Presbytery of Irvine and Kilmarnock
This is the introductory speech given to the General Assembly of
the Church of Scotland in May, 2001 by the Convener of the Special
Commission anent Review and Reform, the Rev Peter Neilson. This is also
available at http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk
Moderator, this is a time for discernment.
In General Assembly, we gather to discern what God may be saying to
us as God’s people at this time. The Special Commission on Review and
Reform offers one voice among many, praying that
together we may discern the call of the Spirit.
We see the way ahead as a relational reformation rooted in the grace of God.
We see the way ahead as a movement where the people of God walk
free to share in the mission of God. We see a church without walls. We
see people with Jesus at the centre, travelling
where Jesus takes them.
The future begins today.
We have discerned the primary purposes of the Church by returning
to the Gospels. The core calling of the Church is to follow Jesus as
Lord, to share in the mission of Christ and to turn back to God
and to neighbour in worship and witness. We call the Church to risk the
way of Jesus.
We have described a journey, not a destination. We have focused on
starting points for the journey that are accessible to all: following
Jesus, being imaginatively local, building Christ-inspired
friendships and releasing the gifts of God’s people to the call of the
Kingdom. If any
Christian or any congregation takes any of these first steps of
faith and obedience, a new Church will emerge in 20 years time that
only God can
create. No futuristic vision. God’s future begins with today’s obedience.
We have addressed the structures of the mind rather than
organisation and procedures. In this we follow Jesus’ way when he
called for new wineskins for the new wine – challenging mindsets that
could not see the Kingdom way. Old mindsets in new structures multiply
old problems. Mindsets are renewed only through relationships with God
and each other that go deeper and wider than our safety zones.
We have decided to entrust the process of change to the Spirit of
God and the people of God. We may have been expected to introduce a
managed process of change led by consultants and experts in
We decided against that. Every follower of Jesus here today is
responsible before God for the church of God. We have no other plan.
Picture this . . .
But we do have a vision that wraps around two key words: ‘local and
relational.’ Picture communities of Christian people wrestling with the
call of Jesus Christ, helping each other live out the Gospel story in
daily life. Picture local communities of faith where all generations
a home. Picture a new generation set free to create new churches from the ground up.
Forget the petty worship wars and the systems that suck our energy.
Picture a crowd of people with Jesus at the centre, following where
Jesus takes them. Picture Jesus introducing us to the people in the
community he would call friends – and see the Church without walls
Picture rich and poor in just relationships, with local church and
global Church as partners in a movement of alternative globalisation.
Times have changed. Our 19th-century model of mission was simple:
one minister in one building in one parish. Throughout the 20th century
model has creaked and groaned as congregations have united,
ministers have become fewer and life has become less settled. And yet,
the old mindset lives on as the assumed norm, chastising us as we
struggle to make it work. It is time to let it go.
Picture our society: push-button, quick-click, multiple-choice
lifestyles with designer identities. People meet in cafes and clubs, in
markets and shopping malls. Patterns of belonging and believing are
more fluid. ‘A Church without walls’ meets people where they are and
accompanies them as friends – like Jesus on the Emmaus Road: listening
to the dreams and
disillusionment, gently setting this dislocated life in the
redeeming story of suffering and resurrection, and sharing the
hospitality of a
supper table where Christ makes his surprise appearance.
In this society we picture a simpler Church of fellow travellers,
‘strugglers anonymous’ in a bruising world. This is a Church of
hospitality and where the word of God is given a chance to burn
in the hearts of those who are unlikely to sit in a pew to hear it.
This is a
Church for the adventurers who rise to the challenge of a world
renewed in righteousness by God and for God as creation is healed.
Such a church will have learned the art of Christian friendship: so
committed to the other that we let go our cherished ways for the sake
of strangers who might become friends – our friends and the friends of
Jesus; and so transparently honest about God that we give away what we
have come to know of God’s love in every way we can. Friendship is the
starting point for discipleship. Discipleship is the basis of
The supporting and equipping of such a church will take many types
of people: pastors helping others to care, youth workers helping young
people find their voice, evangelists taking us to the borderlands of
faith and doubt, communicators who are at home with the website and the
mixing desk, teachers who can open Scripture to life and life to
scripture, artists who touch places others cannot reach, contemplatives
and intercessors who teach us to pray.
In a word, teamwork.
It will take a community of leaders to build a community of God’s
people who will offer a sign of God’s healing community in a fractured
The shape of things to come – but how will this happen?
We have seen a new shape for the Church. We have seen a Church that
is ‘upside down’. We have affirmed the local church as the centre of
gravity for our nation-wide Church – the centre of gravity which pulls
to itself a new regionalised support system as presbyterian
interdependency is refocused to serve the local agenda; and a centre of
gravity which draws to itself resources of people and money so that
local vision and local initiative is funded and fuelled to point the
way to the future.
The primary focus of this report is about the regeneration of local communities of faith by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
In the midst of all this, we call the Church to pause – to pray and
learn to live more consciously with God. The heart of reform is the
reform of the heart. We recommend a Sabbath rest for the people of God.
Just picture this – in Lent 2002 and 2003 a fast from church activities
to allow time for prayerful retreat and deepening friendships.
We call for an investment of time in relationships with churches
around us. This is where mindsets are changed as we learn to be open to
people beyond our walls. Trust is developed over time. We travel
together into a future shaped by God the Trinity.
Discerning and deciding
Moderator, this is a time for discernment.
Discernment begins with knowing our own hearts in the presence of
God. The commission looked into our own hearts and saw two barriers to
change – the barriers of fear and power. We ask the General Assembly to
search their hearts as we engage in this conversation and debate, to
discern where we may be limited by fear, or seduced by power.
We are at a critical moment in the life of the Church. We discern a
mood for change. That mood can turn into a movement if a critical mass
people make the critical choices to follow where the Spirit is leading.
We discern Jesus walking on the stormy water, inviting us to step out of the boat and join him.
We discern the purpose, the shape and the process of continuing
reform of the Church in the call of the Risen Christ: ‘Follow me.’