Where is my Church? A completing student thinks about transition.

This week I sent the second draft of my MTh dissertation to my supervisor at the University of Edinburgh. Last week I attended the summer school of the Theological Institute of the Scottish Episcopal Church (TISEC) the last commitment I had as a student in the Scottish United Reformed and Congregational College (SURCC). Next week we say farewell to Morningside United Church where we have been members since 1998. The week after that we move to Hertfordshire and at the beginning of September I become the minister of Potters Bar and Brookmans Park URCs.

July and August are months of transition. I am ceasing to be a student, three years after I left my job at RBS, and soon I will become a minister. I have spent a lot of the last year thinking about the URC as a denomination, and I realise now that this was an entirely appropriate and understandably thing for an ordinand student to do but that it will make much less (but still some) sense for a pastoral minister to do so.

The Church is something of a mystery. Who is part of it? Where is it to be found? How does any individual relate to it? All these questions have complex and contentious answers looked at from the point of view of the theologian but simple and straightforward answers from the point of view of the Christian disciple (and any Christian is, or should be, both these things to some degree but must, really, be first of all a disciple).

The Church is where you, week by week, day by day, encounter Christ, in Word and in Sacrament. It is where you gather, with your fellow Christians, to hear what Jesus has to say to you and to know his love for you. Your Church is your church, the place and the community where you have been called to become part of the people of God, the body of Christ. The Church is fully and wholly present in that place and in those people and there is no other answer required. There you are with God in the Spirit through Christ.

But at the same time no local manifestation of the Church can be everything it is supposed to be without also be joined to the whole people of God, the Church throughout space and time. For those of us within the URC this wider Church connection is mediated by the denomination, the URC, with its structures of Synods, Assemblies, committees, Councils, colleges, secretaries, moderators and so on.

As a student the strange and unsettling thing is that these denominational bodies become, to a large extent, one’s church. I have done student placements in six churches during my three years as a student. One is always either arriving or leaving in a church community. The only stable community one has is the college body and even there other people arrive and leave, like all student communities it is inherently temporary.

This shift of one’s church life towards the denominational level is at once a passing thing, one goes to serve a church, and also permanent. As a minister you do not belong straightforwardly to the churches you serve. You also belong to the community of the denomination, you are expected to serve on its councils and to act as a bridge between it and the local church, indeed this mediating role seems to me to be a crucial aspect of the distinctive ministerial calling.

Nonetheless it is also necessary that one lives very fully inside the life of these churches. My feeling is that the ministry to which I am called is an enabling ministry. I think my role will be to help the churches I serve discern their vocations and to find their way to be fully themselves as Christian communities. I don’t have a blueprint or a personal mission I’m burning to fulfil. I see others whose vocation is more like that, and I think that’s fine, but it isn’t what I’m called to be.

This means that the strong and definite views I have formed about the URC as a denomination, while important, need to be set aside to some degree. The vocations of the two local churches whose minister i am to be will each be particular and specific, as indeed will that of each and every person within them. I see myself as sent to them to help them hear that call as clearly as possible and to respond as best they can, whatever that turns out to mean.

This in turn means that I need to bring everything I have and everything I am to that task but not to arrive with preconceived ideas of what their God-given tasks might or might not be. That is something I can only learn through patient attention to God’s leading in the Spirit both to me and to the churches and the people there. This is a radical transition from a period when I have been taken out of the local and lived in the denomination to a period when the first task is real concentration on the local expression of God’s love and care for God’s creation in a community called to discipleship.

I can’t wait!



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