The long haul of Christian service
Chipping Campden is a small market town in the Cotswold district of Gloucestershire - a place Lorna and I visited recently on our camping trip to that area. In many ways, it is the archetypal Cotswolds settlement: delightful honey-coloured houses, some of them thatched, and many of them very old, sporting twisted beams and mullioned windows. If you are unfamiliar with the area, think ‘chocolate box’ cottages and ‘Lilliput Lane’ houses. The High Street of Chipping Campden has buildings which date from between the 14th and 17th centuries, including the iconic Market Hall, with its uneven cobbled floor and curving arches, built in 1627, and which dominates the centre of the town. This was a wealthy wool-trading centre in mediaeval times. As we strolled down the High street one morning last week, admiring the buildings, spotting the dates above doorways and even the Latin inscriptions engraved on some, our eyes were drawn to the spire which rose high above the skyline, sporting pinnacles atop diagonal buttresses and locating for us the ancient church of St James.
We soon discovered that St James is a ‘wool church’, of which there are many in that part of the world - churches built from the considerable proceeds of the wool trade. Typically, such churches were built to replace previous, less imposing buildings and were designed to reflect the growing prosperity of a Parish. In the case of St James, there had been a Norman church on the site before 1180, and around 1260 there began a period of transformation and development which lasted about 250 years, out of which evolved the current building.
My eye was caught by a plaque, high on a wall not far from the main entrance. On this ivory coloured panel were the names of all the previous ministers - all the way back to the 12th century! It all served as a reminder to me of just how long-term are God’s plans and how long-term is the work of the Gospel. Here were the names of those who had ministered here for a period of over 900 years, through some prosperous times and some difficult times for the community; times of economic boom and times of Black Death; through times of spiritual blessing for the church and no doubt times of great challenge and difficulty. 900 years is a long time. At present they are in vacancy, but the new incumbent, on arrival, will know themselves to be just the next small chapter in a very long story. Any Gospel work is a long-term work, and each generation is called to take up responsibility for its continuance, whether those times be good or bad.
A very similar lesson was taught to the prophet Elisha as he took up the mantle of leadership left to him by Elijah. 2 Kings Chapter 2 describes the transition of leadership, as Elijah’s ministry ends and Elisha’s is begun. That transition, rather oddly, takes place on an elaborate journey. We read of Elisha doggedly following Elijah from place to place, refusing to be left behind; from Gilgal to Bethel, from Bethel to Jericho, from Jericho over the river Jordan. At first he must have wondered what the aged prophet was doing, and perhaps from where he was getting his energy! However, all these places had great significance in the history of the children of Israel. Elijah is forcing Elisha to retrace something of the journey the children of Israel took as they first entered the Promised Land, centuries before, in the time of Joshua.
Elisha is being reminded from whence he comes spiritually. He is being reminded of the time this land was given to them by God and how they were called to heed and follow the word of God, and which obedience would open up great possibilities of blessing. Sadly, their obedience to God’s Word was (at best) somewhat partial, creating all manner of problems for future generations. True to our own experience, that story is a very mixed one.
Back to Elisha: he was being reminded that he was part of a work of God that stretched back centuries, and had come through both good and bad times. In his day the land of God, and many of the visible people of God, were under tribute to dark powers following the leadership of some very bad rulers. Elisha’s task was, like that of Elijah, to begin afresh to claim God’s people for God and re-establish the Word of God in the hearts of the people. In dark days, as the people had rejected God’s Word and gone after the pagan worship of the ba’als (nature gods), Elisha was called to remain faithful to the Word of God, as had Elijah before him. He was part of a long-term task and it was now his ‘shift’ in that work, amidst trying and challenging days. However far others had strayed, his task was to call them back to the better way that is found in God’s Word.
To many observers, these are dark days for the Church in Scotland and, especially, for the Church of Scotland. The Kirk, over recent years, has got itself into a muddle and a mess over the vexed issue of sexuality, and specifically whether it should be acceptable for those in same-sex relationships to serve as ministers. The debate has rumbled on over the years, without yet reaching a final conclusion. In the midst of that debate, many have found it to be too troubling and decided they can no longer be part of the Kirk, believing that they can more easily maintain a witness to the Gospel untrammelled by concerns that the Word of God is being discarded. Whilst some viable congregations have left the denomination, or are in the process of leaving, who will no doubt continue to serve effectively and fruitfully (and for whom we continue to pray at our prayer meeting as partners in the Gospel), in other places the result has been division, with ministries ending and fellowships splitting and Gospel witness being damaged. Tragically, many who agree with each other over the presenting issue of sexuality are dividing over whether they should remain in a Church which is having these debates.
For our own part, here in Dalry, the Kirk Session takes the view that whilst we are free to conduct the ministry that has continued in Trinity over many decades then we will continue to serve within the Church of Scotland. We regard ourselves as part of a long-term work, serving a Parish and bearing witness within a community and a denomination, a task which we will continue whilst we are able so to do.
Yours in Christ
P.S. For those who wish a more detailed statement on the position of the Kirk Session on these matters, our paper from previous years will be updated and made available.