What is the Scottish Vision?

saltireJohn Drane explores a new spiritual vision for Scotland when he writes….

The first thing to say is that Scotland is not the same as England! We have different legal, educational, and healthcare systems from our nearest neighbours, and soon we might even be a foreign country. Our churches are also different.

Anglicans are Scottish Episcopalians. The national church, the Church of Scotland, is Presbyterian. And whatever you do, don’t confuse the Free Church of Scotland with the Free Churches in England! But the challenges and opportunities with which our churches are wrestling are the same as everywhere else in the developed countries of the western world.

The difficulties facing our churches are by no means unique, though we do have some distinctive historical baggage: in common with other European countries where the Reformation had a more stridently puritanical flavour than in England, Scotland is arguably a more secular country than other parts of the UK and many people are openly cynical about the role of religious institutions. Rapid and discontinuous cultural change has also taken its toll on traditional church life and though there are pockets of new life, in many places the story is one of declining numbers and aging congregations.

More than a decade ago, the Church of Scotland’s Church without Walls report (2001) gave a focus for new thinking about the nature of a missional church. In 2011 another report (Reformed, Reforming, Emerging and Experimenting), which I jointly authored with Olive Fleming Drane, documented the emergence of new forms of Christian faith community and highlighted the need for fresh thinking that would recognise these ventures within the structures of the church.

As the Joint Emerging Church Group of the Ministries Council and the Mission and Discipleship Council reflected on all this, the obvious conclusion was that the Church of Scotland should become a partner in Fresh Expressions. One church leader recently suggested that this is the first time since the Reformation that the Church of Scotland and the Church of England have collaborated on specifically missional issues (as distinct from social and political matters). I have no idea whether that is entirely true, but it is undoubtedly a momentous opportunity for churches on both sides of the border.

Of course, Fresh Expressions has been represented right from the start in Scotland through those congregations that belong to the Methodist Church and more recently the URC and Salvation Army. They will welcome the Church of Scotland’s partnership, not least because the Kirk is numerically dominant over all other Protestant denominations (seven or eight times bigger than all the rest put together) and when it embraces something, that often creates an environment in which others can flourish more easily.

Unlike other denominations though, the Church of Scotland has a presence throughout the country. So this is a significant moment for those who are concerned with the re-evangelisation of Scotland. Central to this vision is an invitation to every parish to explore the possibilities of establishing an appropriately contextualised fresh expression of church by the year 2020 – something that will hopefully be pursued in an ecumenical context.

This will be a major challenge to many congregations, where change of any sort can seem alien and threatening. But a growing number of people have already glimpsed new possibilities and are eager to push forward with a new vision.

Since 2010, more than 200 individuals of all denominations have completed the mission shaped ministry course in Inverness, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen, whilst vision days have taken place in other locations. The new partnerships will hopefully create spaces in which these people will be released to be in the vanguard of the development of fresh expressions in both urban and rural locations.

For there is no doubt that – especially at this time of national uncertainty, as we consider our relationship with the rest of the UK – our people need a new spiritual vision that will take us forward into what by any definition is an unknown future, to hear the gospel afresh in ways that will be comprehensible within today’s culture while also remaining true to the call of Jesus.

All very fine – but what is the vision and more to the point how do we make it happen?

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A Man for all Seasons

Matthew 5.17-20

Matthew 5.1-10

‘The past is a foreign country’, L. P. Hartley reminds us at the beginning of The   Go-Between; ‘they do things differently there’.  Put simple if we do not study the past we are not only doomed to repeat its mistakes we also do not learn what doing things differently could mean for us. Now this is the 450 year of the reformation in our wee Scotland and nearly 500 years since Luther posted his 95 articles on a door in back of beyond Germany. Yet these small acts dare I say in small places ripped Europe up more quickly than Hitler did when he invaded Poland.   Since we are talking about a time when being on the wrong side, having the wrong theology or worshipping in the wrong way could mean death. Indeed, the 30 years religious war killed possibly 30% of the German population alone; German total casualties from Second World War being around 11%. The Reformation too has had a much longer effect that the political upheavals that divided Europe with a concrete wall last Century. Since its differing ideas are still a barrier to unity in the Christian church even today. Nevertheless, the 15th century of the reformation has much in common with our 21 st Century and therefore has much to say to us despite the controversies it still stirs up. So let us proceed but let us proceed gently.

Now I would not say that Erasmus was gentle but he certainly had a spirituality around him that made him try to be a peace maker. Born in Rotterdam in 1466, he lived in the years immediately preceding the Reformation and throughout it. Yet despite the violence, disorder and oppression it engendered, he remained a voice of rationality, calm and moderation. He indeed remained true to beatitudes.

And this scholar was well placed to do so. For, he was a towering intellect of his age and the key figure in the then humanist movement. Humanism back then I rush to say had little to do with today’s fig leaf term for militant atheism. Rather it was product of the renaissance when the individual citizen started to emerge from behind both the totalitarian control of the church and princes. It was the germ of every human being having the right to think for themselves. It was the embryo if little more of universal human freedom.

And Erasmus found these discoveries of human individuality in the classical works that brought back to life the thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome. He re-found in the ancient languages of Greek and Hebrew the true text of scriptures that had been less well translated many centuries before. Moreover, he pushed forward the brand new way of mass communication which was the printing press.

Since by Erasmus day, the church had both mired itself in corrupt practices and had allowed a very dry academic approach to the bible and theology reign. The latter is often typified, probably apocryphally, as theologians arguing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Instead, Erasmus and his colleagues such as Thomas More looked to scripture having a genuine impact of ordinary people’s lives – their problems, their fears and their aspirations. That’s why in a sermon, he once preached:

I would like to hear the farmer sing scripture at the plough, a weaver keep his shuttle time to it and the traveller find his journey better by its stories.

And what was Erasmus’ line of attack. It was to offer a new and more accurate version of the New Testament in Greek which then could be translated into people’s own languages. In other words, he wanted everyone to be able to read the bible for themselves or at least hear it read in the vanacular.

However, his vision would have been hopelessly optimistic until the invention of the printing press and its use of paper some 50 years earlier. Now texts no longer needed to hand copied onto expressive animal skin parchment. Now hundreds if not thousands of copies could be produced quickly and cheaply. Now new ideas could and did spread like wildfire across Western Europe.  Because, who can doubt that it is the printed word that has changed the average human lot than most other invention.  Erasmus view then was if the ploughman and milk maid were going to learn to read – it should be to read something worthwhile – something that will edify their common humanity and something that will draw them nearer to a personal savior in Jesus Christ.

Well ultimately Erasmus failed in his attempt to reconcile the reformers with the then only church. In fact, he himself never broke with that church and is often seen as neither fish nor fowl. Yet his legacy to us all is immeasurable. For, he provided the tools for both the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation. More to the point, he contributed hugely to the developing sense of an individual relationship with a personal God who stands above yet in total fulfliment of the law.

However, he also leaves us with one very relevant challenge to us here and how. Since, we too are now in a highly individualistic age. But we are also in a similar age as to that of Erasmus in terms of new forms of communication. Becuase just as the printing press utterly changed human history there is little doubt that Television and the internet are doing the same. Erasmus example then asks us – how do we use them for the good of our common humanity and enjoyment of God?

Interestingly, Erasmus, although a lifelong scholar, spent less time in universities than he did the printing shops of Europe. Because as the new technology spread to places like Oxford and Venice, printing presses became like polytechnics today. Since each needed master printers, editors, reviewers and typesetters versed not just in their own language but also Latin and Greek and maybe Hebrew. Here then were the factories of communication that feed those hungry for fresh and true word of God.

Therefore let us too not reject new ways of communicating. Instead, let us embrace them with vigour, enthusiasm and gratitude. For, arguably, Christianity in Britain has made a lamentable shambles of it use of TV. But let us not make the same mistake over the web and new ideas of Christian education such as interactive learning, games and newer forms of worship. For, not to join the future is to be lost in the past.

On the other hand, if do set our hand to the presses of this age, we will be faced with a hard task yet one that is undeniably in the lord’s service.  For as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who is acutely points out – the task confronting the Churches is the bearing witness to Christ in a society that  wants to portray Christian faith as ‘an obstacle to human freedom and a  scandal to the human intellect’. But that is precisely the great ecumenical challenge to the Christian Churches in modern Britain and to every Christian.

Let us then take up that gauntlet, reform and press on…..

Amen

 

Called to Speak

Exodus 4.10-17

Matthew 10.24-33

During our holiday we visited Upton house near Banbury in Oxfordshire. We arrive on a warm Saturday afternoon to be asked – did we want to attend a millionaire’s house party? All though we felt that we did not qualify by being about 999,999 pounds short, we agreed. And so we were greeted at the mansion’s door by one of the National Trust Guides in evening gown and feathered head band to be addressed you as your grace, or worship or my lord. She then assured us that the servants would be getting your bags to our rooms, told us when we must dress for dinner at 8 pm and enquired whether our valets had told the butler our preferred wine. She then recommended, although did not serve up, a 1930’s cocktail called the earthquake. The reason for the name was that it contained nearly every form of alcohol possible and so after drinking it there could be an earthquake and you couldn’t care less!

Of course, the whole charade was no more than a house tour built around the theme of a ‘between the wars’ weekend party. But what a great way to communicate – to communicate about something that was a great passion to all the mock flappers and hooray henries who were acting as guides – to communicate about a way of life they thought we should know of? What a great way indeed to get our interest!

Well, If only we had the same enthusiasm, initiative and panache to explain what is important to us. Put directly, if only we had the same will and ability to communicate the meaning of the living presence of Christ Jesus in our lives.

Therefore as we start a new series of sermons on what we are called to be, let us commence with the greatest of all callings – the calling to be communicators. A calling enshrined in out gospel text of today. Since it was there we hear the need to acknowledge Jesus before all humankind and to do so without fear.

Here then is our clear call to stand up and speak up – here is our call to share our enthusiasm and knowledge – here is our commissioning as communicators.

However, recent studies have shown that many people fear public speaking more than chronic illness and even death. And most of us can empathize with that phobia. For after all, few of us can stand on our feet and spout forth un-self-consciously. It is then we need to recall Moses; that Moses who was so full of excuses and that Moses who claimed that he was slow of speech and tongue. But also that self-same Moses who God helped to be his chosen communicator by giving him a method by which to communicate. Because, it is of course much easier to be a communicator of any great truth if have a plan and a technique and a vision of what we want to achieve.

Now when I was in Dartmouth we were taught our leadership skills from a formula developed by one Professor John Adair. Well Adair also wrote a book on effective communications. And in it he laid down a few simple rules; a plan that indeed would take our calling as communicators forward and a technique that will help us effectively bear witness to Christ even if like Moses we have no great gift of eloquence.

For Adair starts by requiring us to be clear and to be well prepared – Great guidance. For how can we hope to make Jesus’ case to an easily distracted world if we do not know what God has done for us, is doing for us and what he will do for us. In all honesty, how can we be powerful Christian advocates if we have not thought through where Jesus is leading us and why we want to go there.

Similarly, Adair reminds us to be simple and vivid. For surely our lord chose not long legalistic diatribes to get his message over. Instead he chose the memorable parable, the sharp story and the even sharper direct command. Therefore, let us cast aside the thees and thous of the Stuart Kings, the vocabulary that is straight out of a theological dictionary and the holy Willie phrasing that some adopt.  Instead all we need do is recognise the great wisdom of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania who once gave advice on being a communicator like this:

Speak in a few, plain words that are your own and speak not showily but to be understood.

Finally, our illustrious Professor tells us to be natural. Jesus never wanted us to purport to be anyone other than ourselves. An that is a person of faith – even if from time to time we fail it; a person of beliefs – even if from time to time we do not understand them and a person of compassion even when from time to time we forget it. Because in the end of the day, it was Moses with all his faults and failings who led a disbelieving people out of meaningless captivity through a doubt-filled dessert and into the promised land. Christ today then asks no less or no more from us!

However, all this sounds difficult and hard work.  And when we start out as God’s Communicators, it probably will be even when we know the prize of our success will be enormous. Yet Christ knew this when he counseled against the easy option. Moses also knew this when he asked for God assistance in his forthcoming witnessing. Professor Adair too was aware of the difficulties for anyone wishing to begin to communicate effectively.  And that is why he concludes his book by remarking:

Like learning a new language, speaking out at first seems awkward. But it is not unnatural because we are only perfecting our natural gifts. Eventually, with persistence, our efforts will drift into our subconscious abilities and then we will have the power and joy to influence others with a message which is greater than ourselves.

Happy communicating!