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A Church in Crisis? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Tuesday, 24 August 2010 23:20

The Chapel at Tintagel

I just finished watching the BBC1 Scotland documentary A Church in Crisis? that was broadcast this evening. You should be able to catch it on iPlayer if you are UK resident for the next week or so. Partly history lesson and partly an assessment of where the Church of Scotland is today, I thought it was a fairly balanced piece of documentary work by Reevel Alderson, the Social Affairs Correspondent for BBC Scotland.

It was rather providential timing for me as I spent most of today, through three different presbytery meetings, thinking about and putting into place how our presbytery grapples with the changes required over the next few years in order to balance the spread of ministers across the presbytery with the financial constraints imposed by the General Assembly this year.

There were a number of images of church buildings in the documentary in various states of disrepair or dereliction and I was reminded of our recent trip to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. [There's more...]

This spectacular site on the Atlantic coast of Cornwall has an Arthurian legend attached to it but that bit of hokum is neither here nor there - though a great visitor attraction! What I was reminded of was the chapel right on top of the outcrop of rock on which the castle was sited and community lived. The ruins were still there, indeed Andrew is pictured above 'leading worship' in front of the altar. It was blowing a gale right up here and only Andrew and I braved it.

The chapel was used for centuries, even after the castle itself had fallen into ruin, but look at it today.

The chapel at Tintagel Castle served its purpose for its time and now is part of a visitor attraction. Another church some distance away now holds regular services for the people of Tintagel and its surroundings.

In a sense what the Church of Scotland is facing is not something unusual, change and flux has always been a part of the church's history as Tintagel clearly shows. What is new today, and I think the documentary actually handled this quite well, is the impact a growing secular culture has on the way faith is practised individually and communally.

In some senses the Reformation and the impact that the Church of Scotland had on society in Scotland (in developing social care and education, for instance) sowed the seeds for the rise of modern secular Scotland in which there is implicit equality between all individuals. As Rt Rev John Christie, our current Moderator, said in the programme, the Reformation helped Scotland move from "a medieval country to a pre-modern country".

However, while the Church of Scotland helped enable that process, it has been caught out with the natural repercussions. We have lost the hierarchical structures that kept people in their places, looking up to authority figures  and have replaced this with increasing egality and equality which, let's face it, is a good thing. We have lost much of the sense of magical mystery in life, replaced with pragmatism and enlightened thinking - also on the whole a good thing: modern medicine over the witch doctor, for instance. We now have far more choice about what to do in life, choosing careers, choosing partners even having free time - something that is a relatively recent addition to our options - in which we can choose what we want to do in our non-working time.

These are wonderful advances for our society, but that freedom has come at a cost for an organisation that finds its roots so clearly in the past. However unfairly, when you consider the good that the Church brings to society, for many the Church of Scotland is such an organisation - out of touch with people today.

To a degree they may be right, but that is not the whole story because the church isn't an organisation, it is a community of faithful people. It isn't a building, it is a commonwealth of motivated servants of Jesus. All the rest is just stuff, just trappings - however much we may be attached to them. There is no shortage of interest in the message of Jesus when it is expounded well, the gospel still challenges, enthralls and excites - it is all the rest that is the issue. 

Is the church in crisis? Yes, if 'crisis' in the sense of 'a crossroads' or a 'pivotal moment' in its history. The same old, same old is an ever decreasing option, though still valid for many within the church. But there is no doubt that the Church of Scotland needs to try to use the current process of re-evaluation within presbyteries to look hard at what it does and how it serves for the 21st century.

Enough rambling for now... time for bed! But do try to catch the documentary if you can.



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