Yesterday Sheila and I went 'doon the watter' (travelled down the Clyde estuary, not by boat but by car) and spent a while in Helensburgh. A few miles further on into the Gareloch is the village of Rhu (used to be called Row), where the saintly theologian John MacLeod Campbell was minister in the early to mid 19th Century. He was deposed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1831 for teaching that Christ's death was for all, and that salvation is by the faith that believes this and trusts God that it is so. His masterpiece, The Nature of the Atonement, is one of the greatest theological works ever produced in Scotland.
Not easy reading, but why should a Christian pastor whose careful and passionate proclaiming of the Gospel was misunderstood, and at times misrepresented, by those who engineered through the Church Courts, his removal from ministry, why should he write a dumbed down climb-down? His book remains one of the most challenging statements on the meaning of the death of Christ and the Father's love as the core of the Christian Gospel. Underlying his theology is a generosity of spirit, and a conception of the Father's love that is primary and qualifies any understanding of God as judge. Such a theology is far more amenable to the missional imperative of the church than the hard-edged Westminster Calvinism which MacLeod Campbell challenged.
Which brings me back to Helensburgh, where we met two good friends from Fife, through to close down their caravan for the winter. Bill was recalling his last Sabbatical, all the books he read and the thinking he thought. And he said, 'The most important thing I learned was the parable of the man fishing off the pier. This man fished every day off the end of the pier, and one day one of the local lads came to him and said, "The fish don't come here any more". "Aye," said the man, "but they used to"'.
If the church is to survive and prosper through the current cultural flux, then it needs to stop using the methods, pursuing the practices, clinging to the memories, working on the assumptions, of what used to be. "The fish don't come here any more". Right - let's go find where they do come to.
And it is that go-finding mentality, that adaptability to changing circumstances, that alert noticing that change is deceptive but deceptively fast; that willingness NOT to make our own methods, habits, assumptions, convenience, memories, the standard of truth and the last word on how we go about God's mission, that marks out the faithful follower of Jesus. For John MacLeod Campbell that meant searching for an understanding and portrayal of the Christian Gospel that frees it from theological monopolies and allows it to speak in its own power to the mind of today.
For the church in Scotland, it will mean giving up what used to work, and following once again the One who said, 'Come after me and I will make you fishers of men and women'.
And it may also mean being prepared to listen to the One who says, 'Cast your nets on the OTHER side of the boat.' But maybe it takes some nerve for seasoned, experienced fishermen like ourselves to listen to Jesus telling us how to fish. After all, what does a carpenter know about fishing? Mhmm.