Crisis!? What crisis?

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disputed, but little was made of the changing social culture where ‘membership’, of anything, is increasingly becoming out-of-date.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.

6 responses to “Crisis!? What crisis?”

  1. Hey John,
    Thanks for the post, I was intrigued to see what you would write as someone coming into the ministry. I agree with most of it, and I think it was good to highlight some of the errors in the programme. I noted some of these as the programme went on, but I didn’t think they overtly altered the thrust of what was in the documentary.
    On the secularism issue, I wonder if we are talking about the same thing? I’m not really talking about a hedonistic individualism which seems to be what you are dismissing as morally bankrupt. I wholeheartedly agree that there is still great interest in the spiritual side of life (though not the religious), and that is why I strongly believe that when people really hear Jesus’ message it still is captivating – it is just all the theological and material gubbins that tends to go along with it and sadly often gets in the way.
    When I referred to a secular culture I was referring more to what I would see as the egalitarian movement that has destroyed what had been accepted understandings of the powerful, the knowledgeable and the wise. It is a culture that has given the individual much more control over what they do and think. It has changed communities from settled into ever changing amorphous groups bonded by much less lasting ties.
    100 years ago a minister would have been in the position of the powerful, knowledgeable and wise person in the community. Not so much now, if at all. Personally, I think that is a good and healthy thing but it means that the way we do church and build Christian communities changes radically from a hierarchical model to a much more relational model – which, let’s be honest, is what Jesus was doing before the church started to get it all wrong!

  2. Absolutely agree with you about the programme being sad and irresponsible, and about society being more spiritual nowadays. Why did the CofS media dept let editorial control do this to us all? I’ve had a go about it on my blog too. Every Blessing

  3. I saw most of the programme and what I saw is reflected in your main points. I. too, would argue that secularists are struggling against a growing tide of spirituality. As you point out, there are those with loose affiliations who are seeking for something beyond themselves. I think that’s why Dawkins and the like are agitated in their opposition to anything remotely anti-evolutionary. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Beeb has an anti-Kirk agenda, as do most of the media channels, but the Beeb are now more obvious than most.  

  4. John, Thanks for your accurate review and assessment of the programme. I also watched it and agree that it should have made more of the rising interest in spirituality in society. However, since most of that rise is currently expressed outwith the Church of Scotland it could perhaps be said that it was outwith the scope of the programme. It was only half-an-hour long, after all. If the journalist and researchers are not amongst those who are seeking for the spiritual realities then they may never be aware that people are still searching.

  5. Having now seen this program, I have to agree with much already said. One thing that really got my goat was the presenter implying the Kirk didn’t need to provide social care, as that’s what the state’s for.! Grrr, if the state was doing such a great job Crossreach would not be the biggest provider of social care in Scotland!

    Yes, there may be trouble ahead, but I firmly believe this is a pruning of the overgrown bush. Who knows where and how amazing new shoots will appear? But, with God’s grace, they will.

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