Normally as we head towards the Church of Scotland Assembly, there are a string of stories released by their press office that vie to get into the press. This year the one that seems to have grabbed most attention is the story headlined ‘Kirk’s online baptism bid’.
The press office might be pleased that they have a ‘hit’ but they should be careful – because the story itself has opened up the Kirk to ridicule from secularists and saints alike. I suspect there are those within who think that is makes the C of S look cool and cutting edge – but in reality it makes it look foolish and desperate. So much so that I did not accept it could be true and that the press probably got this wrong.
The Herald reported:
“THE Kirk is set to introduce online baptism for the first time as the clergy seeks new ways to address the needs of worshippers in a digital age.
A landmark report backing the plans will be presented to 730 delegates, known as commissioners, at the Church of Scotland’s annual gathering on The Mound in Edinburgh next week. The document will also include proposals to allow “access to the sacraments while not being physically present in the congregation”.
It is hoped the plans will spark a debate about how to engage more with parishioners while also inviting suggestions for executing baptisms remotely through the Internet. Norman Smith, vice-convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council, described the plans as forward-thinking.”
“As fewer people join up in the traditional sense and as they make choices which include ever greater interaction with the Church through online access and social media, questions arise about online membership and even about access to the sacraments while not being physically present in the congregation,” the Kirk report said.
Theological and legal experts will discuss how the physical acts of sacrament such as baptism could be carried out if adopted.
The move to embrace online audiences comes amid an acceptance by the church that the “nature of membership and belonging to the Church of Scotland is becoming more and more blurred”.
Norman Smith went on to say that ‘it shows the church is not behind the times”
This reads like a spoof but apparently it is true. You can also read about it in The Telegraph .
It reminds me of the remarkable decision the Church made to ‘uphold’ the traditional Christian view of sexuality and marriage, whilst allowing its congregations to go against the Church’s own teaching if it wanted to. That was classed as a brilliant compromise then by the C of S and seen as a foolish, deceitful and laughable charade by everyone else. I know that the world is going mad in redefining sexuality, marriage and gender but to see the church ape it in such a way is pathetic. Virtual baptism and communion show that the church is not behind the times? Indeed. It shows that the church is very much up with the spirit of the age. It’s not just the nature of membership and belonging to the Church of Scotland that is becoming more and more blurred. It’s the nature of Christianity, the Bible, Christ and the Church which is becoming even more obscured in the mists of postmodern surrealism which seems to have blinded the leadership. The Church is in danger of disappearing into the ethereal mists of cyberspace.
Missing the Point
But there is something that we need to understand here. It would be too easy not to get the point and to mock (stand up comedians will have a field day with this one). And it would be too easy for people not to get the point and to defend this as a bold attempt to reach out to an online generation, which has clearly been misunderstood by an over zealous headline writer (one who of course was acting on a press release from the Kirk). I see that the C of S cyber warriors are now claiming that it was all a dreadful piece of journalism and that this is not being discussed. Yet I have some sympathy with the journalist here – after all if you write “about access to the sacraments whilst not being physically present in the congregation”, what do you expect people to think? To have a ‘proper grown up discussion’ you need to speak proper grown up language – not the postmodern theological waffle that dominates so many Assembly reports. Whatever the particular details of this there is a trajectory which can be clearly seen if we take a step back and see the bigger picture. What is actually going on here?
The Church of Scotland is in freefall.
Its membership, instead of bottoming out, is accelerating its rate of decline and there are no signs of that stopping. Last year the membership went down from 380,163 to 352,912. The number of ministers fell from 811 to 786. The overall demographic is that of aging congregations, often with youth organisations who use the building but have little to do with the church. Apart from a few optimistic revivalists/charismatics/pietists no-one really believes that the pattern is going to change.
Of course there will always be exceptions and God is able to raise up good biblical growing congregations in the wilderness, but it really is true that the emperor has no clothes. Faced with that depressing fact, what can one do as a clergyman? The solution would be to repent, pray, love and preach the Word. But that is not what is happening. Whilst remaining evangelical groups like Covenant Fellowship continue to tell themselves and hope that the renewal is just around the corner, most ministers have really given up on the biblical teaching about the church and gone for another narrative that acts as a form of self-justification for their ministry.
An example of this is the minister who told me that they thought they would be the last minister of their congregation (membership over 1,000 – attendance around 100 – 70% of whom are women over 70), but that their small congregation did not matter because their parish was some 10,000 people (minus Roman Catholics). These were people they were not even expecting to baptize, marry or even bury. They were just ‘theirs’ because they resided in the parish where the Church was situated and the minister a chaplain in the local school.
That one example is typical of a growing trend for self-justifying one’s own ministry within a dying church. In March the Church issued a press release about a book from one of its own workers, Steve Aisthrope, entitled ‘The Invisible Church’. The Times reported,
“The kirk has conceded that people no longer have to actively attend church to be regarded as Christians.”
The Church was stating that two thirds of those who avoid going to church still maintain a personal faith. The jargon used was painful:
“There is a growing realisation that church is what occurs when people are touched by the living Christ and share the journey with others. Whether that occurs in a historic building or online, or wherever, is unimportant. Changes in wider society mean attendance at Sunday morning worship can no longer be seen as a reliable indicator of the health and scale of Christian faith.”
In other words, the Church is not in decline – it is just in transition. The Moderator, Dr Angus Morrison said,
“Invisible Church is a major contribution to establishing the place of the church in contemporary society.”
I waited before commenting on this until I had read the book – which I have just finished. I will write a full review later but suffice it to say that, whilst in places it is informative and offers some interesting ideas, overall it is a classic example of confirmation bias mixed with wishful thinking. It’s a strange brew but desperate people will drink anything.
Can you see what is happening?
Numbers declining? No problem – the Christian faith is alive and well.
People no longer coming to worship together? No problem – they are churchless Christians.
Lessening influence in society? No problem – we still get our chaplaincies and reps.
Just throw in a couple of truisms about Christianity not being about going to a Sunday service, add a dash of personal experience, a sackful of ‘research’ and mix it all together with a some hopeful postmodern jargon and there you have it – a redefined church, with a redefined mission, which then needs a redefined ministry.
Which nicely leads us on to the next step.
The Church of Scotland is not going to die physically or institutionally. Not for some time. Why? Because it has 4,000 buildings and other assets. Even if it sells off 100 of those per year it can live off the legacy of the past for some time.
Also, if society continues to go the way it is, then there may be another escape route. Many charities are no longer charities funded by donations, but have become government-funded arms of the state. The Kirk could, along with the humanists, become the ‘spiritual’ arm of the all-powerful state.
I saw this a few months ago when the Kirk said it would come up with new ‘radical/creative’ ministries to show to the world how relevant it was. We did not have to wait long. A month ago it was reported:
“The Church of Scotland is recruiting its first arts minister as part of a £1 million push for new ways to reach people as numbers continue to dwindle. Ministers have until the end of this week to apply for the £40,000 a- year post of Glasgow arts minister, based in and around the city centre, to reach out to artists and pioneering forms of worship and “ways of sharing faith that connect with artistic community”.
The strategy officer of Glasgow Presbytery (note how the biblical offices of the church have been multiplied as the church apes the corporate world) stated that they wanted to have, “church for artists because artists did not always resonate with the way church was done. What we envisage is Church where art and the sacramental aspects of worship will be closely entwined. Making art will become the act of worship.”
Once again Norman Smith informed us of the rationale behind this:
“The Christian faith is alive and well, but people today don’t always connect with the Church as we have known it.
“This exciting pioneer ministry will reach out to people of faith in Glasgow’s artistic community and build a church based on the needs and talents of artists. “
“By creating these pioneer ministries we are planting new churches that will be centred on people and the communities they live in.”
There will also be a farming community minister in Ayr. Maybe I should open a book on what the next one will be? Ideas on a postcard to 121!
What is wrong with this? Surely wanting to reach particular groups whether artists or farmers is a good idea? Totally. Reaching them is fine. But creating churches for special interest groups goes against the very nature of the gospel. Churches for farmers, artists, millionaires, socialists, conservatives, white people, indie rockers, Thatcherites, or whatever sub-strata of society you can think of, is just spiritual apartheid.
Meanwhile there are local congregations who are being compelled to amalgamate and others that cannot get a minister. But remember in this Brave New Church, it’s not about numbers (unless you want to claim that 2 million people identify with the Church of Scotland). It’s not about services of worship, or local congregations, or prayer and preaching of the Word. It’s all about the new buzzwords. ‘Churchless Christians serving the kingdom and reaching their communities through their living faith in Christ’. It’s so banal and meaningless that anyone and everyone can sign up to it.
And so on to the next step.
The appointment of former moderator Albert Bogle as the first online minister. www.sanctuaryfirst.org.uk has a team of 50 people writing for it and is an online devotional website. Albert set out its hopeful new role
“We’re looking to move Sanctuary First from its present identity as a devotional website, and see if it could become a bona fide congregation of the Church of Scotland in online and offline worshipping.”
He hopes to conduct weddings and funerals that, assuming they are not online, will mean a certain degree of competition creeping in with local parish churches. The Kirk boasts that it has 1700 people involved in this cyber church. In Internet terms that is pathetic. Even my own wee blog has had 155,000 visitors ‘involved’ this year and 800 people who are signed up ‘followers’.
And so finally we arrived at today’s suggestion of online baptisms or rather a not too clever press release about a report that talks about exploring ‘questions about access to the sacraments even when not physically present’. What would that even mean? Could I create my own avatar, send it to the webminister and get him to do a virtual baptism whilst I watch – or perhaps dunk myself in the bath or sprinkle myself in the shower? Would it be official and congregational if I got 100 likes?! Should the C of S theological commission get the Mormons involved – after all they have been baptising the dead for years!
The pattern and ‘trajectory’ is clear.
But what about online church?
Isn’t it a great idea to reach out digitally to the digital age? Of course it is. The use of Skype for online conversations, Vimeo for broadcasting services, Facebook for keeping in touch, Twitter for notices and your webpage for teaching is great. But a digital church? What does that even mean?
Please note that we are not talking primarily here about people who are unable because of disability or sickness to go to church. In those cases surely the Christian thing is to go to them; in reality, not just online? We are talking about people who can’t be bothered, or don’t like the smelly people sitting besides them, or think the minister’s demeanour is not nice, or…..ad infinitum. In other words, this is pandering to a consumerist society where people are easily offended and want community without commitment. If the local church doesn’t suit my needs then don’t worry I can just join an online one that fits exactly what I want. Even when it doesn’t, I can just switch channels and join another. I can be all spiritual, warm, get what I want and it hardly costs me a thing.
It is beyond irony that liberals, who used to argue about biblical Christians that, whilst the Word had been made flesh, we made him word again, are now advocating that the real life physical body of Christ (his church) should just vanish into cyberspace. The incarnation reduced to the Internet.
The Virtual Imaginary Kirk
To some extent the Kirk is only catching up with its current reality. It already has a virtual imaginary church. Its membership are like my 3500 Facebook friends. Although there are some who are real friends and family, I rarely see the vast majority, don’t know if they are for real or even if some of them exist, and I know many have only a slight passing interest in me and can ‘defriend’ me at the click of a button. The C of S has 350,000 members. Although there are some who are real Christians and Church family, they rarely see the majority, don’t know if they are for real Christians, or even if some still exist, and many have only a slight passing interest in the Gospel and will be off at the slightest perceived offence.
Given that in many areas fantasy virtual church is already the reality, why not just make it official and do it online? Its so much less hassle! You don’t need real congregations; virtual ones are fine, as long as you have real administrators/professionals/clergy to maintain the illusion.
The Church of Scotland has become a church you don’t need to go to, with a God you don’t need to believe in and a faith you don’t need to have. The notion of online baptism (even as a ‘discussion’) is the desperate cry of a drowning church clutching at straws.
Incidentally those who see this as a new role for their ministry should be very careful. Google has just introduced an online avatar butler. Why could they not introduce online avatar ministers?
Then those who want ministers to tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear, can have their dream. Welcome to the Stepford ministers! You could call it SimKirk and have Faithbook as your social media. Twitter would work for the 140 character sermons.
If the Church of Scotland were seeking to use the Internet and social media to communicate the Gospel and to facilitate communication within the Church, then it should be commended. If however this is an attempt to state there is a church, where one does not exist, then this is a foolish policy.
The church is not a virtual organisation that one can join, opt out of, and switch off and on as you please. It is a living community of human beings who are committed to Christ and to one another. In reality, not just online.
The notion of online baptism is as ridiculous as the notion of online weddings or online communion. At best, it is a cheap gimmick. At worst, it comes across as yet another desperate attempt by a declining national church to shore up its numbers and justify its existence. The Church would be better returning to the Word of God and seeking to be that Church which is the pillar and ground of the truth rather than a virtual church, with a virtual membership, led by real ministers/administrators (who of course are not paid in virtual wages) engaging in virtue signaling.
The Internet Church is not the incarnate bride of Christ. It is a pale shadow of the real thing. We need a church that doesn’t consider Facetime an alternative to face-to-face meeting with real people. I want to be in Christ, not plugged into the Matrix.
Some might prefer the airbrushed, Disneyesque, artificial beauty of the surreal ‘church’. Give me the reality of the smelly, stubborn and sinful sheep of the Shepherd any day because we are in Christ and one day we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is. In all his glory and beauty, not photo-shopped according to the imaginations of the imitation designers.
I am thankful for the many Christians within the Church of Scotland who despair at the antics of ‘121’ and their Pravda style press office. I am thankful for the ministers and congregations that are seeking to be real congregations of Christ’s people. We will stand with them and seek to aid and help as brothers and sisters in Christ. To all of us, whatever the denomination I make this simple plea – Get real! Get the real Christ and be the real Church.
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see.
19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
21 To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
For other articles on the C of S on this blog just search Church of Scotland or go to the previous one – Life and Work – the State of the Church of Scotland Today
This was also quoted in Newsweek