Local Church Review
Report on Jersey: St. Columba’s
The Presbytery visiting team, comprising the Reverend James Dowswell (Lerwick and Bressay – Retired) Mr. Colin Somerville (Elder, London Crown Court) and Mr. John Wiseman (Elder, Corby St. Andrew’s) met with the Minister, the Kirk Session, representatives of the joint Finance and Fabric Committee and members of the congregation over the week-end of 17 and 18 October 2015. The Reverend James Dowswell preached at the morning service on Sunday 18 October. This Local Church Review (LCR) report is submitted to the Presbytery of England with the approval of the Kirk Session of Jersey.
St. Columba’s is the only Church of Scotland in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, which are unusual in that they are neither part of the European Union nor the United Kingdom, but have their own laws and traditions, dating from a papal bull of Pope Sixtus IV of 1481. This means that their constitution is in many ways unique. St. Columba’s was founded over 150 years ago, and its history is long and varied, only joining the Church of Scotland in the early 1970s following the formation of the United Reformed Church in England in 1971. Both Jersey and Guernsey, which joined the Church of Scotland at the same time, are members of the Presbytery of England, and while it has, on occasion, been tentatively mooted that membership of the Presbytery of Europe might be more appropriate, no formal discussions have ever taken place.
The congregation is a gathered one, but because the island is small this causes little practical difficulty, as opposed to some other congregations in Presbytery. While undoubtedly part of the Kirk, the congregation also seeks to serve the wider Presbyterian population in Jersey and to contribute to island life in general. The congregation may be numerically small, but the proportion of regular attenders is high.
The visiting team were impressed with the activities currently taking place, and the steps being taken to develop and improve the life of the congregation. There was a noticeable willingness to experiment, especially in the use of modern technology (although by no means confined to that), which the team found refreshing. Having within the last year moved to a Unitary Constitution, they have begun to embrace the opportunity to involve some non-Elders in the decision-making process and are to be congratulated on recently appointing six new Elders. The decision, within the Unitary Constitution, to work with a joint Finance and Fabric Committee, rather than have two separate Committees covering these often overlapping aspects of church life, is an interesting one, and one which they feel serves their purpose well. The Kirk Session admits, however, that they still have some way to go before they can claim to have adopted the Unitary Constitution concept in its entirety. In particular, the hope was expressed that the expansion of the eldership would allow the pastoral care service already in place to be increased and refined. Unfortunately there is no Sunday School at the moment, and this is something which the Kirk Session have very much in mind. This problem is, of course, not confined to Jersey, nor indeed to the Church of Scotland, but it is a source of concern nevertheless.
Jersey is very much involved in the “off-shore” finance industry, although there are worrying signs that this industry may be faltering. As it is the largest contributor by far to the island’s economy, this does not bode well for Jersey’s future, particularly as the other main industries of agriculture and tourism are not what they were. While this is obviously a matter for the economists and politicians, these facts must, and indeed are, being borne in mind by the congregation, as any material changes will affect church members in just the same way as the whole population. It will also affect the position of the Church in Jersey society, and the work which the congregation do. It is also easy to overlook the fact that there is poverty in Jersey in much the same way as anywhere else, and it is to the congregation’s credit that they are able to identify and in many ways alleviate the hardship caused by poverty. Members of the congregation are encouraged to grow in faith, and practical help and encouragement is provided, examples being in the form of a Bible Study group and regular participation in inter-denominational events on the island.
The Congregational Plan is simple and straightforward, with many good practical ideas. In particular, steps have been taken to improve the situation with respect to Safeguarding. It was realised that this was a potential source of weakness, and the congregation are to be congratulated on the fact that they are now fully compliant with current regulations. The only caveat regarding the Plan is that there would appear to be a certain amount of over-reliance on the minister to fill any gaps left vacant should there be insufficient volunteers.
For example, in Section 6.3, Goal 3(the creation of an on-line magazine), Section 6.6, Goal 1(the establishment of a “community book club”) and Section 6.10 Goal 1(to establish a “Stewardship Season” in line with the instruction of the general Assembly of 2010), the “fall-back” position, if no volunteers come forward, is, in all cases, the Minister. While a degree of ministerial input and direction is always welcome, the Kirk Session should bear in mind that it is the body politic, with the responsibility to ensure that all areas of the Plan are adequately resourced. The visiting team feel that the Kirk Session should make every effort to ensure that these very worthwhile goals are undertaken primarily by persons other than the Minister.
The fabric of the church is good, and the position is kept under regular review, with various potential problems having been identified and already under discussion. The Church Hall is also in good condition, but is in need of updating and modernising, particularly as regards fire exits. There is the added complication that United Kingdom standards and regulations sometimes differ (for example regarding matters of hygiene) and these differences must be borne in mind.
A recent important development has been the imposition of a Grade II listing on the Church building and a Grade IV listing on the hall. The consequences of this listing will be far-reaching, and are still being assessed. Another problem has been the adoption by the Parish of St. Helier of a residents-only street parking scheme in the area of the church. This makes parking on a week-day evening very difficult indeed, if not well-nigh impossible, and the Kirk Session has the matter under active review. One of the problems already identified is that the congregation’s ability to increase their income either from their own fund raising activities held in the hall or from rental of the premises to outside groups has been severely compromised. There are, to be sure, other problems regarding letting the hall to third parties, such as the adequacy of the facilities and the provision of emergency exits, but the parking problem would appear, for the moment, to preclude any positive action in this direction. It was noted that there has been a decline in income over the last five years, confirming the need, identified by the Kirk Session, for a Stewardship Campaign.
While on the subject of finance, it was noted that although no half-year accounts were available to the visiting team, financial information is provided at every Kirk Session meeting. The Finance and Property committee appear to be well in control of the situation, and with this the Kirk Session are content.
The manse does not meet current Church of Scotland standards, most obviously because it has only three bedrooms. It is, however, adequate for the purpose, and because of the price of property in Jersey, not to mention that the market can be rather thin at times, it would be difficult, and very expensive, to move. The best solution, as adopted by the congregation, would seem to be to keep the building in good repair and look out for any opportunities for change which may present themselves.
Jersey faces difficulties common to island congregations everywhere – the sense of being remote from the centre of things, the higher cost of living, the cost and sometimes unreliable nature of travel beyond the island, the amount of time involved in attending meetings and functions off the island, and in the case of Jersey and Guernsey the problem of dealing with separate jurisdictions. St. Columba’s is fortunate to have both a Minister and a Reader in post,
When undertaking building work, it can be difficult to obtain three estimates, particularly for small jobs. While everyone likes to think that their situation is unique, islanders have a point when they complain of being treated like mainland congregations, which they are not. There are real differences which must be kept in view. The demands made on the Minister are also of a different nature. The make-up of the workload in Jersey is very different to that in a large housing scheme in Glasgow or Dundee for example, but workload it still is, and because of having to be more reliant on their own resources Ministers have to display a degree of ingenuity and sometimes even unorthodoxy in their work. Self-sufficiency and resilience are qualities very much to be desired for Ministers in far-flung island parishes. It must be said that both Minister and congregation are coping with these problems in an exemplary manner.