Paranoia, Metanoia and the Church


When you look out there what is staring back at you is only you. There is nothing to blame. It is only you. And even when you look at the church, it is the same. It stares back. There is no entity out there which is the church at all. It is only and wholly a reflection of you. Or else it is the Body of Christ but that is pretty advanced and it means letting go of me at the centre and that is very advanced spiritual work.

There is a book about which people are talking. It is called The Invisible Church. It is probably worth reading but I haven’t read it. It introduces an idea of the invisible church but not at all in the way I am thinking about it here. I am only using the title as a link.

I mean ‘invisible church’ as in ‘Body of Christ’. Its boundaries are not defined by us. We neither decide nor dictate where it begins or where it ends. That church is not about a list of names. That church is about specific actions and activity. It is the coincidence of the divine and the human in the world. As God does so does that community of faith. It is community born out of and existing wholly in faith. It is real presence. It is caught up in a mission. It is caught up in the mission of Christ we saw expressed in Jesus of Nazareth. It is the Body of Christ in the world as Jesus was the Body of Christ in the world. It is incarnation all the way.

There is only invisible church. That why you can’t see it. That is why when you do see it what you are seeing is not church at all. The chances are, and here I am hedging my bets, when you think you see the church, you are looking at yourself. It is not that there is nothing out there. It is just that what you see is yourself. It is the same when you look at other people. What you see reflects you. You are angry and the world seems angry. You are cynical and the world seems untrustworthy. You project all the time.

But the church provides everyone’s excuse. It is hypocritical, anachronistic, concerned with itself, a business, self-seeking, self-serving, self-deluding. All of this is true of the church every time I have looked at it. Frighteningly, all of this is also true of me.

I have always known that there is no church and that the thing I see is actually me but it took a moment of uncharacteristic insight and self-awareness last week for it really to sink in.

Sitting in the General Assembly,  #GA2016 to the Twitter elite to whom and with whom I (@neilgcampbell) tweeted happily the whole seven days, there were moments in which I thought that there was hope for the church, glimpses of the kingdom, glimmers of light, speeches and comments which radiated warmth and truth and gentle certainty.  Without doubt there were all of these things. There are some very impressive and sincere people in the Church of Scotland. And yet sometimes when these good and sincere people spoke I heard something different. There was dullness, cynicism, tired repetition of the same formulaic, dogmatic nonsense.

But nothing external had changed or was changing. What changed in the tick tock of one second becoming the next was me. My mind changed. My mood changed. The world changed.

Good #GA2016, Bad #GA2016. They co-existed. They were one and the same. They co-existed without conflict because they did not exist other than in my head. And I was critical of what I saw going on out there but uncritical and blissfully unaware of what was happening internally. What I criticised and decried out there was what I dislike within myself. The scary stuff was not out there. It was in my head. It was me. I was seeing my faith, my life, my belief, my behaviour. I wasn’t seeing the church. What I was seeing was a projection, as clear as day is day, of me. I liked it and didn’t like it much as I like and dislike aspects of myself.

I have been a minister sufficiently long to know that this is what is at the heart of, the cause of, difficult church meetings and challenging congregations. There is projection all of the time. The angry member of the congregation, the challenging elder, the disgruntled congregation or minister, we are all doing it. Our rose or other coloured spectacles are in fact  contact lenses and we do not even know that we are wearing them. Nothing is as it seems.

The angry elder is not angry with the rest of us. He is angry with himself. Righteous anger is not usually expressed aggressively. Righteous anger is rare in churches.

For all of us, the church I see is me. When I’m OK, it is OK. When I am not OK, the church is not OK. The real church, the incarnation of Christ – which is what ‘Body of Christ’ means – is invisible. You can sense its activity, its work, its presence but you cannot see it. The church we can see is the rest of us. And it is onto this that one projects oneself.

The way out is ‘metanoia’, a Greek word mistranslated in our English Bibles as ‘repentance’. This mistranslation goes back to the early Latin translations of the Bible, the Greek ‘metanoeo’ became the Latin ‘paenitentiam agite'(1) to which Tertullian objected. What metanoia means is a change of mind, a new way of seeing, seeing the whole or the bigger picture.

Here that bigger picture is the picture in which everything does not revolve around you. When you see the church, you see, you see yourself. The church as the embodiment of you, projected, of course, onto a much bigger screen so it looks bigger and worse than you but it is nevertheless you. And what you hate in yourself, you utterly despise in the bigger and much worse version of yourself you mistakenly see as the church.

But metanoia changes it. Its centre is Christ. The centre of everything is Christ. Through whom and with whom everything comes into being as John’s Gospel says. And you can now see it because you are looking without judgement, without envy, with no malice, no comment, no fear. It is as it is. It is what it is. It is all in all. It is. God is. And there it is.

Without metanoia, the man with a mortgage and a car and a pension plan reads the story of Jesus and the rich man with the same unease that he observes in the church which preaches on it uneasily and nervously. But it isn’t the church’s preaching which is nervous. It is his hearing.

His house has more rooms than he needs and he holidays while the poor remain poor and he watches a church do similarly with its money and possessions and assets. The man is critical. He hates and criticises what he sees without recognising that church-hatred is self-loathing. We who compromise and justify ourselves need a church which does the same. We need it. We create it. We create it and we hate it and we try to leave it and we find ourselves torn apart.

It took an uncomfortable, sometimes comfortable, comforting, challenging week at #GA2016 for me to be reminded of the truth. It is not the church which needs to change it is me. And the New Testament expression, key to Jesus’ teaching, is metanoia, seeing the bigger picture, seeing it for what it is.

(1) e.g., Pœnitentiam agite: appropinquavit enim regnum cælorum, Matthew 4:17, ‘Repent: the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’.


The Journey is the Teacher


Whether it was a recent BBC Radio Programme about the poems of Philip Larkin or a reflection of my own state of mind but I have returned to the title of that wonderful Larkin poem, Church Going more and more in my thinking in the last ten days. A week at the General Assembly has left me both encouraged and challenged. Encouraged that there is life in the church, life as in a glimmer of the Kingdom of God, and challenged just because the whole thing is a challenge.

The Church is always going, hanging by its fingernails, on the cusp of glorious and total annihilation.

Dumfries Northwest, the congregation of which I am minister, is a community of unceasing activity. We are a friendly congregation and for the first time in my career I find myself actually enjoying the thought of being there to lead worship on a Sunday morning because there is a feeling that there is something going on above and beyond and at a deeper level than the simple neurotic act of singing hymns and praying that a respectable number of people turns up. Nobody with half a brain would turn up simply to sing hymns anyway. I’d be wary of anyone who did. There would have to be a catch. There has to be something more to being part of a church. There is and whatever it is operates at a social and psychological as well as theological level.

But Dumfries Northwest Church is in danger of being channelled into becoming a self-serving entity which exists because

of what it does and all that it does is done in order to justify and ensure its continued existence. That is not a church. It is not authentic church anyway.

The chaos of a decade ago has passed. That was when Dumfries Northwest had not been conceived and the congregation existed in a bad marriage, an arranged marriage, an awkward union of two sets of congregations. For almost nine years it has had a new name and is effectively a new congregation but only now is it really getting to grips with who it is and where its identity lies and, even more important, comes from. Its strength is that knows it is struggling with this. A great many other congregations don’t recognise what our congregation sees and acknowledges and that is far more dangerous. We know we are confused.

Dumfries Northwest is a self-conscious and self-aware congregation with a hard-working Kirk Session existing somewhere around its centre and for the first time in my twenty-nine years of being in full-time ministry I do not have a single elder who is not engaging every week with the work, ministry, and worship of the church.

Church-going is church-teetering and church-teetering is church- challenged.  Our challenge is this. Between being, on the one hand,  a church which does nothing more than facilitate hymn-singing on a Sunday and some religious club-like activities during the week and, on the other hand, a social entity which is driven by a need to fill every second with worthwhile (financially worthwhile?) community orientated activity there has to be something else. It is this towards which we are working. It is hard to plot a trajectory when you can’t see where you want to end up. So we can’t.

On Wednesday evening the Kirk Session will be faced with the dilemma with which a number of us are already wrestling. Do we move all out for funding which will pay for our increasing smoregasboard of community ministry (and by happy co-incidence, pay for the redevelopment of the historically neglected church building) or do we hold back and take an even more risky way forward which is to continue what we are doing and to emphasise – or re-emphasise – worship?

My own view is that without what makes us distinctively Christian then we have no identity. I also think that it is what makes us distinctively Christian which forces us into the community and into serving others. This is Jesus’ teaching. It isn’t dogma. It is a way of seeing and being, becoming and living.

I’d rather we went bust as  a community of second-mile walkers and foot-washers than become a wealthy community enterprise with nothing distinctive or different to offer.

Having said all of this, I have never been right yet. Every dream I have had, plan I have put in place, prayer I have uttered, has either fallen to nothing or been answered in a way I never expected. I haven’t much of a clue beyond a more than reasonable certainty that second-mile walking and foot-washing have something to do with it.

We’ll be a church. We’ll be a community enterprise of second mile walkers, foot-washers and followers of Jesus of Nazareth. The destination isn’t important. The journey is breaking and shaping us. The journey is the teacher.

The church always needs to be on the cusp of annihilation. That is the story. The story always begins when there is no obvious way forward. At that point we need to remember  and to be reminded why we got into this in the first place and that wasn’t about money. It was the a desire to find a way of being church which makes sense when being church makes no sense at all.

The photograph at the top of this post was taken in Edinburgh on the Sunday of the General Assembly, #GA2016.



Free Meals Theology and Why it Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Free Food

At the outset of this article, I should re-iterate that the Free Meals Project still exists. It will be providing all of the food for the new Pop Inn and Connections Cafes at Dumfries Northwest. It is still providing food parcels for anyone who needs one. It is behind plans to provide affordable food because it appears that there is a real need for this. There is still a need for free-food and this need is being met by First Base with which we have and will continue to work in partnership and other agencies and organisations. It is because they are doing it so well that the Free Meals Project is moving onto new ways of serving and meeting need.

Last week, Wednesday 11 May, the Kirk Session of Dumfries Northwest Church made the decision to stop serving free meals every day at Dumfries Northwest Church. That was a huge decision. It is a huge decision. It is a brave decision and it is, in my mind, absolutely the correct decision.

When we began, it was the right decision to start serving free meals. For the last year and more I have been questioning whether it was the right decision to continue serving them. Until the last few weeks I have been persuaded that we should continue. Obviously it wasn’t only my mind which changed. Other people were involved in the decision and we consulted different agencies and organisations to make sure that our perception that our project is no longer needed was not wrong.

I can only speak for myself but my reasoning was this. It is a morass of doubt and certainty, confusion and clarity, in no order but roughly equal measure.

My concerns centred around three questions.

The first was whether or not bringing people into a room to serve meals, however tasty and wholesome, healthy and ethically sound they were, still had a tinge of the nineteen thirties soup kitchen. Would I have wanted to bring my children into a setting such as the one we created? Definitely not. It was as good as it could be and it was warm, clean, attractive, but it was still very public and exposed. Very few families with children ever opted to use the service and we did occasionally think of operating a separate Family Meals service. We didn’t because it would have stretched limited resources beyond breaking point. And here was another recurrent problem. Most people thought the Free Meals Project cost nothing to run. In fact it cost a great deal of money and for the last few years there has been no funding. Apart from the donations which came in from individuals, Dumfries Northwest Church met the cost.

The second doubt in my mind was about numbers. The numbers began to drop well over a year ago. When the Free Meals Project began there were not many providers of free food in Dumfries. Nobody else was doing it in northwest Dumfries. We served meals twice a day and served up to two hundred and occasionally well over that in a week, every week. As alternative providers came online so our numbers dropped. By the time we made the decision to stop the project we were getting a handful of people or none on the average day. It was becoming impossible to attract volunteers. We compare that to the first day of a new project for people with Dementia and with virtually no advertising we had twenty two people in the room and people offering to help without being asked.

The last reason for questioning whether we should continue to serve meals is to do with identity. When the project began we were a struggling, financially broke and, in almost every area which is ever measured, unsuccessful Church of Scotland congregation. Dumfries Northwest was created in September 2007 out of the former Holywood and Lincluden with Lochside congregations. In many ways it went smoothly. What seems to be happening on the surface is not always exactly what is going on underneath. I had the usual post-bag and in-box full of complaints and a good number of ‘I’ll go’ or ‘We’ll leave unless…’ conversations.

It wasn’t just that a new church was created and two thirds of the congregation had to deal with the closure of their church buildings. It was more than that. It was subtler and more subversive. People may not have articulated it but it was obvious to a new-comer like myself and an outsider. In the 1980s and 1990s and early 2000s, the church in our area had become an island of perceived respectability in the midst of a community which had changed radically from its 1960s aspirational, fully-employed, post war dream beginnings into an area which is still a tremendous place in which to live and to work but which somehow manages to find itself hitting a lot of the poverty indicators and markers. What happened church-wise is that when the three churches became one, the new church began to find its identity in opening its gates and its doors to the most challenging symbol of where all of the change had led – the hungry, the homeless, the addicted and the dysfunctional. It was make or break time and some people broke away. Many stayed.  We didn’t open the doors to be trendy. We did it because there was a genuinely held belief by some that this was a theological imperative. We had to do it pretty much whatever the cost.

The cost was high. Inevitably a number of people who would have seen themselves as serious players in the former Holywood, Lincluden and Lochside congregations left the church either before or around the time of or after the union. That was their protest. That was their right. Quite a few hung around long enough to see what would happen and to give the new church a go or else to give the impression of having done so. In actual fact, the union could have been effected without the closure of any of the church buildings. How we’d have paid for the upkeep of the buildings would have been anyone’s guess but it was an option. It was most people’s preferred option. It would have been a sensible option had we only been concerned about keeping worship going in each of the churches. We weren’t. We were concerned about finding a way to be church in a community which had changed very significantly. That required a united front from a single base.

The Free Meals Project began as a gentle opening of the doors on a Thursday morning for tea and coffee and biscuits and evolved into a seven day a week, fifty two weeks a year provider of meals which was as big in terms of ambition and scope as anything anyone was or is offering anywhere in the country.

Some people loved it. A very few – and it has only ever been a tiny minority – really understood what it was about. Quite a number of people left the church and went to more respectable in their eyes congregations in the town and elsewhere. Some members of the congregation didn’t understand the project or see the need for it. Some were offended by it. The majority of Sunday morning worshippers were unaware of it except for the fact that it often crept into sermons and prayers and intimations. A willingness to clean toilets became a kind rite of passage into leadership in Dumfries Northwest. We were grounded and rooted and earthed.

Outside of the church it was a different situation entirely. Everyone knew about the Free Meals Project. Hundreds of people liked the Dumfries Northwest page on Facebook, thousands followed on Twitter and while congregational income dropped donations to the Free meals Project increased and came in from the UK, Europe, the USA and beyond.

Dumfries Northwest and its theological love-child, the Free Meals Project became synonymous. It was and still is a dream come true to be part of a church which is meeting a clear and identifiable need in the community. At the same time it was day to day and week to week logistical nightmare trying to make it work. No paid employees, only volunteers. Most people who were part of it only had a partial – and therefore skewed – understanding of the vision. We relied on volunteers. Volunteers who didn’t turn up, volunteers who didn’t understand boundaries, volunteers who burned out, tired out, dropped out, usually when the project most needed them. Good people, every single one of them but it was hard keeping hold of it and keeping it going.

But it did keep going. And, however hard and frustrating and infuriating it sometimes was, keeping it going was a lot easier than the decision to stop serving free meals.

The difficulty was this identification of the church and the serving of free meals. The decision to stop it began as a nagging doubt and grew into something which could not be ignored. We could live with the best we could offer not being good enough so long as it was the best we could do. The fact that it was not ideal was OK. Numbers dropping didn’t matter. We’d have kept going if we had believed the project was needed in its current form even for a handful of people. What really necessitated the decision to stop was the realisation that we needed the project more than those who used it did. This had become our reason for being. This was how we could justify being a failing church in a falling down building. Everything else was going to pot but we handed out free food.

And if we stopped, what would people think? What, we now realised there would be one, what would the backlash be like from within the congregation, from within the group of volunteers itself? Would Dumfries Northwest still be able to continue and justify its existence if it wasn’t serving meals every day? Would people think we had failed? We talk the talk about death and resurrection but we aren’t good at failing or coping with failure in the church.

We don’t know the answers to any of these questions. We can’t dictate what others will think and it never was a PR exercise. The Free Meals Project will continue in different and diverse forms. You can check all of that out on the website. It has not come to an end at all and it won’t. It will be expressed differently. Relevance is not just to do with the what and the how but the when. The time was right then. The time is not right now to continue doing what we were doing.

As to what we are, that has not changed. Dumfries Northwest is still a financially broke and, in almost every area which is ever measured, unsuccessful Church of Scotland congregation. The building needs repaired or rebuilt and we still have no money. We have less now than ever. We do have a rich diversity of wonderful people in and around the place. As people have left, lots of new people have come in and joined the congregation. In real terms we are bigger than we ever were before and probably stronger. In terms of the kingdom of God we are much better off – there is a real sense of the presence of God, doing the right thing even although we haven’t much of a clue as to what we should be doing. There isn’t a friendlier congregation so far I know.

What we have is a really difficult job ahead of us. How do we persuade a congregation and community and even a wider church that we have not changed our minds and that we have not made a u-turn and that in fact it is the same impetus which started the serving of free food which has led us to stop? How do we avoid alienating our supporters and defenders?

None of that really matters. If we were concerned only about public relations and public perception, we’d have kept the project going as it was. Instead we have taken a risky decision, the right decision and we are uncomfortable every step of the way. Our church is more about trying to find the right questions than believing that we have the right answers.

The right question is the one which really does keep on making itself known.  Are we letting our neighbour down? Have we got it wrong? Is there a need we have missed? We’ll keep on asking these questions. The authentic church is always temporary, always interim. Nothing is forever. The poor are always with us and we will do our best to hear their voice and to be there for our neighbour. Nothing remains the same. Tomorrow it could be us and we really hope that whoever it is we rely on for help will offer us what we need and not what makes them look good in the eyes of those who can do them good.

Copy of my Church magazine article as Interim Moderator at Kirkmichael, Tinwald and Torthorwald

One of the joys and challenges of faith is that we recognise that the story of which we are part does not begin with us and it does not end with us. It began before us and it will go on after we have gone. God calls us into the story. We are not the story. We can be part of it.

The whole thing began with a death and an empty tomb and the end proved to be a new beginning. The moment of no hope was the start of a whole new story. The truth of this has echoed through the whole history, the whole story, of the church.

We know that what seems like the end is not the end. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the community of faith. A ministry has ended. Willem has moved on as he is called to and caught up in God’s story as it is unfolding elsewhere. It is all the one faith story and yet after a happy and fruitful ministry there is an inevitable and real sadness and sense of bereavement.

My role as Interim Moderator begins now and I look forward very much to getting to know you. I realised when I chaired a recent Kirk Session meeting and sat in on the end of a Congregational Board meeting that I already know a lot of your faces, one or two of your names and I was impressed both by the warmth of the welcome I received and the positive atmosphere in both of these meetings.

We are very fortunate that we have in Mhairi Wallace an experienced locum who will be doing the bulk of the leading of worship and pastoral work in the congregation, parish and community.

You’ll see more of Mhairi than me but I am very happy to be contacted if I can be of any help in any way at any time.

Neil Campbell