A visit to Falkirk today, and to the thriving Churches together venture there, had me thinking in the traffic jams about ownership of our churches. Not in the sense of who owns the buildings - the question which leads to strife when congregations break away as in the USA today - but rather of how congregations and clergy deal with how things happen in a church - or even what happens in a church.
In a sense, a congregation appoints a priest to minister to them - but then leaves that person to make many of the decisions about the day-to-day running of a church, aided (or hindered) by a Vestry. The incumbent expects to be consulted about what happens in the building and to decide ... things. So the dynamic changes, and people who may have been running a charge for months in a vacancy, say, heave a sigh of relief and go back to not having to worry about such matters.
Or do they? Because in many parishes the people will have a far greater stake in what goes on in their church than the clergy who pass through. Their collective memory may cover a lifetime, and cover the incumbencies of an ever-increasing number of transient clergy, each bringing his/her own priorities and foibles and disappearing again on their own career paths. Even vestries don't really signify much: usually they are composed of the current crop of those who can be bothered doing the job/have been proposed despite themselves/feel they ought to take their turn. Once in situ, they seem to acquire their own momentum too. So a wall-hanging here, an icon there, a reredos banished to become a surround for a door, furniture moved or done away with ... and the punters in the pew, whose presence is the only thing keeping the doors open, complain or approve, take themselves off or feel that things are improved or wonder what was wrong with the way things had gone before.
And so it goes on. But it brings me back to my first question, and I'll put it slightly differently and maybe more provocatively: whose church is it?
And yes, I know it's Christ's church, but I'm talking about middle management and below here. For I don't think we can be passive any longer, and I am certain that empowering the laity has considerable implications for more than what they get up to during a service. So when we're debating Collaborative Ministry, let's not forget what, for convenience, I'm going to call Collaborative Laity. Because one thing's certain: we're all in this together.
Now there's a cliche for you!