The History of Leith

September 17, 2010

The Story of the Leith Churches Forum

The Story of the Leith Churches Forum

Susan Reid, a consultant who has worked with other groupings of congregations in Scotland, has asked us to write up our story in the hope that our experiences may shed light on similar journeys for other congregations.

The story begins like this. Once, long ago in a place not far away, a group of adventurous followers of Jesus devised a cunning plan. The idea was to enthuse the children and adults of Leith into following Jesus by making new connections between work and worship. So the leaders of Trade Guilds got together and they planted a church in the heart of the community. Then within the building they buried those members of their Guilds who had died. They desired for songs to be sung, prayers to be said, the sacraments to be celebrated for their Guild members as well as for the wider Leith community. Their dream became a reality. Their path became a pattern. The year was 1483 and within ten years, as Christopher Columbus was sailing across the ocean blue to discover a ‘New World’, our adventurous Christians in Leith were planting church number two. Once they got the hang of this planting lark there was just no stopping them!… They added churches large and small – buildings were erected ‘hand over fist’, until every major street in the community had at least one church building. There were churches for seafarers, for the Norwegian community, for the Ukrainian community as well as for Baptists, Episcopalians, Free Church, Catholics, Free Presbyterians and too many others to name. (Today the growing Hindu and Sikh communities worship in two of these former church buildings.) The spires were like tall trees which could be seen from Leith Links, some had bells which rang through the day and marked special occasions for example, twelve peals to welcome every New Year’s Day.

Gradually after centuries of enthusiasm for planting new congregations, energy waned and the dreaded blight took hold. Members cried, even wailed as the numbers of the buildings reduced, they thought things couldn’t get much worse but behold things did get worse until in the year 2010 there were just four congregations of the Church of Scotland in a Leith community of roughly 40,000 people.

This great journey in times of expansion had been fairly easy but in time of retrenchment, it was so much more painful. When it came to choosing one building over another, people would disagree, sulk, argue, and often full out fight. When the decision as to which building would be used went against their preference, some people even turned their backs on Jesus and his family completely.

Let’s travel back in time to 1993, as we bring the recent history into focus for the Leith Church of Scotland congregations. ‘Big brother’ also known as the Presbytery of Edinburgh decided that the Kirk Sessions in Leith should reduce the number of congregations and work more closely together. This was to prove to be an essential catalyst towards a new future but initially it led to much scratching of heads, many meetings, with minutes captured and hours lost (forever!).

If these congregations were all increasing numerically then it would have been difficult to persuade some that joint working was a helpful priority. But the stark truth was that all were shrinking and no longer could the ‘status quo’ be a credible option.

Progress was to come through ‘dancing’ with new partners. This would however not be through the extra socialising advocated by the newly-formed Forum Fellowship committee as it sought to increase inter-congregational fellowship opportunities. Progress came rather through the clumsy ‘dancing’ at meetings as partners stood on each others toes, quite accidentally of course! Progress was constantly ‘paint dryingly’ slow.

One of the congregations refused to engage for the first seven years but gradually warmed to the dance and signed up. Progress was shared with Presbytery through annual reports but in truth over the course of a decade some of the dancers were eyeing the exits.

It was clear at this point that different people in the Forum had different expectations. Some members of the congregations simply did not engage at all; others thought nothing would come of this adventure and so were only paying lip service; some were not consistent and an illusion of progress would suddenly be removed, as earlier ‘promises’ proved to lack substance. Some enthusiasts worked long and hard to make it work but they were frustrated as it was becoming stuck.

There were some bad tempered meetings of the clergy group and one angry joint Annual Conference. A suggestion was made to bring in an outsider to prepare a plan outlining all the possible futures for the Forum.

‘An excellent paper was prepared for us in 2002 by the Revd. Douglas Galbraith, outlining ‘Five Scenarios’ as examples of ways forward for our congregations. Looking at the whole community afresh, these brought out the particular strengths of each church, and sharpened our perspective. The papers were made widely available and discussed at Kirk Session level. (See Appendix)

An Annual Joint Service had been established and was well supported, however it was clear that the process would flounder if the clergy didn’t grasp the agenda and really own the whole venture. It was not that all the ideas need come from the clergy or that they could or should do all the work, but if they did not work together as one, then the whole process would falter. The clergy were paradoxically both the problem and solution. So gradually they joined the dance.

We divided into fours and eights, quadrilled, then reeled. We called the groups of dancers Ministry and Outreach and Clergy. We met for a major dance each year in one of the churches – we called it an Annual Conference. As we danced on, we learned more of each other but also recognised that we needed more help. So a special instructor was sent to the clerical non-synchronised dance team. The first instructor was found to be too directive in style but did raise some of the core issues.

A significant break through was when we agreed that the Forum could do some work as the Forum even when only a majority agreed and participated. For example, two congregations established an annual World Aids Café event. A new instructor, Susan, invited us to dance more regularly and to move more gracefully. She helped us complete the Myers Briggs personality profile and we discovered that we all brought some different skills to the dance floor. Over an extended period, she participated in the clergy meetings regularly to help us reflect on our progress and keep us focused. She introduced us to the wilderness experience of the Exodus through the Bridges model (See Appendix)

We were helped to see that this journey was not unique to the church setting. It was similar to any group of ‘same- level’ managers reluctant to forge themselves into a team after years of working solo. So some were introverts and others extroverts, some were conservative in theological outlook, whilst others were more liberal. One was better at planning while another could enthuse the wider group. Two could come up with ideas quickly. One could laugh most easily. One was best at preparing the publicity but all had to commit to joint tasks even if they were not a ‘strength’ for them. For example, all had to take their turn of choosing the mood music for the dance while sitting in the chair! So rather than each group member bringing different levels of commitment we joined hands in a circle and vowed to lead the Forum to where it had to go.

As the new insights were embraced, the group valued each other more deeply and the dance became more coordinated, even fun! The Clergy Group started an Annual Away Day, then added a Retreat. They invited the opinions of experts like Peter Neilson on our carefully crafted moves and he helped us shape up our act. We used local skills to make two films, a year apart, about the work of the Forum. These were shown as part of morning worship in each of the congregations on the same Sunday.

We now worship together twice a year with a joint Communion service at Epiphany which rotates around our buildings. We organise the Tea Tent for Leith Festival in response to a request from the community. We share the Forum costs through a levy based on the number of members on congregational rolls. The whole Forum developed a short mission statement, became Fairtrade congregations, developed a new logo and a 5 year dance programme so that we can jig into the future together continuing the work begun in 1483 for the community in Leith.

It has not been quick or straight forward but it has been a rich learning experience and we are not yet jiving but are moving . We are learning new steps some slow, slow others quick, quick then slow.


Both of the fiilms mentioned above are still available –

Revd Ian Gilmour 0131 554 3062

The William Bridges model which was used in our context as the story of Moses and the Children of Israel. Full details of his work which deals with managing change and leading transitions can be found on his website He refers to 3 distinct phases during transition – Endings, Neutral Zone and New Beginnings – all of which need careful handling in order to lead people out of the past and into the future.

The Leith Churches Forum Vision Statement:

Statement of Vision

We believe that Community is a sign of the ‘Kingdom of God’ and that it needs a spiritual heart. The Churches of Leith therefore have a responsibility to foster, support and share in a vision for Leith as one community following the way of Jesus Christ. We believe this is God’s vision too.

The vision is for the ‘church’ to play an active part in the life of the Community,

> by making a connection with God, witnessing to Him, and

> by working actively together with the other Churches, as if one, to meet the varied needs of the community both spiritual and practical.

We should also link with other faith groups and denominations who share Leith’s vision.

We desire Leith to be a growing, caring, multicultural and friendly community, enjoying a cleaner environment, safer streets, social housing, better amenities and more employment.

We seek:

> Good relationships between old and young

> Mutual concern

> A family emphasis

> An openness to “outsiders”

> A positive identity for Leith

> A sense of belonging.

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