What does it mean to belong?

So, here’s the thing.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been doing our usual gathering of names for the congregational roll at St Mary’s. We ask people here to fill in a form each year before the AGM indicating that they want to be included on the congregational roll. It has taken a few years for some people to get used to this, but now most people accept it for what it is – a simple clerical device that means we can keep the roll in a constantly changing congregation up to date.

This year, I’ve as many questions about the result of this exercise than I have answers.

You see, there are people indicating to me that they want to be regarded as members of St Mary’s who I didn’t expect. In particular, people who live at a distance who don’t ever set foot in the building from year to year.

Now in once sense this is unremarkable. Most congregations will have people who are on the roll whom they never see. The thing that makes this a new development is that some of these people live very much at a distance and are indicating that they think of themselves as active members due to the way they participate online with St Mary’s.

Furthermore, some clearly go to other congregations physically and receive the sacrament there but are indicating that they want to think of themselves as being on the congregational roll here. This is, I think, to do with our ethos.

Moreover, there are people who are a couple of ministers in other denominations who are actively working in parish life but who are indicating to me that they want to be included on the congregational roll of St Mary’s.

Now some of this is easy but other aspects are really complicated. The Scottish Episcopal Church doesn’t actually allow for dual membership of it and another denomination to start with, but I’m not sure that people are indicating to me that they want to be Scottish Episcopalians when they indicate to me that they want to be members of St Mary’s. The Scottish Episcopal Church doesn’t, strictly speaking, allow for people to be members of more than one of its congregations either but I’m not so sure that it matters what the church thinks – actual members do believe that they belong to more than one congregation anyway.

From time to time, the Vice Provost and I have conversations about reviving the idea of a Friends of St Mary’s for those living furth of the city of Glasgow who have some allegiance to the congregation. I think that idea of a supporters group is probably a good one. However, I don’t think that is quite what we are talking about when we think about church membership.

I think people want to belong to St Mary’s and not think of themselves as friends of St Mary’s but as actual participating members who are distant from Glasgow.

Now, what does this mean? (That’s a real question and I’d welcome responses in the comments below – I’m still trying to work this out for myself).

What do we need to do to make sense of this? What do we need to do online and with our communications generally to facilitate this situation. Clearly the internet and what we do with it here is having an impact on our life together including our life together apart.

What should the church say about multiple membership?

What does church membership mean in the age of the internet and how is it changing?

I’m interested to hear John Chalmers of the Church of Scotland say today that he wants the church to think about what impact online engagement is making on membership of that denomination so it seems to me that this is an ecumenical matter. This is particularly significant given how negative he has been about social media in the past.

I’m obviously interested that some of the people who do turn up to the Church of Scotland are actually thinking of themselves in the core of their being as belonging in some way to us too. (We must presume that the converse is true too, though I know of no examples).

There’s probably more that I want to say about different types of belonging in another post further down the blog and there’s certainly a lot to be said about ecumenical matters.

However for now, what does it mean to belong?



  1. “I think people want to belong to St Mary’s and not think of themselves as friends of St Mary’s but as actual participating members who are distant from Glasgow.

    Now, what does this mean?”
    Could it be that we who are absolutely sure that we are members of one congregation want some of the sense of belonging when we find ourselves in another place? When we used to wonder what we’d do if HTD were to hit the buffers and close, we used to cheer ourselves up by saying “Well, we could go up to Glasgow, go to the Cathedral and then go out for a nice lunch”. Now that HT is heading down a line where the buffers don’t loom so threateningly, we still like to feel that we’re known and welcomed in a church we like to worship in.

    • People have many varied connections with churches, most of which are worthy of affirmation.

      I find the term “friends of St Mary’s” only halfway desirable – yes I’m generally affably disposed but it connotes ideas of an alumni network, ie leaning toward detachment more than connection, the people being used by a cynical organization for their potential contributions to funds for the sake of the past.
      You could, however, have a “St Mary’s Affiliates’ Network”, perhaps… That sounds more ongoing.

    • robin webster says

      Physical presence still is significant: the architecture that contains the liturgical, social and musical events at St Mary’s is still required, and while I love the idea that the congregation extends well beyond this, there are obviously different experiences (and responsibilities) for those members who are able to be physically present. It is perhaps not surprising that there is a clerical requirement to assess who these folk are and differentiate between them and the diaspora.

      • Actually, I don’t think that the canons do this, Robin.

        The canons allow a Rector to include someone on a congregational roll if she believes that person to be a communicant member. Indeed, the relevant canon expressly says that in certain circumstances they can communicate elsewhere.

        Specifically, Canon 41 says this:

        Every cleric of this Church in charge of a congregation shall keep, regularly revise, and carefully preserve, in a manner approved by the Bishop, a list of the names and addresses of the baptised members and the adherents of that congregation. In case of a vacancy arising, these rolls shall be held by such person and in such manner as the Bishop may direct.
        In each church the cleric having charge of that congregation shall continuously keep and regularly revise at least annually a list of the names and addresses of those members of that congregation who have communicated in that church during the twelve months preceding, or who for good and sufficient reasons having been unable to do so shall have satisfied the cleric that they have so communicated in the Scottish Episcopal Church or in some Church in full communion therewith. This list shall be called the Communicants’ Roll, and the names thereon may be indicated on the Roll of
        members referred to in Section 1 hereof. Any question arising as to the omission or removal of any person’s name from the roll shall be decided by the Bishop, subject to an appeal to the Episcopal
        Synod. No person whose name is not on a Communicants’ Roll of the Scottish Episcopal Church shall have the privileges or rights given by these Canons to communicants.

  2. Ian Murray says

    I’m one of those Church of Scotland Ministers who responded by saying that I’d like to be included on the congregational roll. I’m a minister working in a team (which is great progress for the CofS!) and along with three other full time ministers we look after what’s known as The West Angus Area. It’s pretty well the whole southern part of the County of Angus including Glamis, Kirriemuir and all the Angus Glens. I’m also the Moderator of the Presbytery of Angus, so needless to say, life is hectic.
    Ministers need to be ministered to.
    Although I’m part of a wonderful team, I very rarely have the privilege of receiving from worship.
    So why St Mary’s?
    Partly because when I lived as a student in Buckingham Tce, I regularly attended worship there – but that was a long time ago. I was also an organist in the Scottish Episcopal Church long before I was ever a member of the CofS, so my roots are in the SEC.
    But much more significantly, I appreciate the inclusive, contemporary, relevant and affirming sermons accessible through your video links on the St Mary’s website. Sometimes challenging, and always encouraging and hopeful. These have been my spiritual nourishment for quite sometime as well as a source of hope that the Church is moving forward.
    Working in some very rural communities, we have congregations made up of people from many different backgrounds. On any Sunday I might have people from a Baptist or Pentecostal Church background sitting next to people who were previously CofE or members of the Scottish Episcopal Church. But that’s one of the joys of remote living! In some instances, the nearest church of their natural or traditional choice might be 50 or 60 miles away.
    Maybe this highlights the point that there is a difference between membership on paper and membership as perceiving a welcome, acceptance, and encouragement regardless of where you’ve come from, what colour your socks or who you snuggle up with at night!
    On the other hand, when people do take that step to become full members of any of my congregations, I sensitively point out that with membership comes responsibilities. I expect my members to support the church with their presence, their prayers, and also financially.
    I certainly can’t support St Mary’s with my presence, but I do remember you in my prayers, and if you’d like to send me a Deed of Covenant Envelope, I’d happily give you some support financially!
    Best wishes
    Ian Murray

    • Many thanks Ian – that’s wonderfully positive. We’re quite excited by people wanting to associate with the congregation whom we would at one time never have heard of.

      I agree that ministers need to be ministered to and that does seem to be an emerging theme here.

      We quite often have Church of Scotland ministers present too. There was a time when we had quite a few who would drop into evensong. I’m not sure they wanted to see one another. At one time I thought we might need to build private booths around the walls….

  3. Ross Fishburn says

    In the Diocese of Melbourne (Australia), we are now quite clear about the roll which determines who can vote and be elected to office, and be members of a parish for official purposes, which is called the Electoral Roll, and any other sort of pastoral or associational roll. It seems to me that many folk you are referring to want to be on the second, but not on the first. Indeed as a Priest licensed to a non parochial ministry (Academic Dean of a Theological College in my case) I cannot be on the electoral roll, as that is only for lay people. We’ve just been through our Annual Meeting here, and the Vicar had to explain the difference between the Pastoral Roll and the Electoral Roll for a few weeks. She wanted folk to be clear that we aren’t excluding people from involvement or association, but must limit the electoral roll to qualified voters , and like you, one can only be on one electoral roll, that of the parish one habitually attends.

  4. Belonging can be a measure of the sincerity of one’s belief. Or it can mean being part of a church but struggling with the central tenets of Christian theology. It’s a commitment, I think, that says ‘I want to be part of this’. Maybe belonging can happen before believing.

  5. Neil Oliver says

    I am based a little way from Glasgow, (approx. an hour twenty on the train) and worship at St Mary’s about 6-8 times a year. That’s more than I worship anywhere else. If I were living closer, I’d be there two or three times a month and would have put my name on the congregational roll.

    St Mary’s is the only church I truly relate to and where the ethos and preaching truly bring Christ and the faith to my life. But I have this old fashioned feeling that I can’t be on (what I equate to) an Electoral Roll if I don’t play a full part of church life.

    So I didn’t put my name on the list, despite this being the only church I have any relationship to. Maybe I’m too hidebound by the rules of my youth and am not engaging in the opportunities of a modern church that has joined the 21st C? Maybe I should have put my name down? Hey ho.

    • Hi Neil – you are with us more often than some who are on the roll but for diverse reasons are not present as often as they would like to be and I know that St Mary’s means a lot to you.

      You are most welcome to include yourself on the roll for this year if you want to do so. It isn’t closed – http://thecathedral.org.uk/2014/11/22/congregational-roll-2014/

      I’m still trying to work out how St Mary’s can relate better to those who live at a distance and what taking an active part in the life of the congregation means for those in that situation.

  6. What I have read is very important for me. I am a recent church member, baptised 2012, confirmed 2013. I am still a bit confused about membership and belonging to one church but worshiping in another. I was aware of not being in two different denominations at one time. I will hopefully get a chance to ask my rector about the membership of one church, etc, he’s been very helpful about all of the things I’ve not been sure of.
    I didn’t know that strictly speaking going to two different churches wasn’t allowed, which means that I would have to give up going to church two Sundays a month. The rector gives me a lift to whichever church he’s preaching in. One week in Dingwall the next in Strathpeffer, plus going to Invergordon as well.
    I wonder does going to an evening episcopal prayer meeting count as another service

    • No Dharma, you can go to as many churches as you like. What you can’t do is vote in as many church AGMs as you like.

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