So the grand reopening never came to pass. It has stop-started for many months and, in our case at Falkirk Trinity, stopping again in the light of the latest Christmas declaration which many probably saw coming even when the four nations agreed the now defunct five-day break announcement. Oh for the wisdom of those on camels! Those in power have had it difficult to steer the course through Covid but even thinking we could have relaxed the restrictions was one major error, resulting in double disappointment for many. Politicians have sometimes got to strive to keep the people happy, unlike preachers who are often called to say what people don’t want to hear and sometimes have the courage to do so. Thankfully many people I speak to are going to make the best of what is a very different Christmas for all of us. Whilst totally unwelcome, the Christmas we now face perhaps brings us closer to the awful circumstances of the first Christmas rather than the snowy comfy Christmas we have now inherited and dare not question. Who wants to listen anyway to the gruff voice in the wilderness announcing repentance (now there’s an old word) and giving due notice of the appearance of the radical One? If we think our lifestyle has been upset now, then wait to you hear what Jesus had to say!
We could still have 20 at a service and we could still open for private prayer but why would you? With a new virulent strain of the virus emerging surely we should be minimising the risk, at least over the month of January when we are likely to see a spike post-Christmas because many (Covidiots) will still break the rules and leave common sense somewhere up the chimney with Santa? I remember when we first rolled out the Child Protection training in the Church, setting out best practice, only for some to still argue that “they would still do things differently”. It was and still is about minimising risk. Same goes for Covid, we should be minimising risk, not hanging on to spiritual bare threads, but encouraging worship and prayer online and on the phone and in lives outside buildings. Maybe that view will upset some and the Covid Group dare not issue a decree telling us to close lest it get pelters from the wider Church which never likes being told what to do.
To be honest, I know that some derive comfort from being in a Church building, I derive more comfort at the top of a hill on a clear day, each to their own. I cannot argue against worship in a building because for the last 30 years I have encouraged everyone to come along regularly to worship together. And we all miss it. For much of the last year and for the months ahead of us we have been challenged to think differently in terms of worship and prayer. For those who find this difficult without a building I have sympathy, but I blame not the desire of individuals but the conditioning of the Church over many years making people think that a Church building is the place of worship and prayer over all other places. The worship and prayers are still received wherever they are. The conditioning is evidenced glaringly in the stern reluctance of so many in the Kirk to give up “their building, their Church” in the light of much needed reform. Many are indeed thirled to buildings and this was/is our opportunity to disentangle that particular knot. Not that we would desert our buildings, just not let them get so high up in our faith priorities.
It has been said to me that “the Church has not had a good Covid.” In some ways it has responded well. Ministers and congregations have taken to new and innovative ways of communicating with their members and communities. Whilst inevitably there will be a few in hiding, like all walks of life and work, nevertheless most ministers have become recording artistes and their workload has not diminished in the slightest, only re-directed. Centrally the Church has had a Covid Group that has responded well to changing circumstances and tried its best to keep us all informed, for which we are thankful. But financially we have been woeful. A reduction of 18% in M&M for 2021 will, for some, not mend the heartache of glaring lost income over 2020 and which will continue in 2021 and not be addressed by the 18% reduction. I am sure we all have our views on the present Governments, however it is hard to find fault with furlough and financial schemes that have helped millions through financial hardship and in some cases avoid disaster, though I know this will not be a warm blanket for everyone. Apart from a nod to the future, we have done nothing in the Church as yet to alleviate hardship in congregations, apart from the ill-timed early encouragement to “keep up our giving”. The flip side of setting up a Covid Group to deal with the crisis we face leaves me wondering why on earth we never set up a group to deal with the crisis of decline that the Church has faced for decades? Did we just think things would be OK and sort themselves out or couldn’t we get out the rut? The Church Without Walls Report stated that the biggest challenge is “to change mind sets” and we have failed so far to do that. I welcome structural change, but it will never be enough on its own.
Reform is still needed. The new larger Presbyteries emerging must sing from a different hymn sheet from the one used until now, else we are wasting our time in reorganisation. Rules and regulations still stifle and no little legal group has been set up to try to start the work of dismantling the helpful from the unhelpful laws. Training for ministry still leaves candidates facing hardship, if indeed they can afford to embark on training in the first place and then they have to face the archaic – yes – manse system! So whilst our focus has been on battling Coronavirus, our minds must turn to continued reform in the brave new world emerging in which, as we all know, including me, mind-sets must change!
May the peace, love and joy at the heart of Christmas bring hope to your lives!