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.