Final Words from Grant Barclay

Grant Barclay left St Kentigern’s in August 2016 after twenty-one years of ministry. These are his comments at the closing social and in the final service the following day:

It has been my pleasure to have given the most energetic years of my ministry here in New Farm Loch; if I could choose them again, I’d come back here. It has been a privilege for me to have served as Minister among such good and faithful people in a town which – in spite of many challenges – still has a great deal going for it.  I don’t have long enough to tell you all the high points, and I don’t have any energy to remember the low points! Here, though, are some of the things that stand out for me.

You have shown a real commitment to work with young people through longstanding uniformed organisations, Junior Church, various incarnations of youth work, holiday clubs (do you remember the space ship stuck to the wall?) and our summer services. There were few children around in 1995; at different times we have had very many; but more important than numbers is the way we have changed to welcome and accommodate them. Jesus tells us to let little children, by which he means children of all ages, come to him: if we have become better at doing that we are demonstrating a commitment to greater discipleship.

You have also shown a real commitment to engage with our community. We were always available for pastoral need, but we have extended that and moved from proclaiming to our parish to a place where we walk alongside people here. We’ve become more hospitable to all sorts of groups, and conferences, and also local schools. The plans for our community garden is just one more development of this. Jesus travelled around the villages of his area and didn’t confine himself to places of worship. If we have increased our engagement with our community and those who live here, we are demonstrating a desire to be more like Jesus.

You have shown a real commitment to deepen friendship across the denominations. Fr Joe Boland and Fr Martin Chambers have been inspirational leaders in St Matthew’s and it has been a delight to forge stronger ties with our Catholic sisters and brothers. That was helped with Mark and Gill’s wedding, but it hasn’t only been about partying. Through working together and joint effort we have become good friends. That is a witness of solidarity and has sought to take seriously Jesus’ prayer that all his people may be one. We are demonstrating a commitment to live as Jesus prayed. If this cooperation extends to a work of hospitality for those who come from other faiths and war-torn lands to seek refuge here, we will be demonstrating an obedience to scripture which enjoins us to welcome the sojourner and the stranger. We will do that better together.

You have shown a real willingness to develop our worship through a wide range of efforts such as Freshchurch, different types of evening services, First Tuesday Afternoon worship which continues to grow and morning worship which certainly hasn’t been staid. We’ve successfully joined traditional and contemporary styles of worship thanks to the patience and enthusiasm of Arthur, Stacey and all the band members. In this we have demonstrated a commitment to singing a new song to the Lord, without forgetting the traditions of our forebears.

Perhaps most exciting is the increasing involvement by people from our congregation in leading worship. They have shown us they are well able to do this. I’ve seen their commitment to think, reflect, practise and improve. This involvement of many more of the people of God in leading the worship of God’s people will serve you well in the immediate future, and is likely to be a beacon showing the way the Church will develop in Scotland in the coming generation. You have demonstrated a willingness to step out in faith – and you have found God faithful.

You have shown a real commitment to contribute to the wider Church of Scotland. We’ve played our part in Presbytery, enabled six probationer ministers and three students to develop in ministry at different stages of their training, and helped or are helping another four to consider their calling to ministry. In all this we have invested in the future of the Church of Scotland. As Ministry numbers decline, it won’t be long before one percent (six ministers in six hundred) or so of all the Church of Scotland Ministers will have had some connection with St Kentigern’s! And you have also been gracious in allowing me to serve Presbytery and the Council of Assembly for six years; that took me away from the parish, though Tom did a sterling job to make my absence largely unnoticed. In all this you have demonstrated a commitment to the wider church of which we’re part, and in that way you have followed the example of the early Christian communities which were concerned for others at least as much as for themselves.

You have shown a real commitment not only to look, but to move, forward. I’m really pleased that one of the main articles in the August 2016 edition of Life and Work highlights one of the most positive developments in St Kentigern’s in a generation – Fresh Expressions. The whole Church of Scotland is keen to learn from this movement, and we are among the early pioneers of this exciting work. We are learning from it that when we take faith out the building, it doesn’t wither and die. While it is really hard to help it take root in other places, there is a sense that God is calling his Church to go out beyond what’s cosy and comfortable – and meet God who is already there. I would dearly love more of you to be more involved in helping nurture these Fresh Expressions, but our evenings in First Edition, our mornings in the Community Centre, our afternoons in Messy Church and sunny lunchtimes we are looking forward to in the community garden all offer potential for a revitalised faith and growth of discipleship in new ways. You are demonstrating a faith which follows even into unknown territory as Jesus says, ‘Follow me.’

You can see why, in these and many other ways, the years I’ve spent here have been ones of real blessing. And I’ve not even mentioned what has probably been the richest and best part of it all – walking with you in faith. The conversations, coffees, discussions, meetings, cups of tea (and bits of cake or iced pastry stars) have enriched my life, changed my view and enlarged my faith more than I imagined. It has been my privilege to serve as your minister. A meringue? I don’t think I am ‘wrang’/wrong; and anyway, whipped egg-whites with cream have been, as it were, the icing on the cake for me (even if they weren’t all that Health and Safety conscious)!

Thank you for being you; for being here; and for being God’s people in this place. I also want to thank and pay public tribute to Karen and our children, Katie, Andrew and Kirsten. I chose to do this work as a Minister but they largely didn’t; they have had to live in a Manse, they have always been known as Minister’s wife in the hospital, or as Minister’s son and daughters; what they got up to for good and ill was watched slightly more closely than others, and shared with greater enthusiasm. It has been in different ways harder and lonelier for them than it has for me. The support they have given me quietly and in the background has been essential. I couldn’t have been the Minister to you, to the Presbytery or the national Church which I have been, without their help and encouragement.

I mention all of this really just to emphasise that our little catchphrase is true. I think we have been ‘people together following Jesus.’ Church is about the people – you, and me, and many others. It’s about us being together even though we are different, and recognising that we are joined through something remarkably powerful. This has been a church unafraid to say that the main business is discipleship – learning and following what God has shown in the person of Christ. It has all been centred on Jesus, and on God’s making himself known through Jesus, and on our sharing the life offered to us by the Spirit of Jesus.

I’ve a deal more to say about where you might go from here. Jesus beckons, and expects us to follow.  I strongly encourage you to remain united, and to follow Jesus together. The future is very exciting and possibilities which I wouldn’t have imagined when I came have become reality here. God still has a deal for you to do right here where you are – and in Romania, too, and in many other places. You will do it better as you do it together. But this evening I want to acknowledge the way we have come; the way we have been brought together; the grace which has been given to us, and to me, in this privilege of ministry. Thanks be to God.

The final passage on which I have the opportunity to preach as your Minister couldn’t be more appropriate. This is the last Sunday of our special services where we’ve been looking at the involvement of angels throughout the story of the people of God. We come, this morning, on this last summer service and last service for me, to the account of the angel at the tomb on Easter morning.

The central job of angels is to communicate: they are messengers. So this last summer service is about a messenger’s tale in a dark tomb in the cold light of day on the first Easter morning when it looked as though things had finished, and the future was uncertain and bleak. In truth, the best was just around the corner. This is my last sermon as Minister here and I want to encourage you to see that things are, in a sense, really only beginning; hope is just around the corner.

Let’s start with messages. Technology has changed hugely – in 1995 when I arrived, email was geeky. Now it’s old-fashioned! Who would have thought back then that we’d regularly watch videos in worship and even be linked live with rural Uganda? Communication has changed hugely in our world. If we are to be faithful messengers, we need to keep up with the changes. Doing any less is selfish and faithless.

The angel met the women right where they were, and encouraged them not to stay where they were. We have not only seen change around us but we have changed, too. We’ve tried many different ways of engaging in worship: earlier services, a closer friendship with St Matthew’s, and a real contribution to worship in our town. We helped lead the Impact World Tour mission events and we have discovered deeper connections with our community. We’ve become a favoured venue for NHS and East Ayrshire Council staff meetings; we started a community magazine, a community cafe, and have run the only Job Club in this community.

And we’ve also spoken out for what we thought was right, both here and worldwide. We took seriously debt relief, fair trade and caring for looked-after children. The community garden to be built on church land is just another example of our ongoing commitment to be a church for the whole of our community. That’s not to mention the work we’ve done consistently in schools, and in serving anyone in our parish who wanted help at high points of marriage and low points of bereavement. We are a church involved in our community; I want to encourage you that this is an important part of our identity and it’s something you shouldn’t lose.

In Mark’s version of the story the angel at the tomb is said to be a ‘young man’. It would be good to see not only angels, but even young men, in church. We haven’t changed all that much as a group of people over twenty years. We have welcomed new members among us, but many of them have come and gone again. Many of our key officebearers have remained the same throughout these two decades and I’m grateful for their faithfulness and dedication. Of course, we’ve also taken our leave of many good and faithful friends who, through the years, have worked hard alongside us, shared good times and been an example of dedicated Christian living. We thank God for the memories we have of each of them; we rejoice in the communion of the saints.

The way of things is that we grow old and move on. Yet, like many congregations, we haven’t seen a younger generation come up to take over the tasks of leadership. And we might ask whether we’ve made it easy for any of them to do that. For whatever reasons, twenty one years on from the mid-nineties we recognise that the work of being church hasn’t become any more straightforward  – and we’re not as energetic as we once were.

But here’s a ancouraging story from a Canadian pastor, Nathan Aaseng. On holiday he saw two futures for church:

On a Sunday morning, we passed church after church with empty car parks or maybe two or three cars. In one service the people were gracious and welcoming, but the sanctuary was mostly empty. All were elderly except for one family. Some of these churches were on life support. Few churches could afford even a part-time pastor. Numbers were steadily declining. Young people weren’t coming. Those who stay are the faithful heroic flame-keepers who will be there until the bitter end; but the end is in sight.

The other vision was both hopeful and exciting. In Nova Scotia, we came across the tradition of Gaelic music, going back to the days of the early Scottish settlers. But it was embraced by younger musicians who played with a rare passion and flair. They played the old music and honoured the tradition, yet at the same time put their own innovative stamp on it, and the older people beamed and clapped. The way the entire population of the island seemed connected to this music, wherever it was taking them, was remarkable.

This a vision for the future of the church. Church can grow – decline is not unavoidable. We don’t have to throw out deeply-held traditions but we must not cling to any which are only for our comfort. Resurrection involves a new way of living, new attitudes, new relationships, not old ones reheated.

So there is nothing resurrection-like when people try to bring the church into the context of the time and they are criticised and discouraged by the other members, the ones who control the institution and who want to preserve the nostalgia of a more prosperous church era. Resurrection isn’t found where there is so little connection between the generations that congregations split into traditional and contemporary services, neither of which accepts the other.

Nathan Aaseng continues:

Nova Scotia music is a picture of resurrection. There, traditions are not automatically despised by the young. Innovations to tradition are not automatically hated by the old. Those presently there give hospitality, move over, enable new ways within the bigger setting of their tradition, and they encourage to the hilt those who come along with new vision and fresh thinking. Churches today are, as they have always been, products of their own creation.

People can unite across the generations to carry the wisdom and experience of the past into a new and exciting future. But it will not happen through dutifully repeating what’s gone on before. It will not happen unless deep bonds of respect between generations are created. It will not happen without a shared understanding of who we are, what has made us who we are, and a sense that there is room for all of us to grow together, wherever this is taking us. It will not happen unless there is conspicuous hospitality by those who currently hold the keys, and who allow a new generation to do a new thing which remains rooted but is also radical.

Most importantly, this vision of a future for the church requires a spirit of genuine joy in what we are doing, and a passion for sharing it together.

The angel in Matthew’s resurrection story tells the women not to stay where they are, but to go and to tell.

So I’m leaving because I’ve done my work here and I need to give you space to plan, grow and flourish in the purposes and providence of God. While I’ve been here we have seen together that there can be space for all, but only if we all change and accommodate. We will only be successful if we are faithful to Christ and his Good News – but that isn’t simply doing now what was done fifty years ago. Look at how the world has changed; see how we have changed, at least a bit. And now, freed up and forced to take a bit more ownership and responsibility, what can you do together for God’s kingdom here?

This is my last chance to influence any of it; after this I say nothing and that’s entirely right. This was, and remains, your church more than it has ever been mine; though I’ve been delighted and privileged to have been your Minister, the longest-serving one in the short history of this parish to date.

In my view, you need to create more than you need to conserve. In fact, the more you try to hold on to what you have, and not lose something of your life for the sake of God’s kingdom, the more you will find you lose even what you thought you had. When you meet to pray, do not only grieve for how bad things are; seek God’s energy and vision for a creative response to the world you are now living in. And do not stop praying; but neither stop at praying. Infuse all your creative work with prayer, but recognise, too, that work is prayer.

I also think you need to risk rather than be rigid. The hallmark of the last twenty years in culture has been about things changing; it’s sad that we sometimes sing with approval that ‘nothing changes here’. The one sure thing about a church in which nothing changes is that the biggest change is in attendance and membership. But risk lies at the heart of the gospel: ‘Go up to Galilee, and there you will see him.’ Really? Who says? How safe is it there? Who will pay the travel cost? Who will keep things safe here? Isn’t it better to stay where we know we are?

‘Go into all the corners of the earth and make disciples of every nation’ is a vision with huge risk attached. If we are not making disciples and if that is because we are not risking enough, then we are not being faithful to the God who calls us to be his body in today’s world. We are called to risk no less than were the first disciples.

One significant area where you may need to think about taking risk is in whether you want a Minister to carry on the sort of ministry you’ve enjoyed for nearly fifty years now, or whether the time has come to change. Should three or more churches in this area all be entitled to their own clerical-collar-wearing Minister? If there were some kind of working together would it be better to engage people to do youth work or community engagement or work alongside families, or seniors in our community, as well as have a ‘normal’ Minister? My leaving, together with retirements or changes in Hurlford and soon in Kay Park and Fenwick make it possible to think about all this in ways which we wouldn’t have dreamed about if things had stayed the same. Change can enable faithful progress.

And you need to work more than watch. It is one of the real failures of our way of doing things that we give the impression a very few work, and most watch. We do that on Sundays – which is why the ways we’ve developed our worship over the past year is one of the most exciting things to have happened in my time with you. There will be much more scope for many more to become prepared and equipped to lead God’s people in all sorts of worship in the months ahead – and that is hugely exciting. The way we are engaging with our community continues to make real demands on us and we will need to do even more to meet that. So many more people are needed to get involved – and we all need to welcome all those who offer themselves.

The Kirk Session committees have not involved in their work anything like the number of members of the congregation I had hoped, but our simple system of having four groups through which we can be concerned for our world, our partnerships with other churches, our community and our church fellowship is simple, straightforward, and a potentially great tool. I would encourage you to make much more of it. It’s an approach used now even by the national youth work of the Methodist Church which has seen huge increases in numbers of people getting involved. It could be the same here, I believe, but it will take much more hospitality and hard work on the part of our church leadership to make that happen.

Finally, the angel told the women that, if they did travel far and tell many, what they would really be doing would be walking closer to the risen Jesus. Don’t be afraid. Move out. There you will see him.

So the last thing I want to say in worship as your Minister is that your future is held in the providence and purposes of God, which means you have a lot of work to do and you can put a whole lot of trust in God’s faithfulness. Our calling has been to follow Jesus and I’ve loved the three feet logo. Jesus beckons, and expects us to follow. That means we cannot stay where we are; but neither could the women at the tomb.

And, in the words of our little phrase which has helped us for many years to remember what we’re about, we do this as ‘people together following Jesus.’ I strongly encouraged you to remain united, and to follow Jesus together. It may be tempting to wander off elsewhere, particularly if the going gets tough or clunky processes delay things. The future is very exciting and there are possibilities here which I wouldn’t have imagined when I came. I didn’t make any of them happen, but Messy Church, Fresh Expressions and many voices in worship are some of the many things which make me think God still has a deal for you to do here. You will do it better together.

You are looking for Jesus; unlike the women who first heard the angel you know that he is here, present in his world and not least among his people. But like the women, you are charged with going and telling, and showing through caring and faithful witness to his risen life. You cannot stay where you are, for God in Christ calls you forward, and God’s Holy Spirit in you comforts, directs and energises you to follow where Jesus leads.

Keep going then, in the strength of the Lord; be people together following Jesus. And may God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless, keep and lead you now and always.