How are you feeling about the future of society, of the Church, and of the world? Since lockdown many have commented on a “new normal” that awaits on the other side of this pandemic. I’m feeling rather pessioptimistic!
Will society be better? For all the good neighbourliness happening at the moment, the answer is probably not overwhelmingly so. Will some people be changed for the better? No doubt. One lingering memory for me was the news report of a young mother standing on the doorstep saying her eyes had been opened to the many things she took for granted and she was teaching her daughter to be grateful for them too. If enough of us have that same attitude then maybe society will be better for it. But the speeding cars, the numpties that cannot follow simple rules to save lives, the sun-packed beaches and litter louts, even dare I say it some politicians and their advisers, and the folk who don’t seem to give a damn will always be there, coupled with some ruthless businesses and some business people who simply have no thought for the people who have worked for them, even for years. Society could be better but it will never be perfect.
Will the world be better? Whilst we all, rightly, have the bereaved in our thoughts and prayers, what do we do with the fact that an estimated 5.4 million children under the age of five died in the world in one year alone because of poverty and disease? (statistic from Save the Children 2017) Is it because the threat comes to our own doorsteps that we suddenly sit up and take notice? And in a world where we lament the statistics of a pandemic, no one has mentioned that we have more than enough nuclear weapons to wipe out humanity, yet we seem happy to continue with them! If we have Remembrance Day every year – and truly remember the horrors of two World Wars and more – we should live differently in a much better world, but we do not. Humanity sometimes stops to remember, and then does what it wants anyway! Those who would dispense with Remembrance Day should take note that it is at least one moment in the year when people might be jolted into taking stock. The world needs the Church to speak of a Saviour and of his Kingdom values!
Will the Church be different? I hope so, at least within the Church of Scotland. But even here the dark clouds seem to gather. With 60 years of decline we have nothing to lose, or so you’d think. In the Kirk we have had umpteen “lightbulb” moments, not least the Church Without Walls Report of 2001. Have we changed? No. We have far too many buildings (as the General Trustees have said several times) but everyone wants to keep their building open. Members will disappear if we close buildings, leaving us wondering what it was they were worshipping. We want to cover the whole of Scotland yet we do not have the ministers to do so, nor could we afford to pay them if we had them. Our membership of 330,000 is dwindling by 15,000 per annum, and how many actually attend and get involved, 100,000? We are slowly running out of money but we seem to want to keep everything, have none of us ever worked out a household budget? We say we have a responsibility and bias towards the poor yet our ministers live in expensive mansions. How can we talk for those on the margins of society when we don’t walk the walk? And who on the margins would really give us the time of day? Is Tom Allan’s half a century old summary of a Kirk which is a middle-class club with a Christian veneer really out of date?
We say “let’s run with the new and creative ideas” that are pandemic-emerging yet desperate to fit them into an outdated court system. Nothing wrong with a court system, except for the fact that watching paint dry was rivalling a night at Presbytery, where many nice people met but only had eyes for the way things were and may never embrace a vision. Some have even lamented the loss of a General Assembly this year. Not me, though I wish it had been there for Moderator Fair who would at least have inspired and encouraged with his words. Other than that, all we were good at doing was singing! We need an Assembly so that we can agree the way forward, yet those who make that clarion call forget that the Assembly is only ever a snapshot representing about a third of the Church, forget that most Church members do not even know a single thing the Assembly decides, and that the vast majority of Scotland won’t even notice there was no Assembly! Oh, we all think it important and vital when we are there listening to debate and making decisions, and then we go home and realise it wasn’t that important after all.
The Church in the past has urged us all to speak out! Yet we are all, ministers included, complicit in not really speaking out. The life of our institutional Church from centre to local is still too busy keeping the traditional show on the road to wake up and smell the cheese! After pandemic is over will we truly make a stand for climate justice and be a voice for the poor? And will we make changes to our Church lifestyle that matches our words – sell buildings, move out of manses, meet with a positive agenda, ditch the club mindset, and meet real needs within our communities? Presbyterianism is not the core of our identity, the Christian faith is the core of our identity, we just happen to like the Presbyterian way of serving it up! But what happens when the institution becomes a stumbling block instead of a conduit? Even those looking for change sometimes want to see if the new can fit somehow into the old mould. New wine needs new wineskins! Even as the ship sinks there are some who think we need to arrange more meetings in the drawing room so that we can all agree the exit strategy. There is a time for talk, but there is also a time for action! Get into the lifeboats and set them sailing is all we need to do.
The radical changes called for were not to create a patched-up version of the old Kirk but to give new life through the local Church for that is where new life will emerge, so any changes centrally or regionally were never to be an end in themselves but to scale down drastically in order to serve the local and give it a chance to flourish. Regional Presbyteries are not to be power houses but inspirational and encouraging mission centres where ideas and support are shared. Central Church is to do what is essential to support the local. And the local is where it happens, if you can catch a vision.
Wonderful to see (some) Churches adapting to a new scenario. Wonderful to hear people starting to think and dream and pray about what Church might look like on the other side. May God bless you.
I’ve been around the Kirk all my life, its record of change makes me pessimistic. I’ve heard before that society and the world needs to change but we keep making the same mistakes and that too makes me pessimistic. But for some reason God keeps alive something of his light in my life and in my heart and nothing ever seems to have put it out, and now standing at Pentecost, ready for the wind of the Spirit to blow again, I am determined to let optimism grab me! I tell you, it’s not easy being a pessioptimist!