The First Year - A New Church?
Handing the Baton Over
Ian was helped significantly by members of the old congregation when he arrived. Alex Stewart, the former treasurer, and David Beverly, the former session clerk, continued to deal with the remaining financial issues as well as oversee the building. Molly Porter continued to run the playgroup in the building as it had done for the previous thirty years. She knew and was known by many people and provided a warm welcome.
The team met with the former office-bearers soon after their arrival in order to explain the situation and their vision for the future. Ian recalls his sense that the new team received a blessing, to go on and to form their new church and that the old office-bearers wanted no more responsibility. In the wider community, however, it became apparent that the nature of the new church had not been fully grasped.
The Difficulty of Trying to Close a Church
The Stockethill New Charge Team arrived in Aberdeen believing that they had been given ‘a bank sheet’. The old congregation had been closed; its members had been given their lines to take to a new church of their choice. The new church was to develop free from the problems which may have beset the old congregation.
This insistence on a ‘blank sheet’ was important. The conventional ways of being a church are deeply set in the soul of a church community, so to speak. If it is the case that some of these practices, these ways of being church, are unsuited to help the church engage with the world then strong measures will need to be taken to break the religious preference for the known and the traditional. The ‘blank sheet’ was meant to provide this.
In practice, however, the team quickly found that the message of a completely new start had not been communicated – or at least, heard – as clearly as might have been hoped.
The letter that explained the transition can be seen here.
The letter does explain quite clearly that the old congregation would close. But perhaps the pastorally sensitive metaphor of death and resurrection that is used to describe the closure of the old congregation and the opening of the new implies more of a continuity than the team may have expected to provide. The letter also describes how the building would cease to be the location of services, and how the new church “might instead meet in people’s homes”. Perhaps the suggestion though, that “when there are enough people to form a new congregation” the new church would move back into the old building again implies an unnecessarily close connection between the old and new churches, and of course also assumes a use of the old building that the church planting team would not make.
This all, perhaps, demonstrates the difficulty any church has in being genuinely innovative. Ian comments on the how the local press amusingly understood only part of what the New Charge would be about in Stockethill. And of course, did the team themselves have that strong a grasp of the shape of the church they were hoping to create?
Finally, having been contacted by one concerned individual, Ian arranged a meeting in a local Sheltered Accommodation, Woodhill Court. In the meeting frustration was respectfully expressed at the actions of the young minister and the presbytery. This was the first indication that not all were happy. People had been expecting the church building to reopen. People were unhappy about the closure of their church, having been members for years and years, about being handed their lines and told they would have to find a new church. Ian agreed to hold a monthly service in the the Sheltered Accommodation.
The Old or the New?
In agreeing to start the service at Woodhill Court, Ian admits that he viewed that work as secondary. The primary work was to be the new, modern and innovative work of the New Charge. Holding the service was a pastorally sensitive thing to do, a kind thing to do but not one in which he could be said to be engaged, heart and soul.
Nonetheless, the team received support from the old congregation. Ian recalls in particular the prayer and support of Mrs McGregor, a former president of the Stockethill Women’s Guild. She had seen her church close, and this young minister had come to her parish with no interest in the way things formerly were, with plans for the new and innovative, and she was willing to meet and pray with Ian and Gail.
It is possible that Ian is overly hard on himself. The team realised fairly quickly that what could be said of their planned new church forms should also be applicable to the Woodhill Court congregation. A small group was started that lasted seven months and that led to a significant prayer relationship with Mrs McGregor. Later, there were attempts to create Woodhill Court’s own leadership structures. Ultimately though these efforts weren’t sustained. The majority were content with a monthly service and the team were content to provide that.
The beginnings of New Stockethill, New Charge Development were simpler than some other New Charges. Even so, the relationship of the new congregation to the old still had to be discussed and managed and have created constructed tensions that continue to stimulate debate and thought today.
It was to the new church’s benefit that the old congregation had been formerly closed and that the team set out on their own path so clearly and so clearly. There were to be no power battles between the old and new, only a cry for help from those who felt themselves abandoned.
At the same time, there is an incongruity in a church that believes itself to be manifested primarily in its human relations, putting on a monthly religious service. On the one hand, it is because the team came to know – to relate to – these members of the old congregation that they put on this service. On the other hand, the traditional service itself is not conducive to the type of community discipleship that they team would advocate: the event of the preached word is not in itself sufficient, the Word calls us to live as the Body of Christ.
What then should the team do, if the old form of church appears unhelpful, but the participants in the old form feel no need for change? To this day, the church leadership has remained patient, always conscious of the danger of being judgemental, always recognising the depth of faith that is present in these congregations. As will be described, there have been other attempts innovate in this congregation and another of a similar type, but there is always a need to persuade and not to force; there is always something to be learned.
Finally, if innovative forms of church life are at some level to be the future of the Church of Scotland, then there will always be a need to communicate with those who identify themselves with the older forms. Even if Stockethill has not yet found a clear way forward in this area, it seems constructive and hopeful for the future that the church should continue to grapple with the problem of relating the old to the new.