Pondering the invitation I received from Rev Colin Campbell some months ago, asking if I would be willing to be a church elder, I’d like to just say some things about myself and how I arrived at this church at this stage of my spiritual journey.
I was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, which I did not feel comfortable with as I grew up, because
a) The emphasis was too much on getting ‘saved’
b) going to heaven
c) being prepared for Jesus’ Second Coming, and
d) less on how to live a Christian life in this world as Jesus taught
So (to cut a long story short) I married a Presbyterian with a family I felt my parents would approve of, ie, his parents were missionaries and had some background within the Brethren community. However, my mother, who habitually suffered from nervous depression, found this hard to handle and was unable to cope with this decision of mine. So I distanced myself from her, and concentrated on having a good marriage and a life I felt comfortable with, yet still in the Christian Community. This meant being involved with Corrymeela, a Christian Community in Northern Ireland, and a more open type of Christianity.
However, my husband died at 36, and I was well supported by the Presbyterian community as a single parent. But I missed being in a relationship, and had several relationships with men over the years, during which time I explored the prevalent attitudes among Christians towards sexuality, and became more relaxed about what was considered ‘sin’. I was therefore becoming not fully accepted within the evangelical Christian community, though still fully committed as a Christian. The main thing keeping me there was a love of music, and when the church choir disbanded, I joined another (Presbyterian!) church –which had a good choir!! However, I would never have become an elder as I grew older, because I had a big problem with the Westminster Confession of Faith, and would not have signed up to this.
So it took many years before I finally abandoned the Presbyterian church where most of my Christian friends belonged, and having married Paul, an Englishman who had no strong church connection, I explored the idea of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian church, and found it much more acceptable, and less judgemental! And amazingly, after having joined, I discovered while researching my family tree, that some of my ancestors were actually members of this earlier branch of the Presbyterian church, and I had actually returned to my roots! During the 40 years of belonging to the more mainstream Presbyterian church, I had tried to introduce more liberal and wider values, which had been viewed with some suspicion! In discussion with our minister, I found I was more of a pragmatist than a strict follower of the theology that was being taught at that time! In the Northern Ireland context, I was horrified with the views of many Protestant churches, and found myself leaning more and more to the more liberal Corrymeela community. But suggestions including more cross-community involvement were only given the nod, and not taken seriously. So I left, feeling I could be more involved with the more liberal Non-Subscribing Presbyterian church, and reading their history, I felt I had made the right decision.
On reflection, after belonging to this church for about 5 years, I see the building as a place that could be used in the town if we could get more people involved or even interested. The locked iron gates are to me an anathema. My suggestion to remove them was strongly resisted, as the likely problem of vandalism and possible damage seemed to be more important. Then just recently, listening to the radio, thoughts developed in my head about how to get around this problem, and make the building itself more open and welcoming, so that local people could ‘own it’ as their own! On Radio 4 I learned about ‘Operation Icarus’ in England for keeping churches open, ‘ecclesiastical insurers’, cctv cameras for Church security, ‘Smart water’ for portable items. Operation Icarus states: ‘the purpose of the church is to be open for people to come in and be impressed with Christianity, as well as a place of quiet and reflection’. And the Churches Conservation Trust says: ‘the more churches are seen to be open, used and part of the community , visited by tourists and others who might be interested, the less theft there will be, because people will see them to be a used building, not a building that is empty, and the more they will be seen to be part of the community. I realised this idea might be strongly resisted, but in the face of a rapidly diminishing congregation, I still feel we have to become more proactive.