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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Want to study the reformation for free?

If you have ever wanted to know more about the 16th Century Reformation and is lasting effect today, why not try the free course at the Khan Academy. It reviews the whole history of that era in a non-partisan way by exploring the personalities, politics and theologies involved. There is also the opportunity to comment and ask questions of this ‘sea-change’ that still influences Christian witness here and now.

 

Here is its link:

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/history/1500-1600-Renaissance-Reformation/protestant-reformation/a/an-introduction-to-the-protestant-reformation

 

Good studying !

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

 

Martin Luther – Here I stand!

Texts:

Romans 1.11-17

Galatians 3.26-4.7

When they are on the goggle box, we all love court room dramas. And our next turning point in the Reformation has one. It happened during a legal sitting of the Holy Roman Emperor who was the overlord of broadly the Low Countries, Germany and Spain. For, you see, Martin Luther had been called before this diet to make his case in 1521. He had been promised safe passage there but this had been breached in the previous case of Jan Hus and he rightly could fear the flames of a heretic’s death. So in his first appearance at the diet of worms – yes the schoolboy howler of the diet of worms, he was naturally very nervous. And so when he was asked to recant his views, he must have been strongly tempted to do so. Yet he managed to ask for a night to think it over. The emperor granted that and next morning he returned with renewed courage. In fact, he stood his ground of basing his theology on the rational discovery of truth through Scripture. Albeit probably he did not use the words later put into his mouth – here I stand, I can do no other. Nevertheless, it was that stance which was the starting gun for the reformation.

But what were these views that a devout man would risk the funeral pyre for and spark a European conflict of such dimensions that were not paralleled until the 20th Century? Moreover, what is the relevance of Luther’s theology today?

Well, without troubling you with a history lesson, Luther was reacting to both the thinking and practice of the church of his day. In general terms, the church considered that while we needed God’s help to get into a right relationship with him, some seeds of goodness lay within us. It’s a bit like serving a long prison sentence and then being given the generous offer of paying a large fine to be released. You dig out the old credit card and pay up from your own financial resources. Luther however, had a life long struggle find his wallet. In other words, year upon year, he fought to come up to the righteous measure of God; to meet God’s unwavering law as he saw it. But he felt a constant failure and feared God’s wrath at not being able to find any goodness within himself. Then he chanced on our Romans reading from today. He came to the conclusion, that nothing we can do can give us the right relationship with God.

But don’t worry – Luther knew a man who could. And that man was Jesus of Nazareth. For it is Christ –  who is external to us – that supplies all that is needed to get right with God – to be saved in the parlance. Returning to our prison analogy, we would be released not by our own payment but because the fine had been paid by someone else on our behalf. All that we would need is faith – faith in the man who had bailed us out – faith in Christ Jesus.

Well, assuming we too want to be in the right relationship with God, what did Luther mean by faith?

Certainly, he meant more than what many people claim is their faith today. Since, we can all hear the facts of Jesus’ life; listen to his words and even marvel at his needs. Yet unless somehow we actually go beyond an intellectual acceptance of Christ’s life and death and resurrection it is not saving faith. Instead, we must integrate the person beyond the parables into our heart of hearts. And we do that best by coming to complete submission; submitting to the truth that Jesus was born for us personally and submitting to he who alone who puts us right with God on an individual level. Put simply no church or minister can do that for you- only you can give in and find the living and saving Christ for yourself.

However, it goes beyond even that. For faith, to Luther, also meant trust. Now I don’t know about you but I am a nervous flyer in commercial aircraft. Pilot a glider or a light aircraft I can do – but when I enter the door of an airliner I feel the same as Luther at his can of worms. In other words, I have faith that the Boeing 737 before me can take me to London but I still have to have the faith to get into the contraption. So too it is with saving faith. We must not just believe that Jesus can get us right with God, we need also to rely that he has done so. That means taking risks in that faith. It means get out of the boat and walk impossibly on the water in that faith. It means truly living each day in that faith.

But Luther didn’t even stop there. Since for him there was a third and final aspect to being saved through faith. Because he saw faith not just putting us right with God and giving us a new dimension to living. Rather he saw faith uniting us with Christ. In his words faith bring union between Christ and the believer.

And that is pretty powerful stuff. This is the idea too of Paul that we heard of in Galatians. For, through faith, we cast aside slavery to rules and regulations, required practices and things we must do to get in with God. Through faith we forget worrying when we do fail. Indeed, through faith we will fail less often. Because through faith we are not just wiped clean and set free, we are adopted into the family of God.  And it is as his heirs alone we inherit a forgiven life eternal.

C S Lewis once wrote – In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know I am a very nasty man. I look at some of the things I have done with horror or loathing. Well, deep down I suspect most of us feel something like that from time to time. For that is the very nature of our mixed up humanness. Yet Luther, even if we spoke nearly five hundred years ago, shows us the way out of that pit of despondency. For, he said – have faith and invite Christ into that dark inner place. Countless Christians since have trusted rightly in that presence of Christ to get them through of the mess, over the chasm and out of the boat. And even in these Godless days, Christ still says to you and me; come brother, come sister – I will make you right  with God – I will make you free – Indeed, I will make you forever.

Amen