane when I was scrutinised by Israeli security on my first visit to Israel. I had been well warned to play it very straight and serious with them though.  And of course, in those early days, turning up for a flight needed no allowance made for a 30-40 minute journey through security.
I wonder sometimes, when I think of the late 60's and early 70s if that would have been a good time to make the clock of time stick, given the relative innocence of it all then or is this just me wishing for my vanished youth? I think in many ways we have all got much more real since then. Nowadays we allow much higher levels of reality in drama, music, newspapers, and novels. Along with this comes ever increasing transparency and encouragment to whistle blow. The response to the Jimmy Saville revelations and more recent scandals surrounding the sexual abuse of young people are one aspect of modern life's openness that we should all be grateful for. This transition to a more open, more real kind of society, makes me think what has changed in church life. In the 1950's, 60's and early 70's we saw fairly good attendance in our churches. This however began to decline in the 70's and has continued as a trend ever since. People speak of a decline in Christianity. I'm not sure about this. I feel there has been a decline in paying lip service to the Christian Faith, but I doubt very much if there really has been a decline in active belief or faith. People are far less likely now to go to church unless they have firm levels of faith, or are sincerely searching, and equally are less likely to be put off by boring services or preaching. They are there for substance, not for entertainment. This is reflected in the levels of giving too. Now overall, church finances are less than healthy, but, the decline in giving has not mirrored the drastic decline in membership and attendance. This means that the smaller numbers who come must be giving in proportionately more sacrificial or "real" ways. I used to think that the decline in numbers had not affected the evangelical church, but apparently, even in this quarter there are signs of decline.
When we ask ourselves "What is to be done about this?" I think we ask the wrong question if we are looking to reverse the trend and get people back in through the doors on a Sunday. A better question to ask is, "What is happening in within the Christian Community outside of Sundays?" In many places the local church or churches are hosting a good number of midweek non-church community orientated activities, some weekly others regular but less frequent. These activities are seeing a relatively good response from the wider unchurched community. Some people are led to a deepening of faith through them, others are happy just to enjoy them. Moreover, there has been a subtle change in ways in which church goers get together to maintain fellowship. Home groups are on the increase, as are task orientated groups, some of which offer worship and faith teaching or learning opportunities too.
The problem is that many of these activities may not generate enough cash to keep a professional ministry and its administrative support in work. So are we going to see a radical overhaul of the way we do church? Not in my lifetime, but by the end of the century, yes. There will be far fewer ministers serving yet more widespread and diverse constituencies, working in team situations with colleagues some of whom are part-time paid, some of whom support themselves through other work and share in the ministry as volunteers. Some of them will have no formal qualifications or training, others will, to varying degrees. Many of our buildings which cost a disproportionate amount to run and maintain, will have been closed and sold. Will we still, in the Church of Scotland be claiming a territorial parish ministry, dispensing the sacraments and service of a Parish Minister to every person in the land? I think we might. But in a very different guise, to a population  the majority of which will by then  not be that bothered about what we might be offering to every person anyway. Many more people will be asking for humanist or civil celebrants at weddings or funerals. Baptisms are largely the activity of a tiny minority now, and will increasingly disappear from church life. Secular society will even compete with us in terms of our weekday community service. I saw an advert the other day for "Messy toddlers" or "Messy nursery" which is of course straightforward competition with "Messy Church".
So, from proud National Church to humble, irrelevant, sidelined and ignored church? Probably. Not a bad place from which to bear witness to the Gospel. 

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