Am Bratach No. 318
April 2018

Church merge for Farr and Tongue parishes now likely

Changes are afoot within the Church of Scotland parish of Tongue and Melness, which looks set to lose its resident minister, Rev Stewart Goudie, at some point this summer. On his departure, the parish will be linked with Altnaharra and Farr, a change which has been in the pipeline since the appointment of Rev Beverly Cushman to the latter charge last year.

We caught up with Mr Goudie as he was busy preparing what are likely to be his last Easter services within the parish. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” he said, “but it’s become more clear to me in the last few months that now is the time that we should be planning to go. Some of that is because of the great shortage of ministers throughout Scotland. The plan here for some years has been to reduce from two ministers down to one between Melness and Tongue and Bettyhill, so part of it is that I should now move and fill a vacancy somewhere else. Also, I’m due to retire in a few years’ time, so it seemed better to go sooner rather than to leave a shorter time somewhere else.”

At the time of Rev Cushman’s appointment, what is known as a “deferred linkage” was set up between the parishes, which means that both congregations were involved in selecting the new mnister. Mr Goudie explained: “The important thing is that the congregation chooses their minister, and nobody forces a minister to go where they don’t want to go. That’s why, when it’s decided to go down from two ministers to one minister in a place, it’s quite a long, complex, drawn-out process, because everybody gets their choices. When Rev Beverly Cushman was appointed to Bettyhill, that was done with Melness and Tongue people as well: both congregations said yes.”

Mr Goudie, who worked as an electronics engineer for thirty-five years before entering the ministry, was inducted to Melness and Tongue in August 2010. This was his first pastorate. “It’s generally understood that a minister should stay in their first place for five years if possible to give them that breadth of understanding and experience before moving somewhere else,” he said, although he concedes that he has drawn on his previous career to inform his approach to church work. “In engineering, we have to try to figure things out and work out why things aren’t working, and try to make them better. It seemed that God was leading me into ministry to try to use those gifts and skills that I’d developed in engineering and use them in the church instead, to help the church develop some creative solutions to try to be the church of the future.”

Mr Goudie describes change as something which has been “a challenge for the church for over two thousand years” and attributes its survival to an ability to adapt. “Clearly the pressure for that goes up and down,” he suggested. “Changes go in cycles and seasons and sometimes the church slows down as the impetus goes and then we realise we’ve fallen behind and we need to respond.”

He went on: “We have seen quite a lot of change here in Melness and Tongue church. Some of that is driven by the changes that are going on within the community all the time, with people growing older, moving away and passing on. We’ve introduced a lot of changes, gradually, to help our Sunday worship experience and activities to be more close to everyone’s daily lives. We use more modern language; we have a much more relaxed and open style than the way we’ve done things before, and as part of using new hymns, we’ve moved to using computers to project the words on screen, so we don’t use hymn books.”

Over a pastorate of almost eight years, Mr Goudie has identified two principal challenges for the church within his parishes. “The first is that we have a great love and respect for our buildings,” he said. “They go back generations, sometimes hundreds of years. And yet, if we’re not using those buildings as much as we have in the past, then it’s very difficult to maintain them, and to make the church more modern and more relevant. In addition to the challenge of the buildings, there is the challenge to find people that are willing to step up to that commitment: to keep our buildings and to modernise the church, instead of sticking in a rut in the past which only means that the buildings will disintegrate or be turned into some other use.”

Looking to the future, Mr Goudie and his wife Liz have been studying the list of vacancies on the church’s website for a suitable new field of work. “We feel that since I only have a few years left till I retire, that it should be a place similar to here: small and very rural.” Although he won’t yet be drawn on specific locations, Mr Goudie concedes that they have been looking at “some in the near north and some in the far west”. There are currently more than one hundred vacancies in Church of Scotland congregations, which far outstrips the supply of ministers. “The number of vacancies is continuing to grow, and is expected to grow in the years ahead,” Mr Goudie said.  

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