Feb 132009

Today’s Church, Sacraments & Ministry tutorial was most frustrating. The initial discussion was on the subject of ‘confirmation’ and the Church of Scotland’s somewhat confused approach to it. Is it confirmation, affirmation, profession of faith, membership, admission to communion roll? Or even some mish-mash of all of these? Anyway, the main topic of conversation ended up being membership. There were a number of comments about how ‘membership’, of any organisation, is no longer seen as the done thing. “People don’t want to commit to anything these days.” “You can’t force people to join.” “Talking about membership will scare people away.” “Requiring vows of commitment and having expectations on people is not the gospel message.”

There were plenty of anecdotes about how welcoming churches are and how they engender a sense of belonging. There were also plenty about lack of welcome and plain old rudeness. None of these things is a membership issue and we should be welcoming of all who step through the church doors. Even at communion, that place where, for so long, a degree of segregation was maintained through communion cards, is much more welcoming, and rightly so. The typical words of invitation are that the table is open to ‘all who love the Lord’ even though the ‘normal’ procedure within the CofS is that it is open to those who have been baptised (but that’s just another example of the lack of joined up theology and liturgy in this whole area). There are no expectations placed on those who come to communion. There are no membership classes to be gone through, no resolutions by the Kirk Session or public professions of faith before someone can participate in the Lord’s Supper. Yet we still use the terminology of communicant roll, admission to the Lord’s table and so on in the administrative side of the church.

But when it comes to membership, then that’s a different kettle of fish. Does it need a liturgy of confirmation simply to commit to being involved in church life? Is it not merely an administrative task? Yet at the same time, becoming a member of a church is a big deal for many people. It does represent a deeper sense of commitment, often as a response to a recognition of coming to faith or of a new ‘level’ of faith which draws them into a deeper desire to serve. that’s not to say that non-members cannot contribute to the life of a church. But it does raise issues for the Church of Scotland. Its practices and procedures do not allow involvement in the church courts unless you are a member. You have no say in the calling of a minister to your particular charge if you are not a member. So, regardless of whether ‘membership’ is a dirty word, you cannot escape the reality of it in the CofS.

I’ve no doubt that there are good and bad ways of approaching the issue, but you cannot duck out of the responsibility of dealing with it. And the issue of tying it, in some way, to a rite of passage such as public profession of confirmation is something that also need to be dealt with. Does profession of faith make you a member of a church (or perhaps more accurately, a member of a congregation)? And surely it’s only reasonable to expect someone to understand the membership vows they are to be taking and, more importantly, expect them to make such a commitment in the first place and hence the need for membership classes.

Yes I can see how membership and commitment and expectations would be an anathema to many in today’s society, and I can also see how it might be off-putting to those who might be fragile and simply want to feel that sense of belonging, but I don’t think that they can be set aside entirely. They may need to be dealt with more sensitively and there may need to be a bit of theological, liturgical and practical sorting out, but scripture never says that following Jesus means coming and going as you please, living a life that is unchanged or being commitment-shy. It may be that society does promote these values, but the Christian life is, in so many ways, counter-cultural.

Perhaps the biggest issue here is that the CofS needs to separate its theological practice from its administrative practice and then work out where they need to join back up again rather than the somewhat messy mix we have at the moment.