Friday, 29 May 2009


On the big issue of the week for the Church of Scotland? I can say nothing here because this is a public site and someone might read it!!! The General Assembly has issued a decree banning any comment on the big issue of the week and if anyone does make public comment, we are open to discipline by the courts of the Church. It seems like a huge own goal - the atheists are free to lay into the Church and tell the world what a shower of numpties we are and no-one can reply. The papers are free to scare-monger and tell the world that a whole pile of people are about to leave to join the Free Church and we can't reply! So if you're expecting me to make some comment about this big issue, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. It will take 2 years!

What will the Church be like in 2 years time?

Here's a more serious question and much more positive and perhaps even more important one: what would you like Church to be in ten years time? Don't tell me that you don't have a view; I won't believe you. Everyone involved with Church at some level or another will have some kind of view, even if it is a quite simple one. What would you like Church to be in ten years time? Click on the 'comment' at the bottom of the page, write your comment in the box and then choose one of the four options under the box to identify yourself; the third or fourth are the easiest. Tell me what you would like Church to be in 2019.

Here's the thing: what decisions do we need to make now to make your hope or dream come true? Whatever you would like Church to be in ten years, there are decisions and choices that we need to make now in order for that to come true. That question is not so easy to answer, is it! Good leadership is about asking these questions and helping us to find an answer to them. It will be no use in ten years' time, when Church has not developed in the way we had hoped, then saying 'if only in 2009 we had...'. It will be too late by then.

'If only...' - I came across these words the other day in another context. Some young people were reacting to a particularly traumatic situation about which I can't really be specific here, but they were saying 'if only we had done... if only we had said....' then the situation might never have developed in the tragic way that it did. It is so easy to carry these words around in your heart for the rest of your life, and lots of people do; we call it guilt! The glory of the gospel is that at its heart is talk of forgiveness and not just talk, but reality. God forgives us our sins, our faults, our 'if only's' and He does so because His Son died on a cross 2000 years ago.

I hope that the General Assembly of 2011 does not begin by saying 'if only we had... in 2009!' I hope that in 2019 we are not sayiong 'if only we had... in 2009!' I hope you are not going through life saying 'if only I had....' or 'if only I hadn't...'

I can say nothing now about the first.
I can urge you to pray and work to make the second happen.
I can tell you about the forgiveness of God for all of us in Christ in the gospel.

Friday, 22 May 2009


The word that has been rolling around in my mind this week is 'aspire' (& not 'aspire' on top of the Church roof - sorry, bad joke; think about it!!) We have hopes and aspirations of all kinds, but let me tell you about one story of aspiring that bothers me; I don't know the answer.

I was approached a while ago by a young couple who had just had their first baby. They want the baby baptised. I spoke to them about what baptism meant and told them that they needed to think about Church membership because the Church says that one parent must be a member of the Church so that a child can be baptised. They are happy to engage with that discussion; they have been reading Luke's gospel and have been working their way through the basic Christian material that I give to all new members, showing real signs of engaging with all of this. They aspire to become part of the Church for themselves and to have their child baptised and I want to do all that I can to help them meet that aspiration.

But there is a barrier. One of these two young adults tells me that working life makes Sunday worship difficult. Regular days off are Monday and Wednesday. Sunday is usually a working day. How do we as Church help this family to fulfil their aspirations? They know that they have a responsibility to do what they can, but what should Church do to meet people like this? The people about whom I write are not alone in this dilemma.

Do we as Church simply say "we meet on Sundays; there is no other option!" Or do we work out some way of allowing people to worship and nurture faith at other times?

Our midweek activities at the moment tend to be discussion groups or prayer times, or directed at specific age or gender groups like the Guild of Friendship or Rock Solid.

There are clear signs that the Spirit is at work in our community, creating these aspirations and desires among a number of people, including young adults. Church must never become the barrier, preventing these young people from fulfilling their aspirations, but the answers and solutions might well be very different from traditional Church.

What is more important? Do we think that people should have the chance to nurture faith and discover Jesus and worship and pray at some time and in some way? Or do we think that if people can't do Sundays, they can't be involved?

I'm not suggesting that we reduce the standards, if that is the way to put it. There are people who think that we should baptise babies regardless of their parents' profession of faith and commitment; I don't think like that, but I do see the logic behind asking parents to make a commitment to Church of their own when they are aspiring to make that commitment for their children.

I don't know what you aspire to be or to do; I hope that if you have spiritual aspirations that the Church is helping you to fulfil them; how can we do that for this young couple and others like them?

Friday, 15 May 2009

Expenses and other issues

Sorry, no matter how much I want to avoid it, I can't. The whole week has been dominated by the row over MPs' expenses. What a mess! Mind you, the one word we can't use to describe their behaviour is 'illegal' - there has been (it would seem) no law broken! What we can say is that the laws and rules need changing. I've heard so many sensible ideas and some stupid ones - the latest stupid idea at lunchtime was to send in the army, some kind of military coup! Someone else suggested we have MPs stay in some kind of super apartment block, guarded by the army, presumably to make sure they stayed in at night!

We live in a culture where these issues are coming under much more scrutiny. I was introducing an item as Edinburgh Presbytery last week that will instruct ministers to submit our car log books for inspection. I have kept a log book for years, but it has never been looked at until now. Last year's General Assembly instructed Presbyteries to do this piece of work, for fear of the more rigorous scrutiny of the Revenue! We are more likely to discover ministers who have not claimed as much as they were entitled to, but there are some already in a flap because their log book is not up-to-date enough.

Most of you will have worked with some kind of appraisal system. You will have had someone to whom you are (or will have been) answerable and your performance in a task will have been appraised and you will have had to read the report. That may have influenced the prospects of promotion or even finding a job, or keeping your job. I don't. No-one comes to me to appraise my performance in any of the tasks of ministry in which I am engaged. The Church has toyed with some kind of appraisal, but until now it has always been self-appraisal or self-reflection rather than being done by a third party. This has meant that some congregations have suffered for years under people who really were not up to the job.

There are some Churches that make their members accountable to one another and do this in a big way. They structure themselves in such a way as to give their leadership a very real and direct oversight of the quality of Christian life and discipleship of their members. Our Church culture or our national culture hasn't warmed to that idea very much and so people are often allowed to drift with no mechanism to help them and in the end the only action we take is to remove them from membership because they have drifted so far away from Church that we have lost track of them altogether. That can't be the best way, surely!

I have a friend who, when he went to be the minister of his present charge, arranged interviews with all of the members in his vestry. He asked them 3 questions: How did you become a Christian? What has God been teaching you recently? What gifts do you have to give to the life of the congregation? It was not universally popular in Glasgow; it would not always be popular in Edinburgh either, but why should we be afraid of these questions and someone asking these questions of us?

Presbytery is inspecting log books so that ministers will be better prepared if the Revenue comes calling; perhaps if the Church asked these questions of us, we would be better prepared when our non-Christian friends asked us to give a reason for the hope that is in us!

Friday, 8 May 2009

How many names do you know?

Last week, I had a conversation which began: "how is your daughter?" Two things happened: first of all, I said "Which one? I have two dauighters?" and at the same time, my second reaction was to think "I don't remember having aconversation with you about my family!" The reply to my question came: "the daughter who has a boyfriend called..." It all fell into place: I had not had a conversation with Robin about my family; he has two brothers who had met my daughter and who know her boyfriend's family. Scotland, and especially the church community in Scotland, is just like a small village.

But, let me ask you this, and I'll come back to it in a moment - how many names of people who go to your church do you know?

Last year, I came across the original version of six degrees of separation. Let me quote it:
"American sociologist Stanley Milgram devised a way to test the theory (that any one person is connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances)... He randomly selected people in the mid-West (of the USA) to send packages to a stranger located in Massachusetts. The senders knew the recipient's name, occupation, and general location but not the specific address. They were instructed to send the package to a person they knew on a first-name basis who they thought was most likely, out of all their friends, to know the target personally. That person would do the same, and so on, until the package was personally delivered to its target recipient. Although the participants expected the chain to include at least a hundred intermediaries" to get the package delivered, it averaged only six. Hence the popular phrase "Six degrees of separation"." (Quoted in The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch p.212)

This suggests a kind of interconnectedness. Certainly, you don't need to be involved in Church for very long to meet people who know people whom you know!

However, I come back to my question - how many people do you know by name in your Church? On average, on a Sunday morning we in Junipe Green have about 180 people in our building for worship. We all have our own little group of friends and we sit beside them and talk to them and have coffee with them afterwards. But there are people we never meet; we may see them, but we don't even know their name. There are people who come to our church at the moment and I feel as if I'm the only person who knows their name!

In January 2001, we had our first Open House at the Manse on the first Sunday in the year. I can't remember now who told me this, but that became the occasion for 2 people who had both been members of Juniper Green Church for 25 years to talk to each other for the first time!

Knowing people by name means that they matter to us. If they are just 'the young people' or 'the old people' we do them a huge disservice, but in a group our size it takes a deliberate effort to make these connections. This is becoming more and more important, since the kind of community we live in sees people less and less connected with their neighbours. Church may soon be one of the few places where people meet with one another in a face-to-face way.

Church needs to be a community in which:
  • we meet together for worship
  • we know each other by name
  • we know each other's stories of life and faith
  • we eat together and meet for social events
  • we learn together from the bible
  • we pray together
  • we care for each other when people are in need.

What do we need to do to become a community like that?

How many people do you know by name? The answer to that question will show you just how far we have to go!

Friday, 1 May 2009

Looking back?

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week I was in Sutherland and Caithness. I am a member of a Special Commission set up by the 2008 General Assembly to consider the Third Declaratory Article. This is the part of the Church of Scotland's constitution which commits the Church to deliver the ordinances of religion and carry out ministry in every part of the country. The Commission is set up to see if we can still make that commitment and what it means to the Church if we say that we can.

Anyway, we decided to make some field visits and in March we visited Glasgow and this week we visited Sutherland and Caithness, 2 counties on the geographical fringes of Scotland where the Church is struggling to find ministers willing to serve. Caithness has 11 charges, where ministers can serve, plus a community minister post; there are 3 of these charges filled. Has God stopped calling people to these places and communities? Or are people deaf to His call?

Wednesday was a strange morning! I spent 17 years as a minister in Caithness; our children were all born there and grew up there. We left in July 2000 to come to Juniper Green. I've only been back in the county a couple of times since we left, this being the third. I met some people that I've not seen since I left and I was visiting places I knew well, though not the part of Caithness in which I was the minister. It felt strange to be back. I have no desire to go back; the road north hasn't changed very much; it still takes 6 hours to drive; I was glad to be back home on Wednesday evening.

We have a funny attitude to the past at times. I know people, even Christians, who want to live in the past. Their past experience of Church was very positive so they want to keep hold of that for as long as possible and live in that past experience; so Churches are not allowed to change anything. We have all heard the cry 'It's aye been done that way! Let's live in the past.' There are others who want to write off the past: it's old, so it must be got rid of! There are churches who refuse to sing anything that is older than 6 months; every hymn or song has to be new & constantly changing; the past is a real foreign country.

I enjoyed much of my ministry in Caithness, although I came to the point where I was glad to leave behind the stresses and strains it caused me. I'm glad when the people I knew there come to visit us here. But I won't live in the past and pretend it was some rural idyll to be hankered after. Some commission members thought that going to rural Scotland would be wonderful and quiet; they left with a different view, now aware of the distances involved in travelling between Churches and the huge areas to be covered by one person.

As Christians we honour the past: our faith is based on historic events that took place once for all time in a specific historical time and place; our churches today are what they are because of previous generations faithful witness. But we press on to the future, to grow as Christians and to build the Church today that will leave a legacy for tomorrow. It seems to me that is a biblical way of looking at time, history, our past, present and future.