The Old Congregation
Churches don’t just come from nowhere. Unless you are a missionary to a completely unreached people group there is history, not only amongst the people you are trying to reach but a church history as well. That was certainly true in Stockethill, so if we are going to understand and learn from the story of the New Charge here, we need to get some idea of what went on before.
In June 1999, the members of Stockethill Church, Aberdeen received a letter informing them of the closure of their church and giving them a small piece of paper, their 'lines'. The church was to be closed and this piece of paper could be taken by them to another parish church where they could take up a new membership.
It was a sad end to a church that had played an important role in the community and in many individual's lives.
[Dates, building of community.]
pictures / scans of high rise building.
The Stockethill area of Aberdeen is about a mile from the city centre, to the north of the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. It was built primarily as a post-war community. A good number of the 4000 residents in the parish first moved into the prefabs that were put up in the late 1940s. The foundation stone for the building of the new Church Extension Charge was laid in 1949.
Many remember a thriving time for the church during the seventies under the ministry of Jim MacEwan when the building was at the centre of many community activities and was the hub for a diversely aged and friendly church.
By the late nineties, the church had fallen on harder times. The few who were left in the church were exhausted from the responsibility of running the church and maintaining the building. The presbytery might have been expected to dissolve the congregation or unite it with another parish church. However, conversations were taking place in the Church of Scotland about how to restart churches that had come to an end: 'brown field' New Charge Developments.
To hear more of the story from the people directly involved in it, watch the video below.
This video is only a glimpse into the history of the old congregation. There were many ministers, many friendships, many people whose lives intersected with the church. There were, undoubtedly, a set of reasons that lay behind the decline of this particular church but it would not be fair or helpful to try to explore or analyse them here. It would probably be accurate to say that although through the years Stockethill benefited from charismatic ministers and a parish that continued to be developed into the early seventies, attracting young families into a vibrant community, there were wider cultural movements at work which meant that success could only ever be temporary.
The Church of Scotland has largely understood itself to be not just at the centre, but to be the centre of society and operated with most confidence and clarity when this was the case. In Stockethill, however, even in the years when the church appeared to be flourishing a clear distinction could be made between church families and the rest of the community.
Particularly in the last fifty years, as the result of secularisation and immigration, the church has become largely peripheral to the life of the nation and Aberdeen city is no different. It has become one option amongst many, spiritually, and cannot even claim to be the preferred choice of the majority of the elite. One of the biggest challenges the Church faces in our age is to accept these circumstances and respond constructively to them. Perhaps the worst thing a church can do, faced with a society that considers it to be optional and peripheral to society, is to act as though it remains the centre. Such actions can create resentment and indignation. To acknowledge this, incidentally, is not to renounce the uniqueness of Christ or indeed the Church. Instead, it means that the Church must invite people to find Christ for themselves, offering itself as an aid. Put another way, if the Church is ever to be again at the centre of society it must be through conversion and faith, and not by attempts to claim a society or nation as essentially Christian.
There are implications in all of this for the role of a church building in a community. The Stockethill Story will discuss how we came to terms with the church building later, but for now let's leave the question open and instead consider the historical issue: how had the church building come to be seen in the community? It had perhaps never been at the centre of the community and had by the closure become increasingly peripheral: a Christian statement in stone of the church's belief in her centrality to society, evermore bypassed by the people of the day.
Again, this is not to suggest failure or blame on the part of the old congregation. Those who persevered to the very end of the church when only a handful were attending worship were faithful servants and, like many of us, at their wits end as to how a reverse a steady and apparently unstoppable decline.
So how does a sad ending become a new beginning? And how does a new beginning become an effective parish church once again? Does a flourishing church in the early 21st century look the same as one in the mid 1970s with 2 double-decker busses taking the hoards on their Sunday school picnic and cupboards full of the best crockery for the Mrs McGregor’s of this world to defend? If you follow this story further, we hope that the ongoing history of New Stockethill Church will provide one possible set of answers to these difficult questions.