Recently BBC Scotland broadcasted a programme A Church in Crises to mark the 450th Anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland. The broadcast focused mainly on the Church of Scotland, the national church in Scotland. While the program was one sided presenting the down side of the church it had given food for thought to many in the Church. This week I attended the presbytery meeting and the outgoing Moderator gave a sermon which could be taken as a partial response to the BBC program. I found the sermon very good and I asked Peter for a transcript and the permission to share it with the world. He was so kind and as a result below is the transcript of the sermon delivered by Peter Kershaw the outgoing Moderator of the Westlothian Presbytery on the 7th of September 2010 at Bathgate High Parish Church. Thanks Peter!
“It’s been a very busy two years as Moderator of West Lothian Presbytery. At the communion service which opened the new Presbytery year, after which I handed the moderatorship (if such a word exists) to Rev. Norman Macrae, I had the chance to offer a few reflections on the last year. Scott has very generously allowed me to publish them in the magazine. The Bible readings which are referred to later in the address are Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 12: 9 – 18 and the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 20: 1 – 16
There are two starting points for the reflections: one is the recent BBC television programme “A Church in Crisis?”. The other was Terry Pratchett’s latest book “I shall wear midnight”, where one of the characters reflects that “You need to know where you have come from to work out where you should be going.”
So where do we come from? This year we mark 450 years since the Scottish Parliament decided that the reformed church should be the national church of Scotland, commonly referred to as “450 years since the Reformation”. Of course nothing is ever that simple, and the work of reform had begun some considerable number of years earlier, and continued for many years after that date. I don’t think that John Knox would recognise the Church of Scotland if he saw it today. We no longer paint church interiors green for one thing — and please don’t tell Historic Scotland the the reformers had all churches painted green, or they will want to insist on it for all churches of that date! That is as it should be, for as a church we must continue to look for new ways to preach the gospel message, ways that will reach out beyond the walls of the churches to the whole of society.
With such a significant anniversary, you would expect the media to take some notice of the church. But the most prominent media event so far has been the programme on BBC Scotland, “A Church in Crisis” – its claims to accuracy were somewhat undermined by the illustration shown before the programme on the iPlayer, which was a picture of one of the Free Church buildings in Edinburgh. It claimed to find out “what the Reformation did for us” and “whether we would miss the Kirk” – I’m not sure who the “we” refers to. It was a very strange programme, and in the end somewhat depressing. It was very good on the “what did the Reformation do for Scotland” part: highlighting both the provision of state education and the provision of a nation wide framework of care for the less fortunate in society as two of the major gifts to Scotland from the reformed church.
But when it moved to the question of the place of the church in society today, all that there was ultimately was a hole. You were left with an impression of a young minister working hard in his parish, but with a “dwindling” congregation for a Sunday service in a community centre – and he had to set the chairs out himself – and over all the pictures of his parish work and the service you heard the usual commentary about the decline in numbers, a note about the dire financial straits that the church finds itself in, a comment about possible splits, and lots of pictures of closed churches, and a prediction of the end of the Kirk by 2030. And inevitably it came to the conclusion that the Kirk would have to change to survive. Not exactly a revolutionary conclusion.
But make no mistake about it, the Kirk would be missed at a national level if it suddenly disappeared. And one of the greatest threats to the Church of Scotland at the minute is the possibility of splits within it. There are many issues on which we disagree: liberty of opinion on matters which are not part of the fundamentals of faith is built into the DNA of the church – if it were not so we would not need the guidance of the Spirit to find new ways of living and preaching the good news – and we constantly need to do that as the needs of the society within which we live change constantly. But this is an agreement which only holds as long as people in their weakness, and in their humility, continue to stick to it. Paul would describe it as “Be not wise in your own conceits.” We must find a way of staying together to carry out the tasks Christ has entrusted to us: our witness to the nation is weakened if we cannot reconcile our different insights into the ways in which God is working in the world today, and recognise that what unites us in Christ is far far stronger and more important that anything that can divide us. We will shortly gather round the Communion table to celebrate our deep unity, not just with each other but also with all the faithful throughout the ages. Let us all remember this in all we do.
Despite this it has to be admitted that the message that is coming down from the central administration and leadership of the church is distinctly down beat if not depressing. This picture could have been replicated from parts of the General Assembly and these sessions were the ones that hit the newspapers and the television – they love bad news, it gives them something to comment on at great length! I wasn’t a commissioner, but I was at the General Assembly on the Saturday, when the report of the Ministries Council was debated. It was a debate which left all of us in no doubt that cuts were going to have to be made, and the plans that all Presbyteries had spent time and effort creating and implementing over the last 10 years were going to have to be completely re-written, as there was no longer enough money to fund them. And that of course means that plans which individual parishes have made will also need to be re-thought. It was a really down-beat debate, the Assembly Hall was hot and airless, it finished well after 5 pm, and the majority of the commissioners left wearily at the end of it – many were staying outside the centre of town and had arranged meals, and there were evening events starting at 6.30. All those who left were under no illusions that there were hard choices ahead of the Church, and that the near future promised lots of hard work and no certainty of a good outcome.
But it was followed by the report of the Social Care Council. It didn’t pull any punches, it didn’t pretend that things weren’t difficult. But it gave a picture of the church as the body of Christ in the world, people exercising their gifts for others, “contributing to the needs of God’s people” as Paul puts it – and doing it in Christ’s name. It was a most inspiring session, and those who had to leave early missed a treat. – and I suspect it’s a long time since a General Assembly debate was called a treat! The Church of Scotland is the largest provider of social care services in Scotland today. Caring for others in Christ’s name – it’s one of the things we are called to do, and it is one of the legacies that the Reformation has left to Scotland But what of the church in the parish? After all, that’s what most of us know as the church – we may realise that the church does other things as well, but the place where church happens for most of us is in the parish. Would the church be missed?
Well, the answer to that question is to ask what the church is actually doing – and if you look up and down the country you will find that the church is actually doing far more than those outside imagine. Even leaving worship out of the balance, churches up and down this Presbytery are vibrant, living places. Look at the way that young people are catered for – the group that is supposed to be untouched by Church. Again, leave out the work that is traditionally called “church”, i.e. the Sunday School, there’s hardly a Church in Presbytery that doesn’t support at least one youth group – in may cases a number of groups. They may be uniformed organisations, they may be youth club type groups, they may be groups of singers, they may be Scripture Union groups – but without the church none of them would exist. Add in the “caring groups” – after school clubs, holiday clubs, mother and toddler clubs – and then people say that the church wouldn’t be missed?? And then multiply that by the number of organisations which bring together people of all ages. That’s how you get a sense of the reach of the church through Scotland today, and find an answer to the question of whether Scotland would miss the Kirk.
This is why our two readings this evening have focused on working for the Kingdom. Paul points out that we all have different gifts, that we all need to use them with all out hearts in Christ’s service, in love for Him and the world. It’s one of the themes that he comes back to again and again: the overarching love of God for his world, and the way in which we as Christians need to reflect that love to the world. That was one of the things that so impressed the Greeks and Romans about the early church – “See how these Christians love each other” is a quotation from a writer around 200 years after Christ’s birth, and it was one of the reasons that he became a Christian. Things aren’t that different today: the “outside world” judges us not on what we say but on what we do: if we preach love to all but reject some, how can we seriously expect anyone to listen to us?
It’s not easy, Paul says we need “unflagging energy”. Live the Christian life according to the precepts he lays down, and we will be able to witness effectively to Scotland and the world. And we can do it – we know we can do it because we are doing it, person by person, each according to his or her gifts. The gospel passage, the Workers in the Vineyard, is a very profound one with many different shades of meaning: I think it is one of the deepest parables that Jesus gave us, and I really only want to look briefly at one aspect of it here – you could preach sermon after sermon on it, and still find new things to say about it. In some ways it is a very simple story, with a very simple message: God has chosen us to work for him, and has set each one of us tasks. But it also reminds us that God doesn’t have favourites: he loves all of us equally, no matter what the task he has given to each of us may be.
And that need to carry out the task God gives us brings me back to where we started. The reformers carried out the tasks that were set before them. They may still be remembered by name, like John Knox or Andrew Melville. Their names may have been forgotten on earth, though still remembered by God. But whether we know their names or not, we owe them a great debt. And we repay that debt by witnessing to Christ in the very changed society that we have today. That’s the real way to celebrate what they did for Scotland, the real way to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Scottish Reformation – to carry on their work of bringing the Gospel to Scotland by prayer, preaching and practical ways of showing God’s love to the world”.
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