If there are any old ladies – I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to call them old women and must therefore incur the wrath….
If there are any old ladies – I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to call them old women and must therefore incur the wrath of Rose Galt – who still bring pan drops to the church on Sunday morning, they might have been reassured by the exciting news from this year’s General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
It seems that, in order to preserve some semblance of public worship, outposts of the dear old Kirk will have the minister’s sermon beamed by video link from some central theological location. The pan drops, those traditional sources of consolation for the faithful, may now be sucked in complete safety. Where the dog collar in the pulpit used to be, there will be a giant screen before which the worshipper may nod off without being spotted – except possibly by some eternally vigilant higher being.
Despite these incidental benefits, it is impossible to arouse any enthusiasm for this revolutionary form of worship.
The idea of several congregrations sharing a minister is nothing new: years ago, I did a film for the BBC about an admirable man called Robert Daly, who was responsible for three or four parishes in the Carse of Gowrie and darted from one to another every Sunday morning. It was a masterpiece of logistics and devotion.
What seems to be proposed now is very different. A latter-day Robert Daly would manifest himself electronically, a contribution to the cause of the carbon footprint. It would, however, deprive the congregation of a part of its fellowship once considered fairly vital – the physical presence of a minister.
What next? It should be possible to extend the scheme to include visits to the sick, utilising the same video technology to relay words of comfort into every hospital ward. Ultimately the church might be able to dispense with human beings altogether.
The serious proposal for a disembodied clergy is a measure of the desperate situation facing the Kirk. It is rapidly running out of money: at the present rate of spend it will have exhausted its remaining reserves in eight years. The supply of church buildings which can be converted for cash into tandoori takeaways is limited. The membership continues
All this should have been foreseen. Indeed it was foreseen by such independent spirits as the ecclesiastical historian Elizabeth Whitley, whose husband, the great Harry, kept the small church at Southwick going.
Thirty years ago, Elizabeth delivered a lyrical polemic for a BBC Scotland television series. She gave notice that, if it was left to the businessmen at 121 George Street, the parish system in Scotland would be systematically and brutally dismantled. That is exactly what has happened and the sad evidence of it is to be seen almost everywhere you go from the Borders to the far north.
You do not have to be a member of the Church of Scotland, or a Christian, or a believer of any sort, to regret the disappearance of so many small churches from so many communities. Every one gone is a light extinguished. For that grievous loss the bureaucracy of the national church is to blame. It has done an extremely poor job of adaptation and stewardship. It is now living (or dying) with the consequences.
New forms of ministry, new ways of serving the parishes, should have been introduced long ago. If it had been done sensitively, it need not have involved the butchery of so many congregations and the closure of so many church buildings.
The process goes on, relentlessly. A couple of weeks ago, a congregation in Ayr left in tears on the last Sunday of their church’s existence. A building in perfect order is soon to be put up for sale. Where will the congregation go? Dispersed to the winds, disillusioned, many will become statistics of a church in apparently terminal decline.
A practical vision could still save the institution, but the Kirk will have to do very much better than tele-conferencing Sunday worship. With ideas of that quality, we really are looking at the last pan drop.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.