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The Parley Begins PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Wednesday, 27 January 2010 14:38

Bible on Communion Table

On Monday night the office bearers in St Andrew's met for the first time with a couple of members of the Parish Planning committee of Hamilton Presbytery. This will be the first in a series of meetings over the coming months. They are important meetings as they will shape the future Church of Scotland representation in Blantyre.

For many in St Andrew's as in our sister congregations in the town, there will be inevitable fears and worries that come with the prospect of change. As much as I can, I will try to share with you why this process is necessary and what is happening as we go through the process. I hope this will be helpful for those of you who are connected to the Church of Scotland in Blantyre. A pre-warning, however, that this post is quite lengthy!

So why is the presbytery coming to talk to us anyway? [There's more...]

Presbytery Plans and the Ministries Council

We're an active and busy church, why can't we just be left alone to get on with what we are doing already? For many of us that will be the first question that springs to mind. It is a natural response, but the Church of Scotland as a whole is having to answer very difficult questions about the allocation of resources across all of Scotland and Blantyre is no exception to this.

Some years ago almost the entire presbytery, as part of a complete Church of Scotland review, had to devise a Presbytery Plan for how the paid staff (ministers, deacons, extra staffing posts, and so on) are distributed across the presbytery. This went hand in hand with a reduction in the number of posts allowable in presbytery from the Ministries Council, a decision made by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

At the time this meant some difficult decisions had to be made and has resulted in a number of unions between churches and planned unions in the future: near to home that includes Hamilton North uniting with Hamilton Old, and Hamilton St Andrew's uniting with St John's.

However, Blantyre was not reviewed when most of the rest of presbytery was reviewed. As a Kirk Session we knew that this discussion would inevitably have to take place, and indeed we have discussed it on a number of occasions as a Session over the last few years.

Without doubt the Parish Planning committee at presbytery and the Ministries Council in Edinburgh have an unenviable role to play in planning for the future of the Church of Scotland but it is a necessary one because of changed circumstances within the Church of Scotland over the last fifty years. The option to just do as we are doing is simply not possible as it would bankrupt the Church of Scotland within a matter of a few years and would be very poor stewardship of the resources, both in terms of people and financial, that the church is blessed with.

Further to this with the collapse of the stock market over recent years and investment income for the Church of Scotland having rapidly reduced there are pressing financial questions that must be addressed. To do this I believe that presbyteries will, if the General Assembly agrees to it in May, be asked to make a further reduction in the number of staff posts to try to balance the books for the long-term future of the Church of Scotland.

What does this mean for Blantyre? It means there is no escaping that Blantyre will, as with other areas in Scotland, have to play its part in the revision of resource allocation. What this means for us is that the Church of Scotland will be represented by two and not three full-time ministry posts in the future.

I've thought long and hard on this question myself over the last couple of years, as it certainly impacts me and my family, and have come to the conclusion that to try to defend three full-time ministries in Blantyre would only be for a short-term gain and thus for the long-term health of the church two full-time ministries would be the right decision to make, albeit ideally with some part-time support. How those two full-time ministries would operate within Blantyre (leaving aside any question of buildings, etc) is what now primarily interests me.

What part does money play?

One of the questions that was asked at the meeting on Monday night was whether money was at the heart of the decisions that face Blantyre and the Church of Scotland as a whole: was reducing the number of clergy posts a cost-cutting exercise?

The straighforward answer to that question is "yes". But it is not the whole story. The Church of Scotland has limited resources, as with any denomination, and has to judge how best to distribute those resources across the whole country. As a further complication, one of the principles of the Church of Scotland is a "territorial ministry", in other words "the parish system": that each and every person no matter where they live in Scotland from city centre to far-flung isle will be able to call upon the services of a minister and a local(ish) parish church. For this to happen it means that the whole country is split into geographical parishes, each parish or group of parishes allocated a ministerial post (a charge). In the past, say a hundred years ago, this meant that almost every village had its own minister and parish church. This is not the case today and some rural parishes are collosal in geographical area.

The provision of a minister, or other post, and the attendant support structures both at national and presbytery level, has also become more expensive for the church. A contribution of around £45,000 per annum from local funds to the Church of Scotland's Ministries and Mission fund is the breakeven point where a congregation becomes a net contributor to the big pot. At present none of the churches in Blantyre are net contributors, we all to a small degree benefit from the contributions of other churches in order to support the ministry here in Blantyre.

I should add, for the avoidance of doubt, that a minister does not have a stipend of £45,000! Indeed, all minister's stipends for 2010 have been frozen at the same level as last year in recognition of the difficult financial circumstances that the church faces, and may shrink next year. The contribution paid to central funds pays for both ministry costs and many other parts of the work of the Church of Scotland organised centrally or regionally.

It is very important for us to recognise that the financial situation for the church, whether we like it or not, will impact on us. However, that is not the only concern. At the moment there are very few people in training for the ministry. We are richly blessed in St Andrew's to have two of our members currently in training for full-time ministry within the Church of Scotland, which perhaps shields us from the fact that with a large number of ministers due to retire over the next few years, there are nothing like enough ministers in training to fill those ministries that will fall vacant.

Is it all doom and gloom?

Absolutely not! But keeping positive all depends on what one's aspirations are for the full-time ministry and for the Church. The Church of Scotland has been discussing for some time the different shape of ministry that is currently being explored in some parishes. The traditional reliance on full-time ministry of Word and Sacrament, while still having an important place (well, I would say that wouldn't I?!), will need to be supplemented with other forms of ministry, which may provide more opportunity for others to explore their ministry to God within their local church. It also means that the Church of Scotland is having to think more creatively about what it means to be a local parish church within a community - something that the office bearers in St Andrew's have been looking at ourselves over the last year in our conference meetings.

Whenever there is change, there is a likelihood that there will be both positive and negative aspects to that change. For my part, and I sense from the other office bearers in St Andrew's there is a strong desire to ensure as best we can that any changes will be positive for the church as a whole in Blantyre. That desire, of course, is held in tension with the desire to see the different ministries within St Andrew's find further opportunity to develop and grow, for the relaxed style of worship we enjoy to always have a place, and for the sense of community and family within our congregation to be maintained.

What next?

Having had our first meeting with representatives of the Parish Planning Committee we will need to wait until this initial round of meetings with the other churches is complete. Then a meeting with representatives from each congregation will be held, facilitated by the presbytery. This will open up the discussion further.

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