I wonder a lot about how we are going to get through this season of decline in the church.
We’ve been told for long enough that emerging generations of Christians do not relate to or own denominational distinctiveness – they relate to a community of living, kind and faithful people. In light of this, I think we have to loosen up and be more enabling of what these people are saying to us! I figure that a continuation of our regulatory approach to things will not help here. The Book of Order will not save us! The denomination exists for good reasons and in many cases for healthy reasons. But the denomination will not save us either. It is the Lord of the church, not the church that saves!
I have been at a few ordinations and inductions of ministers lately, and the whole formula thing just makes me cringe. I understand that ministers need to have accountability and oversight by the Presbytery, but the inclusion of the wordy and other-worldly references to the confessions just makes me shudder inside. And what annoys me the most is that we make a contract of it. The formula has to be signed before the person can be ordained or inducted. No grace here friends! I see ‘the formula of belief’ as an attempt to straight-jacket what the Spirit may or may not say to the church in this time by attempting to tie us all to an old argument. The ongoing reference to The Westminster Confession is a joke. It is so in the past. It has a place in our story, but to have to sign up to it and other subordinate standards (that most of us don’t read and don’t care to read) is laughable. That we roll all this stuff out at ordinations and inductions just leaves the people in the pew mystified. Who cares? I know some care. But I don’t buy their worldview. And, underneath it is a more sinister threat – that if a minister strays from this peculiar way of framing everything, she or he can be disciplined. While I do think that ministers have some responsibilities in regard to the interpretation and conveying of the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ, we aren’t going to do well by one another to attend to any waywardness in a regulatory manner.
In light of the decline and the lack of interest in our denominational expression our church communities many of us are working to be user-friendly, relational, enabling, and quite a degree more casual than we once were. Thus when we meet at congregational level, we meet relationally and minimise the things that would be divisive. Where I am ministering, we try to operate on a no surprises basis. If there are big issues (and we have had a few) we introduce them informally, discuss them, listen, and quite often we adjust things because of the feedback we have received. Eventually, when we bring a recommendation for vote, so very rare these days, we achieve very high buy-in. Our life together is far too valuable to risk it in some split decisions over things that really don’t matter. And wait for this… the Book of Order has not been present, or quoted. We operate in the spirit of it and we have come to no harm. Occasionally the Presbytery has reminded us of some regulatory responsibilities (like when we were forming The Village Church), but even then it was pretty obvious that the Book of Order (its regulations usually formed by dispute and tension) didn’t have a clue about establishing new forms of doing church. Most of its stuff in the chapter concerning congregational form was around closing churches! The Book of Order, formed by what has been, will always be behind us. It has no pioneering bones, even though we need these more than ever!
Even when the Presbytery I am in meets (Alpine Presbytery) we have the Book of Order well in the background. Our approach to problems and challenges is to first be pastoral, gracious and enabling, and we can fall back on regulations if we need to. I might be a bit more unregulated than some, but I notice that the attitude of the parishes of the Presbytery to the Presbytery has improved exponentially as we have stepped back from attending to problems in a regulatory top down manner. We relate, listen, adapt and enable as a first reflex. Occasionally the Presbytery has to take a deep breath and look beyond the immediate in order to achieve what it thinks is right. Mostly it works.
I was at the General Assembly last year. I found so much of the business quite appalling in how it was handled. I don’t blame anyone – it is the system – but the ‘at each other’, lobbying, regulatory approach to the challenges before us seemed brutal compared to what I experience at parish level and Presbytery level. The substantive issues were handled in the plenary gathering which is quite careless when it comes to being relational. At Assembly level it is like we don’t need to care for one another because we only meet occasionally. And what of the things we decided. I struggle to remember many. I think it is mostly irrelevant the life and vitality of our primary relational groupings – our churches. At Assembly level we gather our congregations and Presbyteries and subject them to a way of operating that I hope and pray they never take home. We need to move beyond that stuff if we are seriously wanting to reconnect with our communities.
Just a thought to finish with: when Jesus bumped up against regulatory behaviour, what did he do? He told subversive stories (parables) and he responded graciously and generously to whoever was before him. Why, in claiming to be his followers, have we become something other?