The institution of the Church of Scotland has a real problem.
Alright, I admit it has many problems, just like most large institutions. But I recently discovered something of which I had not been previously aware. A sermon I preached in August sent me back to research the 2012 report of the General Assembly’s Church and Society Committee. Can you imagine my surprise when I read these words in its introduction: ‘The Committee continues to provide around 80% of the content for the external communications of the national offices. This is both a continuing challenge to speak the Gospel with authenticity in the public square of 21st century Scotland and a huge opportunity to offer the Gospel in a way that changes lives and changes people’s view of the Church.’
The Strange Silence of the Kirk
Oh! that that were true. For lives and people’s view of the Church to be changed surely they must first hear what is being offered ? Week in, week out I try to read a wide cross-section of our national press. Each evening I listen to the TV news and, usually, tune in to programmes discussing news issues. Rarely (very rarely) do I hear or read anything emanating from the Church of Scotland central bureaucracy that, in any way, grabs my attention far less change my life or view of the Church. In fact, all I usually hear is a strange silence from the Kirk.
Why should this be? Especially when, year after year, the Church and Society Committee produce reports to the General Assembly that are well researched and relevant to the great issues people face in their daily life and with which Governments of the day struggle and on which they must legislate. No better example of this is their recent work on homelessness and financial management in our nation. Both these issues affect people of all walks of life. So why have the helpful conclusions made by the committee not been trumpeted across the media? Is the Church really so arrogant as to believe Jock Tamson’s bairns are actually going to purchase a 500 page volume of Reports to the General Assembly in order to read something that will ‘change lives and people’s view of the Church’ ?
In August, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby announced he is going to tackle head-on the extortionate interest rates changed by pay-day loan companies. Most often it is the poorest members of society, desperate to make ends meet until their next pay comes in, who feel compelled to do business with such firms not realising that, should they default, they are committing themselves to interest rates of over 5,500%! The Archbishop plans to use the resources of the Church of England to establish a network of Credit Unions within every parish in England and so compete the ‘loan sharks’ out of business. This initiative made tea-time television and was widely reported in the press.
It is a welcome, practical and relevant response from the Church of England regarding social poverty in our country; and I applaud the response of the Church and Society Committee to commit the Church of Scotland to ally itself with such action. But, apart from making this announcement, what more has the Kirk said about such a vitally important issue ?
Not a lot is the answer. Or have I missed something?
It’s so easy to score points at the Kirk’s embarrassment. I know that only too well. In time past, I served the Church’s Assembly as one of its national conveners. It is because I once had such responsibility that I know the high quality work being faithfully carried out by the present generation of ministers and laity who serve on these demanding committees needs to be far better communicated to a wide public audience. Equally I believe the task of the Church’s Moderator needs to be radically revisited. Presently, the Moderator is effectively prevented from speaking on national issues unless he/she articulates the position of the General Assembly. (Presumably, this is in case he/she goes off like a loose cannon and commits the Church to some unimagined heresy).
As a result, the voice of ecclesiastical response heard on, or in, the media more often than not comes from the Roman Catholic hierarchy, while that of the Church of Scotland remains silent. Yet the irony is that it is supposed to be the Church of Scotland which is the national Church of Scotland. This is a situation which, in our contemporary world of round-the-clock-news is simply unsustainable. Each year, individuals of substance are appointed to serve in this position. Can the General Assembly not trust them enough to speak intelligently; and to seek information from committee conveners when necessary ?
Good things are happening within the Church of Scotland and through the Church for Scotland in communities up and down the land. Ministers can be heard preaching sermons that are relevant and intelligent. People still long to hear the voice of their Kirk. The fact that YOU are reading this, proves it.
Minister of Bothwell
Interim Moderator at
Gilmour & Whitehill Parish Church