Good Friday Sermon 2024 – It is finished

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I remember some years ago hearing someone speaking about what made people compatible.

I think that it was someone who was a statistician who was making quite a living by advising people who were designing dating apps on what questions to ask people which would give the greatest likelihood of a match working out.

And they reported that there were two questions which were way ahead of other questions in predicting people’s compatibility. And they were rather odd.

The first one was about how long you had ever lived abroad. His statistics seemed to show that couples were more likely to get together and last if their experience of living abroad was similar. Someone who had lived away from their own country for a year or so was surprisingly likely to find someone who had done the same thing attractive enough to form a relationship with them.

And the other indicator was a simple question but which is the focus of what I’m thinking about this afternoon.

It was – how much you liked horror films.

Somehow there was a greater possibility of compatibility amongst people who had a shared tolerance of horror movies.

Well, I don’t know whether I’m giving away all my secrets this afternoon, but I’ve lived abroad a few times for three months each.

And I can’t stand horror.

Put me in a room with a horror movie and all I can long for is for it to be over.

When will it be finished is the only thing I can think about.

Good Friday does not come to me easily.

Some people within the Christian faith believe very strongly that there is meaning in suffering. I tend towards the view that suffering means that meaning is stripped from life.

I don’t think that suffering and pain are righteous, holy, necessary or God willed.

No God I believe in could will the suffering of anyone.

And so there’s a lot of the theology around the cross and around Good Friday that I find rather hard to stomach.

Indeed, I find Good Friday rather hard to stomach.

The images from Scripture are horrific. The emotional abandonment of the end of the Maundy Thursday service I find considerably easier. Our Lord ends up alone, betrayed and with the crowd baying for his death. Clearly the popularity of the mob last Sunday when he entered Jerusalem turned rather quickly into something rather frightening. A reminder of how easily any of us can be swayed by the mentality of a mob.

But the abandonment and loneliness of the Saviour on the Thursday evokes pity in me.

The experience of today, I experience as horror. Stomach turning horror.

And it is hard to know what to do with it except for allow that horror to tell its truths to me.

For Christ is crucified when unjust systems condemn people to death for their beliefs.

Christ is crucified when war is seen as a pathway to peace.

Christ is crucified when children starve of hunger.

Christ is crucified when people are abused.

Christ is crucified when inequality triumphs and ruins human potential.

Christ is crucified when patriarchy has its all too familiar way.

I can see the crucifixion in all these things when human action and inaction cause suffering, pain and despair.

But I can see the experience of Christ on the cross too in things which don’t have human action behind them. Tragic heath conditions lead sometimes to unimaginable pain.

My fear of horror movies makes me want to look anywhere you see but look at the cross on Good Friday.

I’d rather relate to horror that I can explain or horror that I can pity than simply look at the horror that is played out on the crosses on the hill as Christ and the others crucified with him are put to death.

Some see his words, “It is finished” as marking some moment of triumph but I’ve never been able to hear them that way.

The absurdity of the death penalty wasn’t finished by this. It carried on killing and carries on killing in many part of the world still.

The tragedy of those who think that a sharp violent death surge can keep the people in order has its obvious echoes in many countries today.

The pity of an unsettled world where violence seems so often to have the upper hand seems to go on and on and on. That wasn’t finished by any of this.

I watch as civilian populations in Israel and Gaza have been weaponized over the last few months and I feel utter despair. The reality of apparent war crimes being carried out in Gaza is on screens we all carry in our pockets. The brutal cruelty of terrorist acts is played out in our time lines on every device we look at.

Who needs horror movies anyway these days?

But there I go taking my attention away again – seeing it all through the lens of what we see happening in the news. And what we forget is happening too – the things we don’t get to see in the news – forgotten wars, forgotten injustices.

The horror is in front of us today on Good Friday.

A young man strung up and all for what?

For telling us we were loved?

For sharing wise stories and pithy sayings to live by?

For not being the leader of the militant faction that so many hoped for?

What was the point in his death.

What is the point of the horror.

And what does he mean when he says it is finished?

Dear Lord Jesus on the cross, believe me when I look back at you and shake my head. It isn’t finished at all.

The horror movie goes on playing. The violence goes on being justified. The pain goes on being felt.

The horror is too awful to bear.

We make it more palatable with our silences and with our music this day. And we sit in a relatively safe and beautiful space to think about these things.

And here we abide, with the story of a crucifixion playing out in our inner souls.

And here we stay and here we think about the dear young saviour on the cross for whom it is now finished.

And here we stay and here we think about those places and those people whom we know for whom it is not.

What’s really happening to the churches in Scotland

Ruined Church

Over the last few weeks there’s been a number of articles that have appeared in the press highlighting decline in the religious life of Scotland and claiming in particular that it indicates a sudden decline in interest in organised religion in Scotland.

On the face of it, this seems difficult to argue with. Fewer people are going to church, church buildings are being closed and sold off up and down the land and therefore organised religion must be in decline. However, I think that the picture is complex. In particular, within the three largest church denominations there is clear and obvious decline in all of them but the reasons for, and the character of that decline, seem to me to be quite different across those churches.

Let’s take them one by one.

Firstly, my own denomination, the Scottish Episcopal Church. There is no doubt that the numbers of Episcopalians are declining though they have been doing so since about the 1920s. What is the nature of the decline here at this time though? Certainly, we’ve had problems within our senior leadership in recent years and that isn’t limited to one high profile case in one diocese. For several different reasons, some of our dioceses have had patterns of stable leadership disrupted in recent times. Now, whilst it is not my belief that bishops are solely responsible for either decline or growth in their dioceses, for a church which names the Episcopate as its defining characteristic in its name, this must matter.

It is very difficult to understand how many members of the Scottish Episcopal Church there actually are. The number of communicants on a Sunday has been steadily declining. The number of non-communicants who have some kind of adherence to the church has dropped off incredibly fast. However, the number of people in the Scottish census who claim to be Anglican or Episcopalian or who claim to belong to church with which we are in full communion is very significantly higher. As with all the church denominations that I’m discussing in this article, there are churches which buck the trend and are growing and attracting new worshippers. We find it very difficult to celebrate such successes and very difficult to learn from them. Not paying attention to what is working seems to me to be characteristic of decline. Many people I know in the Scottish Episcopal Church are quite upbeat though, notwithstanding the terrible statistics that we report each year. (And we’ll ignore the cries of those who want to count the dog training classes in the church hall as reasons to pay no attention to the decline of people actually turning up to worship God). The upbeat mood is partly because I think that quite a lot of clergy really do believe that the SEC has what many religious people in Scotland need right now. Liturgical worship and ethical values that align with the population are a great starting point. However, the quality of our worship is something we find difficult to talk about and our inability to communicate to local populations that something that will give them life in all its fullness is right on their doorstep is part of our story. I don’t think that continuing decline at current rates is inevitable but we need life-changing worship and a clearer narrative if things are going to change for the better.

The Scottish Episcopal Church has been the third largest church in Scotland for a long time. The next largest has traditionally been the Roman Catholic Church though that may change depending on how you count. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more Roman Catholics at mass on a Sunday than there are members of the Church of Scotland at worship. And I’m sure that it is the case that there are more people receiving communion from the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland than from the Church of Scotland. See what I mean about it being difficult to know how to count Christians?

The Roman Catholic Church has been declining in Scotland for some time as it has in most Western countries. Abuse scandals here and abroad have rocked confidence in the hierarchy of the church. Decline is real. People are not going to mass as they used to do and again, local churches are being closed down and sold off. However the Roman Catholic Church has its own distinctive pattern of decline. As an outsider, one of the things that I see most strongly is that there is a stronger cultural tie within Roman Catholic Communities than there is in other denominations. What that means is that those who grew up Roman Catholic are still quite likely to describe themselves as Roman Catholic long after they’ve stopped going to church. I suspect that members of the Church of Scotland who stop going, stop thinking of themselves as part of the Kirk much more readily. The Roman Catholic Church also benefits from the immigration of Roman Catholics from many different parts of the world. Congregations, particularly in the cities, are eclectic and diverse. The Pope’s emphasis on Mercy is a way of speaking which is beginning to change how people think about that church. It speaks well to Roman Catholics who have lost touch with parish life. Recent attempts to introduce synodality into the church – a more consultative way of being the church, have yet to see any fruit, but who knows…maybe there are glimpses of something fresh and new in those conversations. However, the Roman Catholic Church has within it its own worst enemies. Far-right populist Roman Catholicism seems on the rise. It doesn’t attract people like me but then it isn’t aimed at attracting people like me. The Roman Catholic Church has as its named charism the unity of a truly catholic gathered people. Unfortunately, that very ethos is challenged by division and factionalism that could put protestants to shame.

Finally, the Church of Scotland. It is the sell off of many Church of Scotland properties that seems to have attracted the attention of journalists in the secular press. The landscape of Scottish religion is changing right now by the disappearance of the Church of Scotland from many local areas. Buildings are being sold off at an amazing pace. Some of them have great history. It is worth taking a look at the list of buildings being sold to get an idea of the scale and pace of change. Many of these buildings have great history. Many of them are significant parts of the built heritage of our land. They are being transferred to private hands.

The decline of the Church of Scotland seems different to me to the decline of the other churches. Its speed is astonishing. Again, the defining characteristic of the denomination is being challenged by the decline – it is hard to claim to be The National Church when large areas of the country don’t have local congregations. The decline of the C of S seems to me to be more like what happened to the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1689 than what has been happening to the Scottish Episcopal Church over the last 100 years of decline. In 1689, Scotland decided that it didn’t want the Episcopalians. People lost local clergy and buildings and we disappeared from national life. This is what is happening to the Church of Scotland right now and it is a hugely significant thing to happen to this nation.

Many things are very different to 1689 of course. It is the Church of Scotland’s own policies which are driving the sell-off of buildings rather than national politics. Those policies are brutal and more than one friend in the Church of Scotland has commented that people in the General Assembly voted for them because they thought that a managerial approach needed to be taken to the church and that lots of churches needed to be closed though the very same people never thought it would happen to their own worshipping communities. People up and down the land have stories about the Church of Scotland closing up in precisely the places that one might have expected local parish churches to thrive.

In the midst of all this, it is important to say that the smaller denominations in Scotland would not all share the narrative of decline of the larger ones. The Free Church seems to have a confidence about it that many would not expect it to have. The tiny Orthodox communities in Scotland see conversions to Orthodoxy more often than many would suspect.

The message I get from this is that churches which have a strong sense of identity and have a clear way of communicating that identity are likely to do well in 21st century Scotland.

These reflections are merely those of someone in one part of the country, there may well be people who see different things happening in different places. Ecumenism is often limited to church leaders making bland statements these days rather than people from different churches meeting one another to engage on matters affecting church and state. Interfaith engagement somehow seems more interesting than ecumenical contact which has largely stalled. We like one another more than we used to do but we don’t do much together.

So there you have it. Decline is real but it is different in different churches. Only by being interested in it and thinking carefully about it do we stand much change of changing things.

Perhaps I’ll write a bit more again this year about how we might get out of the doldums.

In the meantime, it may be that others want to comment on their own perspective of what is happening to the churches in the comments below.