Mission Orientated Partnerships: Further Reflections on the Future of Rural (Highland) Christianity

Following up from my post on reflections of the future of rural Christianity, in light of many of the responses to this post, I thought I’d spend some more time on the subject.

There was a fair bit of positive feedback from Free Church ministers and members, particularly those who are familiar with the local situation. There was also some criticism from a missiologist who leads workshops on mission and ‘fresh expression’ approaches to Christianity. However, given the fact that he criticised the post for 1) not mentioning the church of Scotland (which it did), 2) criticised my perspective on the Highland situation because of ‘successful’ and ‘incarnational’ churches/ministries like Tommy MacNeil’s church in Lewis and John Urquhart’s ministry to Gaelic speaking  students, it is clear that he hadn’t really read the blog properly and that he did not really understand the wider picture of highland Christianity.

The following response (on Facebook), on the other hand, from a Free Church minister in the Skye and Lochalsh area is particularly helpful in establishing a picture of just how serious the situation is in this area (and there are similar problems in other parts of the Highlands).


30/1/2014

“I was wondering if perhaps you’d take a moment to remember, (i.e. pray for) the church in Skye and Lochalsh. Across the Free, CofS and APC denominations (who use more or less the same “pool” of supply preachers) we need to cover:
Pastoral Vacancies:
– Kyle Church of Scotland (2 services?)
Strath and Sleat Church of Scotland (3 simultaneous morning services, plus a 4th preacher to serve an evening service)
– Snizort Church of Scotland (morning and evening services)
– Kilmuir Church of Scotland (morning and evening services)
– Durinish Free Church (2 morning and an evening service)
Pastoral absence (due to illness):
– Portree Free Church (morning and evening services)
– Dunvegan Church of Scotland (2 morning services?)
Sleat & Strath Free Church (morning and evening services, plus 3rd afternoon service once per month)
Smaller congregations (ineligible for settled ministry, but needing supply):
– Raasay Free Church (at least 1 service)
– Glenelg & Inverinate Free Church (1 service)
– Bracadale Free Church (at least 1 service)
Additional services (where congregations have settled ministry, but unable to cover all meetings):
– Trotternish Free Church (1 service, possibly Gaelic)
– An Sgeul Mor (or Gaelic services in south Skye generally) (1 evening service, soon to be weekly?)
– Skye APC (1 service weekly, but more if minister is covering duties in Harris)

This means, any given Sunday, across Skye and Lochalsh, we “need” about 16 (17 some weeks) supply preachers, in addition to the 4 serving (healthy) ministers in post (who are each preaching 2 or 3 services each week). (I’ve not counted FP and FCC vacancies and needs, as these generally – though not always – rely on a different pool of men to cover supply.)

But still, 16 lay preachers every week!

This is partly why what John Caldwell was saying yesterday in the blog post I linked, really matters. This is an unsustainable situation. As I wrestle to get supply for some of these places, I get the impression we’re close to breaking point.”


Being one of the aforementioned supply preachers who covers three of the denominations (CofS, Free Church and APC), I am in complete agreement with the above post, it is ‘unsustainable’ and no wonder those involved are ‘close to breaking point.’

Back to the missiologist, one of his concerns, was that my endorsement of the Garioch model — was an argument to import a ‘one size fits all’ model  into the highlands. This was certainly not my intended point, infact, I did highlight that the Garioch model would have to be adapted in order to fit with a presbyterian culture (Garioch Church is Baptist). However, that aside, the promotion of the Garioch model was intended as a suggestion of a possible way forward, not the only way forward.

Back to the Free Church minister, the stats he provided certainly demonstrate that the present situation is 1) a terrible waste of resources, 2) a reproach on the name of Christ, 3) A warning about the effects of placing sectarianism above unity, 4) Proof that division is detrimental to mission.

I’m not the first person to be concerned about or write about the present scenario (in fact I’m quite late to the party). The following is a statement which was drawn up by the Scottish Reformed Churches Forum:

 

 

“At a meeting of the Scottish Reformed Churches Forum on 26 March 2013, the three churches in attendance (Free Church of Scotland, Free Church (Continuing), and the Associated Presbyterian Churches) agreed to present the followingstatement for the approval of their respective church courts.

Recognising that our several ecclesiastical bodies are authentic manifestations of the church of Jesus

Christ, with a shared commitment to the teaching of the catholic and universal church as expressed in

The Westminster Confession of Faith


We commit ourselves to renewed endeavour to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We lament the fractured state of the Reformed church and our sinful
involvement in her divisions. What we have broken, we cannot repair, but seeking to return to the Lord that he may heal us, we pledge to pray for all our churches and make the following commitments as steps towards restoration.

Local Unity

First, where there is duplication of ministries and multiplication of congregations, we will encourage

expressions of local unity.

a. When vacant charges or distance make it difficult to provide pastoral care for members of our

churches, we will urge ministers and interim-moderators to seek the assistance of their colleagues

in any of our churches.

b. If two or more congregations in one place become vacant and plan to call minsters, or if two

separate congregations are too small to support and call ministers, we will encourage local office

bearers to meet and discuss the possibility of worshiping together under a single ministry,

whether or not that would lead to immediate union as a congregation in one of our churches.



National Unity

Second, conscious of our obligation to establish churches where there are none, and by our oneness to




bear witness to Christ’s oneness with the Father, we will encourage expressions of national unity.

 
a. When we consider planting churches, we will strive to act as one body. This will mean sharing

information about plans, seeking to avoid establishing new congregations in close proximity to

another of our congregations, and exploring how members of our churches might cooperate to

establish new Reformed congregations in needy areas.

 
b. As a public expression of hope for a more united Reformed church, we will set a date

sometime in 2014 for a united meeting of our churches. This will allow our people to worship

together, listen to preaching related to the subject of Christian unity, and to get to know one

another better.

To bring these commitments into effect, we hope that the representatives of each church on the Scottish

Reformed Churches Forum will work through the relevant channels in our churches.”

Having worked in a Community, Learning and Development context for many years before entering the teaching profession, I have to say, even from a practical perspective, there is a lot of sense in this document which has been released by the SFRC.

Duplication of services, lack of resources, visible disunity are three key factors which are hindering the progress of the mission of the church in the Highlands. Denominationalism may be able to survive in the city centres, it cannot survive in small rural communities.  Back to the SFRC document, so far, to my knowledge, nothing has actually happened as a result (this is certainly true Skye and Lochalsh). There can be a multitude of reasons for this, but one of the primary reasons why we struggle with the concept of networking and partnering with others is that we have become so accustomed to denominational thinking. In denominationally divided rural communities it seems the most natural course of action is to plough on into oblivion. Perhaps being ‘close to breaking point’ is not enough– perhaps it will take the withering and cutting off of the branch before the situation will change.

However, rather than end on a negative note, the potential for change is a present reality. Separation and isolation may seem like good options at the time, but only decades later do we see the trajectory. The trajectory is here, and it is unsustainable. Perhaps circumstances can become the catalyst for change.