Lockdown days were easy – stay at home, exercise once per day, only go to supermarket for essentials, save the NHS and save lives! OK, lockdown days were not easy, but compare them to the complications of easing out of lockdown! In lockdown the instructions were few and fairly simple, now we have entered the land of much debate, including the Church.
As we entered this new land Churches were allowed to open for private prayer. Whilst it may be part of the tradition of some Churches, I suspect it is not part of the tradition of many in the Church of Scotland. Some were desperate to open for this purpose. I am allowed to disagree. When Jesus encouraged personal prayer it was to one’s own private room and space, not a public place. But Churches are often seen as sacred spaces, I hear, and indeed they can be, but in my view they can only ever be bases from which we extend the mission and outreach of the Church. For way too long now Churches have been seen as sacred cows instead of sacred places. Encouraging people to meet God in a “special way” within Church walls goes against the grain of following the One who was rarely found in such places. It also serves to make even more difficult dealing with the fact that we have far too many Church buildings. The way we have encouraged “my Church” over the decades has only served to blind people to the reality that their Church building should have shut a long time ago. Several Churches way less than half empty set in a small geographical cluster is nonsense. It is time to put it bluntly: shame on us Christians that we have set ourselves in little (rival) groups, unhealthily attached to buildings. And shame on clergy who have perpetuated this! In a country where economic uncertainty lies ahead, many with job insecurity, we have ministers on full stipend looking after very small charges (and for clarity, I don’t mean priority areas) and who even resist moving or retiring because “their Church” may close. Bluntly put again: it is time to retract full tenure in the interests of rebuilding the future of the Church. To say, “I’m safe, you can’t touch me” is astounding!
As lockdown eases and different Phases are unveiled, it seems Church worship can resume, but in what way? The scenario is ever-changing, however the prospect at the time of writing is of a worshipping congregation who are capped at 50 in number, physically distanced, masked, no socialising, no singing. It is the best we can do, some say, indeed it is. For me, it is far from what worship should be and some who are desperate to get back will readily put up with it. I think we have waited this long, we should wait a while longer to the time when something resembling the normal worship setting can be safely re-introduced. Ministers are presently getting their clerical knickers in very big twists trying to manage some form of way back, I say let’s wait for the grand reopening! Let’s use the time wisely to think and pray and plan for a renewed Church life in the months ahead.
Waiting will lose us members, waiting will lose us money, waiting will cost us jobs. Probably these and more. Members who are committed and active will not be lost for they continue to be Church without walls. Church will continue online worship, often in progressive ways that our old routines may have stifled. Those who are committed to giving will continue to give, and bless those who have it “stored up” ready for offering. Money is already leaking big time in some Churches – my Church has seen an income reduction of some £27,000 in the first half-year in only two income streams – cancellation of events/lets and weekday café. Lost income such as that will not return. Our M&M of £105,000 is not sustainable. In a world where the Government has tried to produce material assistance for employees and business for many months now, the Kirk is so far silent on the massive financial hole that is widening, but I know this issue is not being neglected by Assembly Trustees.
Talk of a “new normal” was supposed to be about positive changes for the better, individually, as a Church, and as a society. Reality is that society is desperate to get back into its old routine. Some individuals will have a welcome new perspective on life. What awaits the Kirk?
We hit an iceberg long ago. Those who await the great revival as a reaction to Covid may be delusional. (I hope I’m proved wrong on that one, but the prophecy of crumbleness is upon me) Reality is we have engaged Assembly Trustees to lead us into a radical new future. And they need to act more radically now than ever before. And we need to encourage them to do so. The Church needed reform, it also now needs to deal with the aftermath of the effects of the pandemic on Church life. Our little rules and regulations and laws are almost pointless, yet some seek to keep them going as if on auto-pilot. 121 will need to reduce way more than was envisaged. The new large Presbyteries should not grow into alternative versions of the institutional bureaucracy but be places where mission and outreach are encouraged and enabled and Presbyterianism takes new forms in a country where we can no longer cover the whole territory. Don’t start making them complicated! And Church members in every Church need to wake up and smell the coffee! The trouble is many haven’t, and many won’t, and a meaningful pruning to grow again is unlikely to take place voluntarily. (I hope I’m proved wrong on that one too, but the prophecy of crumbleness is still upon me) As if one iceberg was not enough, the pandemic has brought us an unwelcome second, and we need to radically reform within months rather than years. We are not going to limp into dock on this one, folks! Not that we were anyway, despite those who dwell in the land of happiness where dark clouds never wander. Are good things happening in the Kirk throughout the land? Yes, there are. Good, I’ve said it. But to think this is the norm and turn a blind eye to the real situation faced by the Kirk leaves me lost for words (you wish!) I’m just a prophet of doom and gloom, aren’t I? Then you don’t know me, and you don’t know my love for God and his Church and his Kingdom.
The truth is God has never been confined to buildings, his Church is wherever God’s people are praising and living out the Good News, and his Kingdom is all around us and growing. The grand reopening needs to join in with God’s mission and not attempt to restart the stale old ways that we now have the opportunity to leave behind. But will we?