Saturday, 8 July 2017

Wash your mouth out...

Crematorium funeral yesterday.  All went OK, insofar as it can on these occasions.

At the wake, the following episode was told to me by the father in question...

Small boy, maybe 5 or 6, I would guess, had spoken to his father.

"What's the deal with THAT guy?"

"Which guy?"

"The guy in the funny clothes, doing all the talking."

"What about him?"

"Well, he said, 'Jesus Christ' at least two times, and nobody told him off for it..."

Friday, 30 June 2017

Nothing makes a difference...

A very, very small, almost trivial thing happened the other week. Nothing was added. And it made a vast, vast difference.

The small Scottish Episcopal Church on the Isle of Bute, St Paul's Rothesay, has been present in that community for getting on for 190 years.  The current rather bijou Victorian chapel-style church is from the 1850s, but they were in living rooms and temporary buildings for a bit before that.  This was one of the missions of the Episcopal Church (once no longer illegal and suppressed) to reach out into parts of the Scotland that needed to hear the gospel, and needed to hear the gospel wrapped in the subtle, nuanced way that only a balanced ministry of Word and Sacrament, as exemplified by Episcopalian/Anglican worship, can do. That's the driver behind a great deal of our Victorian expansion.

Churches like St Paul's are never going to be 'mega-churches' the way that city centre churches can aspire to be.  Set in an island community of maybe six thousand people, it has had glory days of Sunday schools and fuller pews (well, probably) - but there is a confidence about St Paul's presence on the sea front in the resort town of Rothesay.

So where does the nothing come in?  What difference does it make?

Well, in 1838 (don't you love church blog posts that start that way...) In 1838, a clergyman from Dundee was appointed to be the rector of St Paul's in Rothesay.  There was no building, no church as such, just a few people who gathered week by week to worship.  Samuel Hood built up those people into a church.  He was the dean of the diocese too.  Within fifteen years he built a wooden church, then laid a foundation for a stone one, then built that church.  He was a classic church planter, as well as operating as the dean of a diocese that stretches from Lewis to the Mull of Kintyre.  He is buried in Rothesay, in the main graveyard by the old St Mary's chapel and the High Kirk (now the Church of Scotland United Church of Bute).  Dean Samuel ministered on the island and in the diocese for 34 years before he died.  He is a founding father of our church in Argyll and The Isles, and also a founding father of modern Rothesay, which he will have seen grown around him as he grew his church, celebrated the sacraments, ministered to the people.

But the nothing? Yes, I'm getting there...

After his death, he left more than a church community and his memory.  He left land and funds for a shop and a hall, to be built beside the church he founded.  This hall and shop is still part of the mission of the church today, nearly 150 years on.  And the street that the church, shop and hall created was named after the man who left the land.  Dean Hood Place: a Scottish street, named in honour of that Episcopalian founder.

When I arrived on Bute in 2010, I spotted something strange.  At some point in the past a council employee had made an error in transcribing street names.  The sign by the entrance to the church said, 'Deanhood Place'.  A place named for the abstract concept of a dean? Or the fact of being a dean?  Custom and practice had set this error so firmly in place that documents, leases, all sorts of 'official' matters now referred to 'Deanhood Place'.  Having checked that the official database is correct (which it is), I tried, rather half heartedly, to contact the council to try and address this, but to no avail.

Wind the clock on seven years.  Much has happened, and many relationships formed in Rothesay.  The church has changed, things have developed. Wonderful things have happened, painful things have happened.  But the little church community of St Paul's has matured in many ways.  Old Dean Hood is often thought about and talked about, and a chance conversation between Margaret, the vestry secretary, and Provost Len Scoullar, of the local authority, suddenly causes things to happen.  The issue is raised.  A founder of Rothesay has been lost! This feels unjust.  Something should be done...

And it is. Nothing, a space, a gap, is added to the sign on the street by the church.  Malcolm, the Rothesay sign man, prints it off, and with little or no fuss, the name of the street is restored to 'Dean Hood Place.'  Samuel is back in his place of remembrance.  The old Dean, from so many decades ago, is remembered again.  It will take a long, long time for 'Deanhood' to slowly slide from usage, and Samuel to be everywhere again, but for the moment, the insertion of that 'nothing' has made all the difference.

A church planter, who grew a faith community in Rothesay as their context developed and flourished, is restored to his rightful place in society. Does anyone walking past that street name wonder who 'Dean Hood' was? Probably not.  But the work of proclaiming the gospel in the west of Scotland goes on, and his restoration on our townscape is a great encouragement to those who follow Dean Hood in that mission today.  Nothing really can make a huge difference...

Wednesday, 1 March 2017


Lent begins today, with Ash Wednesday, services to remind us of our fragility, sinfulness and the grace of God.  Lent looks busy.  Synod.  Vestry meetings.  Courses.  Extra services.  Lots of stuff in the life of the church.

But Lent is wilderness.  Lent is Jesus going into the desert for forty days to be tempted.  Lent is space in the church's year to let us try and find God in emptiness.  Or for God to find us in our emptiness.

Some of my earliest church memories are, as a primary school child, going in a long crocodile for a mile or so down to our church for stations of the cross on Wednesdays in Lent.  The memory is of dry, slightly chilly days, with dusty roads and pavements.  The memory is of not quite understanding what was going on, but living it in a way that was just normal.  The memory is of rapid words, memorised responses, kneeling, standing, crossing oneself.  I am sure the memory has been conflated with adult understandings (such as we adults are actually able to understand such things), but the sense is of emptiness.

Clergy may find it hard to achieve that sense of emptiness. We are purveyors of the emptiness to others, and that can be a rather busy and frantic activity.  But we need to find that space.  Open our eyes to the wilderness around us.  Open our hearts to the wilderness inside ourselves.

Lent starts today.  May the wilderness open up a way before us all...

Thursday, 22 September 2016

In search of straw...

Towards the end of his life, Thomas Aquinas, one of the great medieval theologians and doctors of the church, is reputed to have said, "The end of my labours has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me."  In the face of God, all his wonderful and insightful endeavours were, to him, nothing.

In our ministry, as humans, as Christians, is this a helpful thing on which to reflect?

Churches with mission plans and renewal appeals and directives and initiatives: they are all about (on a good day) the flourishing of a place where the gospel is proclaimed, and (on a bad day) the survival of an institution.

But is it all straw, compared to the God that is to be revealed in, and through, and sometimes despite the church that is 'the Body of Christ' here on earth?

Of course it is.  Nothing that we humans can achieve, or even aspire to achieve, can begin to give even a pale glimpse of the God that we worship, revealed in human form in Jesus.  It's even rather precocious and arrogant of me to make a statement like that, as if I, somehow, had a deeper knowledge than others on matters divine.  This is all straw too.

So, whatever we may achieve, whatever honours and admiration and human achievement we may manage as individuals or as a church, before God it is all straw, it is all nothing.

But we ARE the body of Christ in the world, tasked with living the life that we have been shown in the redacted and revered fragments that come to us in scripture.  We search out the straws that are the Christian life, the human life.  

Does it matter that they are just so much straw?  Of course not - salvation and light into all darkness is already assured, by the cross and the empty tomb.  Hope for all humanity is complete.  The straw of our lives, ministry and mission is infinitely valuable and wonderful.

But let's not forget that it is still just so much straw...

Monday, 15 August 2016

Roland Walls: In the world, but not of the world...

That distillation of the lines from the gospel of John, chapter 17, that disciples of Christ are in the world, but do not belong to the world, is a constant challenge to Christians today.

I have just (a few moments ago) finished reading "Mole Under the Fence", a series of conversations with Roland Walls.  Roland died a few years ago, after a remarkable life, especially centred on his time in the Community of the Transfiguration at Roslin.  He was a priest, a monk (effectively), a sharp and self-deprecating man who had Christ at the centre of his life.  I never met him, but a retired colleague of mine did, and lent me the book. 

Image from Northumbria Community

Roland lived a life of poverty, and always seemed to be at the edge of things.  He turned down an academic career in the Church of England, and lived life in that (ecclesiastically) strange country: Scotland.  He also "swam the Tiber", converting to Roman Catholicism, but in a rather Newman-like way, because that is how he and community were taken, rather than the angst-laden protest conversion that one hears and sees these days (usually about women in ministry).

Why am I blogging about him?  Because he has immensely challenged me.

He talks of Christians taking on the powerlessness and insignificance of Jesus on the Cross, rather than hanging onto the coat-tails of Christendom (I grossly, grossly paraphrase much of what he says).  He pretty much rejects institutional models of church (although has such immense and complete faith in church as a place where people ought to be able to encounter God).  He is rather non-plussed and embarrassed when people do NOT encounter God in churches.  The eucharistic encounter is central to him - to meet the Trinity (love defined and defining) in the simplicity and complexity of that uniting and dividing mystery.  And that's not even starting to scratch his views on justice, liberation theology, the social gospel, the Iona Community principles - the things that spill out when you do, really, meet God.

And I am immensely challenged.  I am married, and have a family to (now) get through University.  I am not free to drop everything and join the crucified human and divine saviour in a place of emptiness and poverty. I am part of an institutional machinery (in church, and even in a secular, state way) that rumbles on, in a more-or-less well oiled state. It measures success by growth and stability and influence and titles and even (God help us) the clothes we wear.  And I can be immensely fed by all that. Isn't it great to be part of something good and shiny and visibly successful (I hesitated over that word - what word is right?  The sense of being "in", of being "approved", of being "favoured"?)

But Roland challenges us all where we are, I hope and pray.  I am trapped, just as he was trapped by the poverty of his community and de-skilling of any form of institutional ministry by the community's rule.  I am trapped (very willingly) by family, by church, by duty - but in that state of being trapped, I can work (I hope and pray) to help others to encounter God in the communities which I serve.  I am human enough to feel my ego and pride being fed when things are grand: but I can try to be human enough to keep looking for the cross, and the broken garbage nailed there to remind us where and how we are actually invited to meet God.

We are in the world, and the world's "stuff": church, state, society, success, failure - it is all around us.. But I pray that we will not be of the world, defining ourselves by all that "stuff".  We are defined by the brokenness of the cross, meeting the delightfully and bewilderingly complex and simple Trinity of God in bread and wine. 

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

In the world...

Around a couple of corners from the island church is Mac's Bar, over the road from the castle.  It's a pretty regular small Scottish town bar, and you get a bit of a craich and a laugh if you wander in with a dog collar on. Which I do a few times a year.  It's not my local: if you peel away a few layers of things and church encounters (mainly not that good) and some real human experience, you get a bar that provides the altar wine for every eucharist in the small island church.  It's a point of encounter, not a great state secret (as far as I am aware anyway!) and a piece of connection between past and present, the world and the church.  It may look like a carrier bag with some altar wine, but it feels like an encounter between humanity and God...

Monday, 29 February 2016

Obstacles to the gospel...

I pulled together a Facebook page for the church I serve on the Isle of Bute: St Paul's.  All fair enough, the sort of thing that a modern church should be doing to communicate its life and interests. It's a shop window to the world about the life and mission of Christ's body in every context.

I grabbed a quick shot of the church to start as a profile picture (some more 'peoply' ones will replace it soon) - but there was quite a response to the image as it was published.

After some years at St Paul's, I don't see the "No Entry" sign placed at the bottom of "Deanhood" Place. But when you see that picture, it just screams at you. A church with a "No Entry" sign at the door! How ridiculous is that!

For the Facebook page, easily remedied:

God (or Photoshop) can work in mysterious ways to overcome such problems.

But in real life, the sign is there. Maybe not a big deal, as you genuinely don't really see it as you walk by (I assume...).  But what might it represent? What are the obstacles, the "No Entry" signs that we put up to stop people joining our church communities?

Well, we might stop judging them and rejecting them. Or even just implying that this might be the case.  ALL are welcome. We need to persuade all people, especially marginalised, afraid, broken people that they are welcome to come and make our churches untidy and ragged.

We must effectively advertise our services, events and overall life. Webpages, Facebook pages, a new, fresh up to date noticeboard would do the trick.

If someone is determined enough to beat external obstacles and they actually walk through the door (that can be intimidating - can the door be easier to open, or glass?), we could try making the worship accessible to them. That doesn't mean a change of genre or style or dumbing anything down - but do your worship well and make allowances for anyone new. A little explanation. Some friendly guidance through a liturgy. A "pal" to sit alongside and help out.  But not swamping. No rotas, or elements, or anything like that as you walk through door. Be friendly.  Be kind.  Give time. Give space.  So many little bits and pieces.

There's a much longer set of posts here - and nothing here is very new. There have been initiatives galore at making churches more welcoming and removing the obstacles to people coming to see.

But we can still be surprised when, after years, we once again see the "No Entry" sign that we have completely forgotten was there all along.