A conversation yesterday about the “exodus” from the Church of Scotland got me thinking. There’s a strong pattern of Exodus emerging across Scotland:
St Catherine’s Argyle – no figures on attendance, but 700 affiliated folks, and a reported income of £200,000.
Holyrood Abbey – reported as a 200-strong congregation, reported givings to central funds of £215,000.
New Restalrig – a group of about 100 left to form a new congregation, previous givings to central funds = £115,000.
The Tron – the figure of 500 worshippers has been banded about, reported to be remitting £300,000 prior to the Exodus.
Larbert Old – no reported numbers, but giving £110,000 to central funds, so probably about the 100-120 mark too.
In South Lanarkshire:
Kirkmuirhill – a congregation of 130 or so.
Stornoway High Church – a congregation of 250.
These 11 congregations have a lot in common: all have left the Kirk over the same issue; all are Evangelical and on the more Reformed end of the theological spectrum; all have excellent and stable leadership. They are (mostly) urban. Few, if any, have been able to keep buildings. But there’s a final factor: all are in excess of 100 people; meaning all are comfortably financially self-supporting. Some have joined other denominations, some are going it alone – but in every case, they are doing it together. Their fellowship’s self-identity has been preserved.
A few other congregations have emerged from the Exodus too: Grace Community Church, Kyle; and Highland International Church, Inverness. I understand these congregations have grown from people exiting more than one congregation – people banding together, from similar backgrounds, to form viable fellowships, and support a shared vision for effective ministry.
Certainly families, ones or twos, have made their own personal exodus elsewhere – but in terms of organised groups making an exit, it’s only these congregations able to support a paid full time ministry, as well as rent space, etc.
Across Scotland, especially outside our urban areas, there are smaller, less financially secure congregations, who share the Evangelical, Reformed character of those larger Exodites. For them, leaving the Kirk means a completely uncertain future. The options are stay and put up with the compromise; start a new fellowship, but probably be small, and unlikely to have a paid, full time ministry; or join another fellowship en mass.
As far as I can tell, this third option only happened with one whole congregation (Kilmuir, Skye). Doing so implies a fellowship who have a long-standing shared identity have simply lost that, subsumed into another body, their history and contributions forgotten to human history. Pastorally, I’m coming to understand the psychological strain that presents – and I realise how easy it is for people not facing that choice to be harsh in their judgement.
It looks to me as if Reformed Evangelicals do want out of the Kirk, but are only able to do it in any meaningful way if their congregation is able to preserve a shared identity.
Which brings us back to the irksome issue of Christian Unity. How do we express the truth that we are all one in Christ Jesus? One hard truth is that in the Free Church we already struggle with this when we link two dwindling congregations under one ministry. People don’t always pull together – and that’s when we come from the same background!
I’m growing more persuaded that Christian Unity in these circumstances isn’t about organisational change, leadership strategy, or the best laid plans o’ mice an’ men; but about gracious attitudes to fellowship in local settings. Table fellowship. Or, as I’d prefer we call it: dinner.
Outside your immediate congregation, what local Christians have you shared a meal with recently?