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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Crisis Within the Church

Looking Back

Friday June 27 2014

Looking Back: "Crisis Within the Church"

An opinion piece from June 1974 which still resonates today.



By the Rev. James Forsyth, minister of St. Andrew's, Bellshill.

“CRISIS within the Church!”. We have read so much about it but what is being done? Attempts have been made to redefine old traditions, to pin-point the sources of concern and to suggest possible avenues along which the Church may be revived and revitalised for the world of today, but is this enough?

I cannot say that I have any difficulty with the vocational aspect of my profession. I understand the ministry in terms of the traditional Biblical line – as preacher, interpreter and pastor of the Word of God and, I believe, within these essential concepts the Church is provided with a “teaching leadership”. But, somehow, within the present traditional form, it appears that this “teaching leadership” is not fully realised nor truly comprehended by the Church, and this is where the trouble lies for me and, I am sure, for many of my colleagues.

Clergy’s role

Every form of leadership must have a corresponding response of “being led” before it can be realised and made effective. At this present moment “clerical tradition” is failing in leadership because the corresponding response of being led has waned considerably and it is clear to all, that the leadership qualities within that tradition are, in fact, questioned as never before. We are at present witnessing not so much the disintegration of the Church within her institutional form as the inadequacy of clerical tradition in making an effective lead in a world that has changed radically in its thought and culture.

This tradition arises on the one hand from the tendency, on the part of  members and others, to understand the Church in terms of her ministers only, i.e. where the role of the clergy is understood not so much as being within the Church, as being the Church.

Member’s role

Members have been taught for years to understand the Church in terms of clerical tradition and to understand their role, directly or indirectly, as being passive to that tradition.  Clerical tradition has placed the Word of God upon its own shoulders, and by claiming its ministry to have the sole right of declaring and witnessing, it has in fact robbed members of the Church of any real ministry of their own to follow or be responsible for.

Members have been taught, rather neglectfully, what the Church believes, but rarely do we find a situation where members are taught to BE THE CHURCH within their locality. The Church is coming to a standstill because her members are caught up in a web of apathy and confusion, both of which are results of a spiritual inactivity. Perhaps we ministers are too quick to blame our people for situations that we ourselves have created through our own sense of importance in matters that are both secular and spiritual.

I cannot foresee any fruitful avenue for the Church’s survival within her present tradition but I believe there is a very positive way forward outside that tradition in the building up of a new tradition – a lay tradition that confirms the People of God to be the people of the Kirk! At present there is little sign of such a tradition. There are experiments and lay participation within Christian education and worship, but these are mainly crash courses organised by “Tradition”!

That is to be welcomed and encouraged, but it falls short of being the beginnings of a new tradition. The lay man or woman has very little say on issues that are local, national or world-wide, nor can they make any definite and organisation contribution to the worship, fellowship, work and mission of the Church.

Change of roles

Such a lay tradition can be understood only within its Biblical concept of the effective witnessing power of the Holy Spirit within the lives of ordinary folk who count themselves followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. The declared Word of God is indeed the crown of clerical tradition but we must surely go on to say that the Incarnate Word within the lives of our members is the full, and indeed the only, manifestation of the Church to the world. As the declared Word of God becomes invalid without the Holy Spirit bringing life to the Word within the fellowship of witnessing people, so clerical tradition becomes invalid without the corresponding lay tradition.

The sooner we ministers take off our so called “clerical honours” and play the part of being servants to God’s own People, and equip them for their task in the world, the sooner they will become servants to the world and we ministers will fall into our rightful place as teachers and leaders of our people.

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