Aug 162011
 

The last one has been passed/jumped/got through. (Apart from the minor matter of actually finding a charge that is.)

I’ve never taken the view that the path to ministry is a series of hoops to jump through or boxes to be ticked. It is, rightly, a formation process. But it is, nevertheless, marked with critical points along the way. I’ve blogged about some of them in passing, ignoring others, but today’s was of some particular significance and is worthy of note. There is that minor issue of now finding a charge, but I would not even be in a position to begin looking were it not for the thumbs-up from today’s final review.

This short interview is the culmination of, for me, over six years of study, work and self-reflection. Five years of university, including enquiry periods (2-off), placements and then full-time probation. There have been ‘gates’ along that journey but that final review is the one that frees you to begin looking for the place where you will be let loose on real people, in the real world, without the safety net of an experienced supervisor.

Although it is a review, it is by no means a formality and ought to be approached with some sense of seriousness. I even dressed for the occasion – suit and tie – and proceeded to get a bit of a ribbing for it. But that’s OK, it all got swapped for ‘civvies’ soon enough when I got home. I also got a bit of a ribbing for the ‘tome’ I wrote for my final report – and that was just the edited highlights. I’ve just checked the word count and it was well on its way to being an honours dissertation. An intro and conclusion would have seen it pretty much there. But then I’ve had so much to reflect on and highlight over the past year – a sure indication that there is always more to learn and more to challenge.

The review itself was relaxed and chatty and seemed to be over in no time at all. My cup of tea was barely cold. Then it was just the brief pause of, “Can you wait outside for a few minutes?” followed by the happy words, “We’ve decided to sustain your probation.”

What that means in practical terms is that I will definitely be unemployed at the end of November. I had better get my act together, polish up my CV, and whittle down that vacancy short list.

In terms of ‘hurdles’ or ‘hoops’ for the Church of Scotland formation process, I have now passed the final one. In terms of challenges ahead, I get the feeling they are only really beginning.

Jul 022011
 

The Scots Hotel, TiberiasOur long roundabout route to get to Tiberias did have the bonus of a lovely dinner and a comfortable night in the Scots Hotel. The hotel is not without its own controversy within the Church of Scotland. It is, unashamedly, up-market and represents a very significant investment on the part of the CofS. There are many who question its value and place within the CofS. I don’t intend to (or wish to) rehearse all the arguments here, but I will say that, in one respect at least, it serves as a very challenging witness to the businesses around it. The hotel prides itself on its ‘equal opportunities’ employment policy and, in a country and political situation where discrimination is rife, that stands out. Is that enough to justify its continued support? Probably not, but it does intend to do much more to be a visible presence in the area. It already supports small community enterprises through its purchasing options, for example. In a country and climate where there is a very real risk (and reality) of ‘de-humanising’ the ‘other’, such visible witness is not to be under-estimated and is to be applauded and supported. But it does put the CofS in a very vulnerable position. At this year’s General Assembly, some concern was expressed at the Church’s refusal to support a boycott of Israeli goods due to the risk of being declared an ‘illegal organisation’ by Israel. It would be places like the Scots Hotel which would suffer under such a declaration. The politics of Israel and Palestine are nothing if not complex, challenging and far-reaching. Continue reading »

Jun 032011
 

We arrived in St. Andrew's Church of Scotland, JerusalemJerusalem at around 4.30 this morning and, after an all too brief catnap, were up and breakfasted at 8.oo am. I think it’s fair to say the the group looked tired, but all weariness was soon forgotten as we set off for a morning exploring the Old Town of Jerusalem within the city walls.

It is, without doubt, a fascinating place, with its narrow lanes crammed with market stalls and shops. There’s all the tourist tat, of course, but you soon find the ‘real’ shops, selling everything and anything. The spice shops announce their near presence with pungent aromas, and do the herbs and fruit sold from stalls or by individuals sitting to the side of a densely packed alley. And for those who are selling goods which do not announce themselves, their voices vie for attention, making the place seem strangely reminiscent of the, now gone, Barras in Glasgow.

We spent a fair bit of time in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a sprawling building which lays claim to the sites of Jesus’ death and burial, as well as some other places of religious significance. it’s quite a place – at once gaudy, yet magnificent; a place of obvious veneration, and yet also a place which, at times, can spark a riot.

Our walk around took in views of the Dome on the Rock, the Aqsa mosque, the Western Wall (wailing wall) and so many other sights of historical significance. We walked through the ancient city gates and stood on paths laid down countless generations ago.

It’s difficult to describe the feelings such places engender. There is the sense of history made real, a greater appreciation of where events (probably) took place (and, perhaps surprising, is their proximity – it’s not a huge place) and a growing realisation that our Westernised faith is, in a sense, the tip of an iceberg. Well, maybe not the tip – more probably just one little jaggy outcrop.

I also struggle to express my reaction because, in many ways, buildings don’t do much for me. Yes, I like to look at them, appreciate their art and architecture, but it’s ‘just’ a building. Where it becomes more real for me is where it connects to people and many of the buildings we saw today didn’t rally connect me with people. This might sound a little strange, given the history of the people, but I struggled to connect this morning, and not just because of the tiredness of travelling. It might also sound strange from someone who loved the visit to the archaeological dig below St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. But, in that instance, it plotted a history of worship on a site, from pagan hero worship through to the Christian Cathedral today – and, for me, that was a story of people sensing something of God and attempting to express their worship.

It was only as we were returning to St. Andrew’s Scottish Guesthouse for lunch that there was an extra spark. Looking across the valley we could clearly see the path of the Separation Wall as it snaked its way across the countryside. In that strange juxtaposition, gazing past the ancient city walls to this new concrete barrier, the sense of a people’s history and story began to come together. Buildings are all very interesting, but when the ancient history clashes with the contemporary we realise that there is an enormously complex story to hand. And that is a story of people, with all its challenges and history and prejudices.

Just as a little aside, the photograph is of St. Andrew’s Church and Guesthouse. The valley in the foreground is Hinnom, or Gehenna (otherwise used as a reference for hell). It was suggested that the Church of Scotland is perched precariously above Gehenna. Depending on your views of the recent general Assembly decisions, you can decide whether it is teetering towards or away from the brink.

We’re having an afternoon to catch up on our rest, after our long travel time and then heading out to observe the start of the Sabbath at the Western Wall. That’s for another post later I think.

May 252011
 

With all the focus on the issue of same-sex partnerships and ministry at the 2011 General Assembly, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing else of any significance on the agenda. Far from it. Without wanting to downplay the importance of that discussion, there are matters before the Assembly on Wednesday and Thursday which could have major impact on the way the Church of Scotland operates.

Wednesday sees the report of the Panel on Review and Reform. It is proposing a major shake-up of how presbyteries are structured, their purpose and function. Now some may suggest that focusing on how the Kirk does business is a distraction from the church’s business, the business of Christ’s mission. But that’s a simplistic view and ignores the fact that that how the Kirk does business very much affects its effectiveness in performing the church’s business. There is a danger that already overstretched ministers and elders will have to deal with further layers of bureaucracy – although the stated aim of the Panel is to make the ‘layers’ more focused and efficient. I struggle with the concept of increased complexity bringing greater efficiency and effectiveness, but I’m just a cynic at heart. Either way, this is not a trivial issue for the Kirk either.

Then, on Thursday, another mould-breaking day (or at least the potential for it) comes through the report from the Ministries Council. This report calls for a major re-visioning of ministry provision throughout Scotland. It is, in part, a response to the financial realities faced by the Kirk. But it is also an opportunity to find enabling paths to ministry for those with the gifts to serve in this way. It’s of particular interest to me, not simply because it impacts directly on ministry, but it is the context into which my MTh research was targeted.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to follow Wednesday’s debate as I am out and about doing the business of the church. But I do hope to be at GA on Thursday to catch the Ministries Council debate. I can’t help but think you get a better view watching it online, but I’m keen to get a sense of the atmosphere as well.

And yes, the post title is ironic.

May 232011
 

Today, at the Kirk’s General Assembly, a pretty hefty debate took place over the Kirk’s future direction in its relationship with partnered homosexuals in ordained leadership. Unfortunately, due to ‘real’ church business, I was unable to sit through the entire debate, but caught the gist of it and the key vote.

The GA was presented with two ‘trajectories’. One kept to the traditionalist position and extended the moratorium on ordination of partnered homosexuals for an indefinite period. The other set out on a revisionist path which aims to lead to reconciliation with the LGBT community and to open leadership doors to those who are in a same-sex relationship.

It’s not quite the liberal triumph some may be suggesting (nor, for that matter, is it the road to doom and destruction others are suggesting). It simply sets out a possible path towards that reconciliation and opening up of leadership.

The decision allows for a theological commission to explore the issues around what this decision means. From the beginning of this phase of the debate I’ve always advocated the need for the Kirk to set in order its understanding of marriage and partnership as a prerequisite for any decision. If heterosexual marriage and same-sex partnerships can be brought to an equitable footing then there is no further debate to be had. This, I think, was the understanding behind the former Principal Clerk’s amendment to the ‘trajectory choice’ deliverance. I would have been happy for this to have been approved – it would satisfy the systematic theologian in me and help lay the theological foundations for further progress. Just to be clear – it has always been on this point that I have objected to same-sex partnerships in the manse, just as I would object to an unmarried heterosexual couple in the manse. Marriage is the defining structure within which we place committed partnerships. It’s not scriptural – it’s a legal issue. So, unless the Kirk was to make a serious u-turn on its approach to marriage then I always saw this as the primary issue to be addressed.

However, I also note that such a delay would have been entirely unsatisfactory on a number of fronts. Any opportunity to move away from discrimination and oppression ought to be taken at the earliest opportunity. The choice made today doesn’t quite meet that need either, but there is at least a glimmer of hope where there was little or nothing before. And certainly the other choice would pretty much have snuffed it out entirely.

One bigger candle of hope from today was the affirmation of sexual orientation not being a bar to ordination and training. Although it does raise interesting issues on what should happen if a subsequent partnership were to form. Do I detect the rattle of small pebbles precipitating an avalanche?

My biggest fear though is the threat of schism. There have already been rumblings that a vote for the revisionist trajectory would prompt some departures from the Church of Scotland. I’m not sure that a ‘trajectory’ really justifies that and would far prefer to see those voices stay with the Kirk, participate in the ongoing debates which need to happen and hopefully, along with everyone else, grow in grace. I don’t mean that to be ‘Christian-ese’ for ‘agree with me or you’re not a real Christian’, but rather work out how we can agree to disagree yet remain one. I know that there will be some who would say ‘good riddance’, but I think it would be very sad if any sort of schism were to happen.

So, back to the title. Is the trajectory set out upon today enough to satisfy those of a revisionist persuasion? Will there be patience to see through the next couple of years. working towards a more harmonious goal? And will a trajectory be enough to maintain a degree of unity in the Kirk?

Jan 172011
 

The recent probationers’ conference was packed with challenging and encouraging seminars. There was little that wasn’t potentially useful and even the one session I didn’t find very interesting still contained little nuggets of wisdom. And within the little nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout the sessions there were some excellent gems especially worthy of mental note and future reflection.

One such was the suggestion that all the people who do all the stuff that congregations do shouldn’t be referred to as volunteers.

Continue reading »

Dec 062010
 

Of the point behind my Masters thesis that is.

My mate Bryan at Greyfriars Parish Church, Lanark, has recently started streaming the Sunday morning services. No bad thing and on, Sunday’s snowy morning, an ideal opportunity for those unable to get to church to do more than just listen in, but to get to see what was going on. Undoubtedly, using video technology allows people to feel more part of something than simply listening to the audio.

Sunday had a slight twist to it – it was communion. A short flurry of discussion on Facebook certainly gave the impression that some who were tuned in from home shared in communion using what they had in the house. I somewhat cheekily wondered if epiclesis worked through cyberspace and that comment triggered a little bit of a (gentle) bashing.

But it’s a serious question (even though it makes something that ought to be simple, more complicated) and, in my opinion, impacts on our understanding of sacramental ministry. Bryan suggested that it was sufficient to rely on Jesus’ promise that where two or three are gathered in His name, He will be with them. Which begs the question, “Why do you need an ordained minister to pronounce an invocation, when it’s God who does all the work?” This was the core of my thesis – the Church of Scotland needs to get its brain round sacramental ministry if it is going to encourage more innovative forms of worship – and video-streaming services isn’t exactly at the extreme end of the innovation spectrum.

Someone else wondered whether it would therefore be possible to perform a baptism over the airways, so to speak. It’s exactly the same issue. Is there some sort of ‘essential presence’ that a minister, and only a minister, brings to these sacramental acts? Or is it simply a case of the practical consideration that it gets done ‘properly’, with no under-the-table jiggery-pokery?

The point I made in my thesis was that conversations around these issues really need to be happening right now, otherwise we end up with a free-for-all which will, ultimately, cause further argument within an organisations which could well do without further cause for dissension in the ranks. And these conversations need to be focused on what is happening in churches now and not just at some academic, ivory-tower, theological level.

Aug 252010
 

Last night, BBC Scotland aired a short documentary, A Church in Crisis?, about the Church of Scotland and its current circumstances. The broadcast date marks the anniversary of the Kirk’s creation following the Scottish Reformation. Peter has already blogged about the programme and notes that it offered a balanced view of the Kirk’s present state.

There was the “What’s the Kirk ever done for us?” bit; a reminder of the legacy of that early push for education and literacy which established Scotland as a leader in educational achievement. The Kirk’s social conscience was highlighted and its impact on today’s social care noted. Although that place is now filled more and more by local authority groups, the Kirk still has a significant presence in this area. It begs the question though, as a friend recently discussed with me, that perhaps the Kirk has achieved what it set out to do in this area –  show how social care ought to be done – and now it is time to invest the resources in other work of social inclusion and justice.

However, the outlining of the current state of the Kirk jangled a few nerves. It rightly highlighted falling membership, financial pressures and ministerial resources as areas causing concern. But it phrased them in a slightly disingenuous way I thought. Falling mambership cannot be disputed, but little was made of the changing social culture where ‘membership’, of anything, is increasingly becoming out-of-date. Loose affiliations and fluid loyalties are the characteristics of our present society. Any sort of ‘commitment’ has people running a mile. I’m not suggesting that the numbers attending church are in any way much rosier than they are, but membership numbers alone do not tell the whole story.

The financial situation was also misrepresented. A running deficit of just over £5m is not the same as being “nearly £6m in the red” as was reported. Again, I’m not suggesting this is an acceptable situation, but it ought tohave been reported accurately. Furthermore, little was made of the proposals to address that deficit.

Associated with that was the throwaway comment of “only four trainees have entered Scotland’s leading divinity school.” Now, while I would happily agree with that assessment of New College’s place in the ordering of things, to ignore the intake at the other institutions is irresponsible and misleading. New College has fallen foul of entrance quota restrictions in its associated University College. Those who have been unable to gain a place have deferred or have gone to one of the other institutions. A fairer report would have been to cite overall numbers in training.

But I want to highlight one final thing in the programme which went entirely unchallenged and has an insidious effect on how we, the Church, approach things. Peter fell into the same trap in his assessment as well. It is stated, without any qualification or justification, that we live in a secular society. I’m not convinced that this is true. I would, perhaps, have agreed ten or twenty years ago, but not today. Secularism is also fighting a losing battle as many more people begin to see the society of ten, twenty, thirty years ago as heading towards moral bankruptcy. In a similar way to post-war theologians, there is a reaction against the ‘me-centred’ doctrines of, in today’s case, the consumerist state. More people are now looking for ‘something else’ to help order their life. There has been, in recent years, an increase in ‘spirituality’ in our cultural mindset. The unfortunate thing is that the years of secularism have left many without the vocabulary or grounding of a Christian spirituality. Pic’n’mix religion has become the order of the day. This, I would suggest, is a very different challenge to the church. It’s one thing dealing with a society which is entirely indifferent to religion, quite another to deal with people who see all religions as their personal spiritual supermarket to pick and choose from as it suits them.

Without a doubt the Kirk has some hard times ahead but I would tend to agree with Ron Ferguson’s thoughts towards the end of the programme that a beleaguered church is not necessarily a bad thing.

MTh Research

 

In August 2010 I completed a postgraduate year at the University of Edinburgh, School of Divinity. Following a Masters by Research course, I used the opportunity to investigate the Emerging Church movement particularly as it impacts on the Church of Scotland. I opted to do an essays + short dissertation route as it provided scope for wider and more varied study. The fruits of that year – the three research essays and the dissertation – may be downloaded from here.

They are not ground-breaking theology or cutting-edge research. Nor are they the work of a dedicated and gifted theologian. They were written largely from the point of view of my own interests as I tried to grasp a little of the bigger picture of the challenges facing the Church of Scotland in a changing society and how engaging with newer forms of church could influence that. In other words, bear this very specific context and background in mind if you wish to shred them ‘theologically’.

MTh Research

Download: Dissertation - Converging Conversations  Dissertation - Converging Conversations
» 480.7 KiB - August 20, 2010
MTh dissertation. The need for 'intentional' dialogue if the Church of Scotland is to engage effectively with new forms of church.

Download: Essay - Tentative Steps towards an Emerging Kirk  Essay - Tentative Steps towards an Emerging Kirk
» 204.1 KiB - August 20, 2010
MTh Research Essay 2 An analysis of the Church of Scotland's engagement with Emerging Church through a 2009 report from Ministries Council and Mission and Discipleship Council.

Download: Essay - Looking Beyond the Labels  Essay - Looking Beyond the Labels
» 206.2 KiB - August 20, 2010
MTh Research Essay 1 An investigation of some of the underlying issues behind some of the 'post-' labels commonly associated with Emerging Church.

Download: Essay - Unity In Diversity  Essay - Unity In Diversity
» 270.5 KiB - August 20, 2010
Mth Research Essay - Barth Course Using the creedal church mark of 'One', this essay critiques Emerging Church from a Barthian perspective.

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Jun 172010
 

IMG_4031.JPGFrom the 10th to the 14th of June, I had the pleasure of spending time in Geneva with other candidates and some staff from New College. The trip was part of a rolling series of visits which include Rome and Jerusalem. I skipped the Rome trip last year as I was in Brussels. The trips are intended to be educational as well as fun and help set both the academic work and general Christian understanding in a broader world context.

Geneva, of course, was one of the wellsprings of the Protestant Reformation, famous largely, but not exclusively, as the place where Calvin taught and preached. But Geneva is also home to major world organisations: the UN, World Health Organisation, the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNHCR and many others. The group had the pleasure of visiting the World Council of Churches to get a flavour of the work they do and their vision for world Christianity.

We also took the chance to visit the cathedral, including the Sunday morning service, and we were able to worship with the Church of Scotland congregation in the Auditoire de Calvin which sits just to one side of the square occupied by the cathedral. Nikki and I also had the privilege of leading our evening devotions in the Auditoire on Friday evening. She’s written about it here and I still can’t quite get over how some silly ideas came together in the way they did. I’m still not convinced that Calvin would have entirely approved, but it was so very appropriate for the occasion.

Add to that some sight-seeing time, an excellent art gallery and some great company and it was an excellent long weekend. I’ll post some more reflections on specific parts of the trip in due course. My photo album from the trip can be found here.