By The Rev. Donald Schell
Part two of two
After 40 years of asking people to try and reflect on new ways of practicing church, I’m still loving helping our gathered communities discover fresh ways to do this, to be church, to gather openly in Jesus’ presence inviting all in, but this visit to Scotland, seeing how my daughter is making her life without church community, sensing how common that is among her friends and colleagues, seeing Britain’s empty or repurposed churches (a bar, a warehouse, an urban club, subdivided into housing), I sense an inkling of a future of loss; so much that we love and hope to hold on to is dying.
Of course we see a comparable secularity around my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle may have the highest proportion of “nones” in the country. Recently one of our San Francisco papers ran an extended story in the Style section on imaginative repurposing of unneeded church buildings. The article celebrated imagination that saved these “no longer needed” handsome buildings from demolition.
Here, on this visit to Iona, while I’m delighting in the integrity of this community’s hospitality and clarity of mission, as I’m loving praying twice daily in the Abbey chapel, I also feel a grieving. There are young people here in our gathering of 80 or so people, but they’re few. The faith of fellow pilgrims my age, the majority of our group are people in their 60s, touches me deeply. Hearing their stories, I hear depth and integrity and generosity. These are people who have taken holy risks. Their questions are alive. They’re here because the Spirit is still grounding them and still making them restless for more.
The Spirit is here and it’s my joy to be present to her. But even here I keep wondering whether our little fragment of North American and European Christians will find a grace to navigate the precipitous losses we’re experiencing. Will we re-find our integrity as communities and people following Jesus? It’s not a new question. Philip Newell (who with his wife Ali is leading this Iona gathering) tells us George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community — and a distinguished Church of Scotland minister — enjoyed asking people he’d just met, “Are you a Presbyterian or a Christian?” MacLeod wasn’t just offering a provocative jest, though he was known for his wicked sense of humor. He was asking a real question from his experience working with the poor of Glasgow, people already outside the margins of the church in the 1930s. Will you follow you Jesus? Do you know where he leads us?
I wonder what Darwin’s friend Fitzroy would make of Philip Newell asking us to hand ’round a stone from an Iona beach that he informed us was 2.8 billion years old. The rock came to me last, after 80 of us had held it before. It felt warm from being passed from hand to hand, and knowing how old it was, it felt alive, as though it were speaking to us. Later I talked to a young, open, evangelical earth scientist who explained to me what told us that rock was that old and why we don’t find rocks older than that (though we know how much older the earth is). What would Darwin and Fitzroy make of her and me? Read More…