St George's Tron keeps the faith in Glasgow city centre

It’s 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon and St George's Tron Church of Scotland is bustling. The Wild Olive Tree café, which sits inside the church, is serving four types of soup, pasta salad and a selection of delicious-looking scones.

Rev Alastair Duncan
Rev Alastair Duncan

Around one table, a small group holds hands to say grace before eating. Another group are on couches in deep discussion. People come and go.

Oblivious to the buzz, a man carrying a rucksack takes a seat at the front of the church. He looks at the cross—illuminated with tiny lights against a wooden backdrop. He closes his eyes in prayer.

This is a church at the centre of everyday life. But it hasn’t always been like this.

Four years ago St George's Tron was a church without a congregation. The previous minister was one of a handful to leave the Church around the time when the General Assembly was considering whether to accept ministers in same-sex relationships. His 300-strong congregation went with him.

“Nobody stayed,” says Rev Alastair Duncan who was tasked with reviving the church. “My wife and I came to an empty building.

“The former minister was still living in the manse and it took two years of negotiation until that situation could be resolved. The departed congregation finally purchased the former manse and a new one was identified and bought.”

On Easter Sunday morning, 2013, Mr Duncan gave his final sermon in the village of Garelochhead, where he and wife Ruth had spent 24 happy years bringing up their family of three. That same evening he gave his first sermon at St George’s Tron.

“I started with a 7pm service because I knew the only people who would come would be the people from Glasgow presbytery who had pledged their support. Some of them were ministers who were giving their own services in the morning.

“So for the first 9 months I had that great support – although it felt a bit daunting to preach to a congregation that sometimes included as many as 10 ministers!”

Wild Olive Tree cafe
The Wild Olive Tree cafe is inside the church

Grace intervenes

Grace intervened to make those first months easier, Mr Duncan says.

A former church member in Garelochhead owned a second house in Glasgow and offered it to the family to use rent-free. And a former member of St George’s Tron left a substantial legacy, which helped transform the building into a space that works in Glasgow’s busy city centre.

During Mr Duncan’s first year, he reached out to form partnerships with other churches, Glasgow Street Pastors, university and workplace chaplains, Glasgow City Mission and more.

As he tuned in to the rhythms of the city, the minister became acutely aware of the presence of homeless people, asylum seekers and marginalised groups as well as shoppers, tourists, and in the evenings—‘pubbers and clubbers’.

“A city centre church has to have different gates and doors so different people can come in,” he realised.

“City centre congregations are gathered so that is a challenge. How can we be a welcoming community? How can we be a place that meets people where they are? What does a church in an anonymous city centre space have to look and feel like to reflect a God that is personal?

“How are we to be authentic in our Christian call to faith in an environment that is increasingly secular, humanist and post-modern in its ‘anything goes’ attitude? ”

Worship space
The main part of the church is arranged for worship

Twelve leaders

Mr Duncan began bringing new people into the church through hosting events in partnership with other Christian agencies, and through establishing a regular rhythm of Sunday worship. He also restarted a midweek lunchtime service.

“Over the first year a group of people emerged who made it clear they saw St George’s Tron as their home. They wanted to throw their lot in with the congregation. By my first anniversary there were 12 of them.”

The significance of the number was not lost on the minister. He says:

“It doesn’t make me Jesus, but I trust that he lives within me!”

The 12 became the church leadership team. Also giving massive support were Mr Duncan’s wife Ruth, who is involved in worship and volunteers in the café; son Stuart, 29, a church elder and worship leader and part-time café supervisor; and daughter Beth, 28, who also works in the café.

Staffed by a mix of paid staff, volunteers and work experience trainees, the café offered a way to bring all kinds of people into the church in a relaxed, easy way. It serves good low-cost food and any profits go to supporting the work of Glasgow City Mission and Bethany Christian Trust.

As an experiment Mr Duncan began a café church service on Sundays, where church members are invited to eat together before a 1pm service. It quickly grew from 8 or 9 people to 25-30 and today it continues to draw around 40-50 people.

“We are not saying we will do this forever, but for the time being it is working. Most churches have a shared history. We had none. We were in essence a group of strangers. So for us to meet and eat together was a big step forward in developing relationships and building community.”

Gospel sketchbook

After the service, the church closes its doors but, instead of leaving, many people in the congregation stay to enjoy informal time together including gentle worship activities such as an art-based ‘Gospel Sketchbook’ session.

Doors open again at 4:30 pm, ready for the second service of the day, now at 5pm rather than 7.

Mr Duncan sees no problem with the café being open for lunch during the midweek service.

“Some people might find that uncomfortable, but I am amazed at the number of people who will just sit quietly and eat their lunch and listen,” he says. “It’s a gentle blurring of the edges.”

There’s a lot more going on at St George’s Tron these days. Artist-in-residence Ian Campbell has just embarked on an ambitious 24- painting project that will depict scenes from the Gospel of St Luke in a Glasgow setting. A ‘New Glaswegians’ Bible-study group, helps temper the isolation of arriving in a new city for refugees and asylum seekers.

And on Friday and Saturday nights the Glasgow Street Pastors use the church as a base for their ministry on the streets, as well as for a ‘SafeZone’ in the building itself, to which they can bring people who are vulnerable and in need of safety.

The church has come a long way from the empty building it was when Mr Duncan arrived.

Finding grace

Yet for Mr Duncan it is the way St George’s Tron conveys its message of faith and redemption that speaks most strongly of the grace he has found here.

Just the day before our interview, the minister and a staff worker form Glasgow City Mission had personally driven a young man to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre – a journey of more than 80 miles.

“He had a chaotic background – his mother has struggled with alcohol dependence and he has been in and out of care, using alcohol himself as an ‘anaesthetic’,” Mr Duncan says.

“He came to an ex-offender’s Bible study and the next night when I was street pastoring I bumped into him. After that I didn’t see him for ages.

“Then I saw him again on the street and he started attending church. He knew he had to sort himself out. So through our partnership with Glasgow City Mission we got him into rehab.

“I really see leadership potential in him, but he knows he needs to get himself sorted out first.”