Is there a market in Scotland for the Church of Scotland’s half-hearted Christianity? Will the proclamation of semi-skimmed faith provoke any significant response? Can anyone actually be identified with and committed to vague spiritual humanism? As in the case of St George’s West Church in Edinburgh, the ‘Open Church’ actually closed. It is now the home of Charlotte Baptist Chapel. For sure, the Church of Scotland has survived the centuries in the guise of being Christian, but can it get away with this for much longer?
The Coronavirus crisis was an opportunity to re-establish identity and purpose. This was lost. The Church of Scotland has become like a compliant state church in China. It has offered nothing at all to the general perplexity of many. It has communicated no Gospel truth. It has betrayed its own legal standing and its unique historical origins. It has not confessed Jesus Christ as Lord. The Church of Jesus Christ is more than politics. Is there a market in Scotland for the Church of Scotland’s half-hearted Christianity? It does not seem so. The trumpet sound is uncertain. The water is luke warm. The embers of spiritual fire are low.
Will throwing millions of pounds at novel, start-up groups actually create a strong ‘ecclesia’ of called fellowships dedicated to witnessing to Jesus Christ? How will the Growth Fund expenditure of £20 million to £25 million for the period 2020-2027 be accounted for? No ‘cost benefit analysis’ was made available. For decades the Church of Scotland has thrown good money at schemes and projects which have not built up the Body of Christ. The Cov-19 crisis has solved this problem. This Growth Fund money will be needed to plug the large gaps in ordinary expenditure. Artificial improvised ‘growth’ will not now appear, at least for some time to come.
The blank cheque strategy to establish 12 large presbyteries described at the 2019 General Assembly by the Convener of the Council of Assembly Dr Sally Bonnar was irresponsible. There is little enough accountability for the expenditure incurred by 121 George Street. Generalities are offered to the annual Assemblies with the precise purpose of disguising intentions and plans. There is almost total freedom between Assemblies to spend, spend, spend. Thus has gross over-staffing occurred. Thus has the large deficit accrued.
Again Covid-19 will perhaps moderate or delay this unnecessary and unPresbyterian return to de facto episcopacy. How many full and part-time staff will be required for the new presbyteries? Will housing and offices need to be purchased? None of this information was given to the Assembly which gave ‘carte blanche’ to the uncosted scheme. There was no significant theology either for this plan is a half-way house for a return to pseudo pre-Reformation dioceses. It is about regional control by fewer and fewer people. And those in the pews are expected to pay for this without having any say in its becoming. Now the Church of Scotland is continuing within Covid-19 prescriptions. Decisions are being made as required by those with customary delegated authority from presbyteries. Central control has been increased. One or two people are trying to manage the whole situation.
Very Rev John Chalmers (described in The Herald as 'the former Head of the Church of Scotland) is saying in an article largely about money (July Life & Work) “so much of what we do is rooted in tradition and convention rather than relevance and necessity and that has to change”. He points to the success of online worship and eschews a return ‘to the old ways’. None of this language reflects the core beliefs and purposes of Christianity. To use the opportunity provided by the lock down to close many churches is a really cynical strategy. It is 121 George Street that has changed the Church of Scotland from being a Christian community to becoming a business corporation manqué. Is there a market in Scotland for this half-hearted Christianity?
A Forum for Congregations is needed. There is little will to form such a body within the Church and no doubt, if it was seriously proposed, it would be argued out and dismissed at General Assemblies. The idea of a body within the Presbyterian system which actually represented the active membership would be a threat to the centralisation which has ruined the Church of Scotland as a Christian Church. Nor is there any great desire in the pews to stand up and be counted. Like the Children of Israel enslaved in Egypt, many prefer the current serfdom and have neither the vision, commitment or energy for the struggle. Nor is there any leadership. There is no market in Scotland for such half-hearted Christianity.
Informal gatherings could begin however throughout the land. The current Presbyteries would rule that these would be ‘illegal’. But they could be voluntary in nature and there is scope for such freedom. The managers greatly fear such a loosening for this would shake the rigid controls which operate at present. The edifice of the Church of Scotland might crumble more visibly than the spiritual decline that has been occurring for decades. The Covid-19 crisis may hasten this outcome.
Can new wine be put into old wineskins? Can new pieces of cloth be sown on to old? The Orthodox family of Churches’ liturgy offers no concessions to western liberalism and yet is growing in attendance and membership. Evangelical and Pentecostal fellowships communicate a clear Christian Gospel and are strengthened in doing so. The Roman Catholic Church no longer offers a consistent message and the middle of the road Churches are confused. A dying church contradicts the Resurrection of Jesus Christ but new forms truly connected to Jesus Christ will certainly live.
We must believe that even if there no market in Scotland for the Church of Scotland’s half-hearted Christianity there remains a market for Jesus Christ centred Christianity. Maybe that is questionable. This may be an apostate age which will bring about the serious diminishing of Christian presence in Scotland. Atheist republican politics may take over in an independent Scotland. The tawdry privileges of the established Church may disappear. But Christianity can never be extinguished because it is based on the resurrection of Jesus. Existential questions will never go away. Courage to proclaim Christian answers is the way forward.