“We are all in this together!”
So said David Cameron and George Osborne at the time of the recent Election. They were referring of course to the ongoing financial crisis our country is facing. Since then, the Coalition Government has promised that a comprehensive spending review would have to take place as to how Government spends its money. Five months on, the Chancellor is now due to announce the results of that review. According to the pundits, Mr Osborne will seek to introduce measures making £83billion savings in state spending over the next five years.
However the Government may try to implement such massive cuts in expenditure, one things is certain: it is ordinary citizens, such as many of you and I, who are going to feel the pain of it. Those with vast wealth – and, yes, there are such resident in Bothwell – may be able to better ride the storm of increased taxation and reduction in benefit than those who are middle-income earners who always seem to get caught whatever is done by whichever Government. Inevitably, of course, the danger is that those on low incomes or dependent on credits or pensions will feel crushed. Whatever the result of this week’s announcement, for a great many people lifestyles may change and things which we simply took for granted may disappear as collectively and individually we tighten our financial belts.
The need to prune in order to grow
As with businesses and institutions of all kinds, the national financial crisis has had its impact on the Church of Scotland. At the General Assembly ealier this year, the Ministries Council reported a £5.7million deficit budget. This is quite unsustainable given that the Council is responsible for 87% of the Church of Scotland budget. Their’s is, therefore, a crisis for the whole Church and not just for the Council.
Out of crisis, however, can come both vision and opportunity. Just as the Spending Review is the Coalition Government’s response to the national crisis, so the Ministries Council brought to the Assembly proposals to tackle the crisis presently facing the Church. The most urgent part of which was that concerned with Building for Sustainable Future Patterns of Ministries, Finance and Presbytery Planning. It is a vision both theological and financial : there is a budget to be balanced but, of even more lasting theological significance, there is also the need to establish patterns of ministry for the 21st century which sets stipendiary ministry in its proper context. But first the Church – like the national Government – needs to prune in order to grow.
What this means for the Church of Scotland
By far the major expense incurred by the national and local Church is that of ministry and buildings. The cost of maintaining church buildings has soared: exacerbated by the fact that we simply have too many buildings for our needs. This is an historical problem. When the United Free Church of Scotland reunited with the Church of Scotland in 1928 there was no rationalisation of church buildings. Each congregation within a community simply kept their own. Hence, today we have a severe overabundance of church plant. Too many congregations, dwindling in size are trying to upkeep vast suites of buildings which require ever increasing repair and maintenance as the years pass. And this congregations are attempting while remaining financially solvent by their fingertips or by steadily eating into diminishing reserves. It is little wonder then, that so many congregations can no longer afford to pay the full costs of ministry. Indeed, the sad fact is that approximately 80% of congregations are dependent on the financial help which comes through the remaining 20% fully paying their annual allocations to Central funds. While this may be a worthy example of ‘the strong helping the weak’ as our faith rightly encourages us to do – it is hardly a sustainable economic outlook.
The General Assembly therefore decided that urgent action must be taken now to face the challenges such problems present. Presbyteries have been instructed to consult with ministers and representatives of all congregations (through their officebearers) in order that new, realistic plans may be agreed on the future – or, otherwise – of each congregation within the Church of Scotland. It also decided to reduce the number of ordained ministers to 1000 by the year 2014. This represents an 11% reduction.
What this means for Bothwell Parish Church
Bothwell Parish Church is part of the Presbytery of Hamilton. Over the next four years, our Presbytery is required to lose 9 posts for ministers. Already, a series of discussion meetings have begun concerning how this might be achieved. Representatives of our congregation are very much involved, with the Kirk Session being kept fully appraised. There is little doubting the pain and disillusionment many will experience at the end of this process as their congregation is designated to be linked with another, united with another or closed. Hopefully, from our discussions together, a new sense of vision for the Church in our Presbytery area may give congregations the confidence to grasp new opportunities for outreach – and life.
What all this will eventually mean for us at Bothwell, no-one yet knows. We are fortunate in being, still, a congregation with a very strong core of active, interested and loyal worshippers and supporters. We have one of the highest income levels in the Presbytery; and, thanks to the myriad activities of the church Centre, we are one of the most ‘open’ congregations within any community. But we do have tremendous responsibilities to bear, not least with the upkeep and maintenance of the prime historical church building in Lanarkshire. To vacate such a wonderful building, with its historical, ecclesiastical and architectural significance, would be inconceivable – and no-one is suggesting that we should. But the Quire does need renovation and that will mean raising considerable sums of money. Meantime, like most congregations, the majority of our membership have retired or are approaching retirement age.
In case this all this ‘reality’ is beginning to depress, let me assure you that, within our Kirk Session and congregation, all is being done to face the challenges with which we are presented, strengthen the life and witness of our congregation and ‘be’ the Church of Jesus Christ within our community in our day. But there is absolutely no scope for complacency.
In the end, what the future will hold for the Church of Scotland community at Bothwell will very much depend upon the reaction of each and every one of our members. There is a place for everyone within our church. It is up to everyone to decide whether or not they want it.
We will keep you all informed about the progress of our meetings at Presbytery. Meanwhile, why not give some thought to what I have written; and, please, remember your church, your minister and your fellow congregational members in your prayers.