Monday, January 08, 2007

Personal Journey 16: Managing Change and Conflict

This has been a hard blog to write. I have wanted to try and explain what was happening without too many unnecessary details while at the same time trying to be fair. It is always hard to be objective about things that you care passionately about. I hope what follows is not too boring.

Personal Journey 16: Managing Change and Conflict

My goals for the beginning of my time at Banchory had been:

1. Making what we did as friendly and as welcoming as possible without actually changing what we did.

2. Getting as involved personally as possible in the local community so that I could establish and build relationships with people.

Without wishing to sound clever, I felt that I could justifiably claim some success in achieving my goals thus far, but I also felt I needed to move onto the next stage. I now had to think what my goals for that should be. Obviously, I wanted to continue with my involvement in the local community. I was convinced that mission had to be at the heart of my ministry and, hopefully, that of the Church as well!

The problem lay with the first of my initial goals. There was no problem, in theory at least, with the desire to make what we did as friendly and as welcoming as possible. The problem lay in the ‘without changing’ anything part! While new people were slowly coming to church and were interested, they were, nevertheless, finding it very alien.

I think I should say at this point that I think people should find certain things about the Church alien. I am worried that, in our attempts to be relevant to contemporary society, we forget that the church should also be counter cultural. That is, that we should challenge as well as relate to culture. The trick, of course, is to avoid being unnecessarily alien. I felt that using Shakespearean language and chanting responses was as alienating to many Christians as it was to outsiders!

However, I also believe that you have to take the congregation with you. It is all very well for some emergent leaders to declare that they will only work with new congregations and that they can’t work within existing structures, but surely that is to take the easy way out and what does it say about our love for the brethren in existing churches? Doesn’t it sound more than a little arrogant? Being a body means loving all parts of it – even those parts that can’t keep up with the speed we want to go! This is one of the big issues I have with many in the emerging church. It’s very easy to start from scratch. It’s a lot harder to start from a place that is facing the opposite direction to where you want to be. I will return to this in the future.

Furthermore, an inclusive approach surely means including those whose tastes in worship differ from those of the clergy or even the majority in the church. Many traditionalists feel that their views don’t count, and I have some sympathy with them. Many clergy see traditionalists as a barrier to their more radical tendencies. But tolerance, inclusivity, openness - and all the other modern buzzwords - are not a one way street.

I remember David Watson saying that to fill a church you first have to empty it. I decided that this was not the path I wanted to go down. I hoped that we could build a church that held on to existing members as well as attracting new ones. The question was how to do it! I decided that to change the language would be to go too far. Given that it was unity that I wanted, I thought that the Eucharist provided the best hope of finding it. I also believed that this was a theologically sound position.

Consequently, I decided to do two things, which may not at first sound very radical, but were, in fact, quite radical for someone in my position. Firstly, I decided to change one of the two monthly Sunday morning Mattins services to a Eucharist. This meant that we would have three Eucharists and one Mattins service as our main morning service each month. On those months where there were five Sundays in the month, on the fifth Sunday we would have a Family Eucharist with the children staying in for the service. This was in addition to the regular 8.00am Eucharist, which remained unchanged. The monthly Evensong also remained unchanged. To this, I added a modern language Eucharist in the evening once a month.

I felt that I wasn’t abandoning traditionalists, anything but, just making the most of the traditional services we had. The liturgy for the morning Eucharist was going to be that preferred by the choir and there were to be no changes to the music or hymns used. It was a small change designed to make the morning services a little more accessible than they were. The Family Service was more of a change, but it was only 4 times a year and still used traditional language. The additional communion service once a month in the evening was for those who wanted it and no-one was being forced to attend.

Most of the traditionalists in the congregation supported the change as reasonable and didn’t really feel it was that radical anyway. From some in the choir, however, there was an explosive reaction. I have to confess to feeling somewhat aggrieved, I knew of so many churches in which traditionalists, when it came to worship, would have seen me as very much one of them! Here I was being cast as a complete villain! However, the reaction was out of all proportion to the changes being made and consequently those creating the fuss lost any sympathy there might otherwise have been.

A far more serious problem in my mind was that there were those in the congregation who justifiably felt that I was not going far enough and that it was always those in favour of change who had to compromise. Looking back, I think I should have gone further than I did. With the benefit of hindsight, I would have followed the same principles that guided me in making the few changes I did make. I would have certainly have kept a more formal approach to worship, but I would have introduced a modern language Eucharist as the main service for every Sunday.

In my defence, I was genuinely trying to find what was right for the Church as it was rather than trying to impose some pre-determined formula. I still believe this was right. Where I think I was wrong was in not going that little bit farther. It’s hard! At the time, I was wanting to make sure that I did not lose anyone. This much at least was achieved. While a few people stayed away to begin with, their experiences at other churches they visited made them realize that I was by no means a crusading radical bent on change at any cost. I am not aware that we lost anyone permanently. It could, of course, be argued that we did not gain as many people as we otherwise would if the changes had been more radical, but this cost-benefit approach to church membership didn't appeal to me then and it still doesn't now.

I need to say at this point that I was truly blessed in the people who occupied the key church offices. They were all respected members of the congregation. They trusted me and I trusted them. They knew what I was trying to do, even if I did make mistakes, and that I wasn’t wanting to abandon those who had been coming to church for years. I knew that if they advised me to do something, or cautioned against it, then I would be a fool not to listen. More than simply church officers they became dear friends.

The second change I made was to reposition the altar so that I could face the congregation as is typical in just about every church nowadays. There were one or two murmurs about this, but it was hard to justify not doing it. For me, it was as important as anything as it signalled the sort of spirit in which I hoped our services could be conducted!

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