This article has just been published in the Australian Presbyterian.
Out of the Ashes – The Fall and Rise of the Church in Scotland
New College and Edinburgh Theological Seminary
I suppose that for many Australian Presbyterians Scotland, or at least the Presbyterian Church in Scotland is considered to be the motherland! If that is true, then the cry that comes out from Scotland is ‘your mother is very ill!’ Although we were once known as the land of the people of the book, it is doubtful whether the majority of the population now no even what that book is, never mind what it contains, or the Lord of whom it speaks. In the past decade Scotland has secularised faster than any other nation in history. I am sure that there are lessons that you can learn from us, especially in how not to do things. I offer the following observations in the hope that it will stimulate you to pray for us, to work with us and not to go down the same route we have gone.
If you’re seen the British sitcom Dad’s Army, then you will know the dour Scottish character Private Fraser whose favourite phrase was “doomed, doomed, you’re all doomed!”
This is positively optimistic compared with the reaction to the most recent survey of religious belief in Scotland. Some Christians were discouraged and some of the more militant atheistic secularists could hardly contain their glee. The headline is that “Almost half of adults in Scotland do not identify with any religion, according to official figures.” The latest Scottish Household Survey (SHS), had 47% of people describing their ‘faith’ as none’. The proportion has increased from 40% in 2009.
27.8% identified themselves as Church of Scotland, 14.5% as Roman Catholic, 1.4% as Muslim, other Christian as 7.7%, Buddhist (0.3%), Sikh (0.1%), Jewish (0.1%), Hindu (0.3%), Pagan (0.1%), and other religion (0.5%).
“There has also been a corresponding decrease in the proportion reporting ‘Church of Scotland’, from 34% to 28%.”
One always has to be careful about figures. The sample size is not massive, 1,000 households. For every 1,000 people there is only one pagan, one Jew, 14 Muslims and 470 ‘no faith’ (incidentally this latter description is false – most of this group will have great faith – just not faith in God or gods!). So what does this all mean? Is the church on the way out? Is Scotland progressing into an atheistic secularist nirvana, or regressing into a pagan mess?
Although the majority of people in Scotland (just) would still claim some kind of Christian faith, the fact is that the number of those attending church and engaging in any kind of Christian practice is declining. The Church reached a numerical peak in the 1950’s and it has been downhill ever since. Rather than that decline bottoming out (as for example in London), in Scotland it seems to be accelerating. The Church of Scotland has dropped below 400,000 members (it is doubtful whether more than 100,000 actually attend church each Sunday – meaning that less than 1% of Scotland’s population are actually in the Church of Scotland on any given Sunday) and is continuing to lose 20,000 members each year. It is facing a major financial crisis and above all a ministerial one, with only a handful of the required 30-40 ministers being trained each year. The picture is of a declining church in a declining culture. The Catholic Church is still struggling to recover from the child abuse scandals, and there is not much evidence that other Protestant churches are making much of an impact.
As a result of the new moralistic philosophy of secular humanism being adopted by the metro-elites and governors of our culture, and the lack of a coherent and strong ‘salt and light’ Christian church, our culture has become increasingly confused. Overall there has been a general dumbing down as politicians and others offer the ‘bread and circus’s’ mentality. Things that would have been unthinkable a decade ago (such as same sex ‘marriage’) have now become the norm of the new morality. Things that are unthinkable just now; infanticide, involuntary euthanasia, polygamy, paedophilia could easily become the new ‘norm/human right’ in a world where the rich and powerful determine what the moral values are. We are a society that has ‘equality’ as its mantra, but yet we are becoming more unequal. In one of the richest societies in the world we have tens of thousands who are relying on food banks. We say we value education yet we are dumbing down. Our politicians say they want to support ‘the family’ but are unable to define what that actually is, and as a result many of their actions end up undermining the family. That is the environment which the Church in Scotland finds itself.
Although overall the Church in Scotland is in decline, it is not all bad news. I see three areas where there is encouragement and renewal. Firstly in the independent evangelical churches associated with FIEC (the Federation of Independent Evangelical Churches) – e.g. Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh and the work of Twenty Schemes in Niddrie and elsewhere are beacons of light. Secondly there are other biblical churches who have Christ and his Word at the centre of their lives and message who are seeing growth and development – some will be in the Church of Scotland, others associated with CLAN (Christians Linked Across the Nation) or other charismatic and ex-Brethren networks and some in the Baptist and Anglican churches. And how can anyone who believes in a Sovereign God exclude the possibility of him yet working in and through the Catholic Church?
We are also seeing the first signs of a renewed and reinvigorated Presbyterianism in Scotland in my own denomination, the Free Church. New churches are being planted, people are being converted, membership increasing, The Free Church College has been relaunched as Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and there is a new leadership rising. I was at the presbytery meeting last night where the issues being discussed were problems of space for growing churches, where to put the many new ministers coming in and where should we plant new churches! Changed days!
I came to my current church (St Peters in Dundee in 1992) when the attendance was in single figures. Now there are over 250 (many of them young people), we have planted a new church in St Andrews, have another one in St Andrews and hope to start another one in Dundee next year. Like the denomination, we still have many problems, because by definition we are sinful, and we dwell amongst a sinful people. But it is so encouraging to be part of the Lord’s work in these exciting and challenging days. I hope that in this globalised world are Australian Presbyterian brothers and sisters will be able to work with us in the cause of the gospel not only here and in Australia, but elsewhere in the world.
In a hostile and increasingly militant secularist environment, traditional, liberal, nominal Christianity cannot survive. But those churches that have deep roots in the gospel will I believe see growth and renewal. So we have a paradox, an increasingly atheistic secularist culture, marked by a rapid decline in Churchianity, along with an increasingly alive and growing biblical Christianity. It is the latter that turned the Roman empire upside down and indeed turned Scotland upside down before. All we can pray is ‘Lord, do it again’!
Minister of St Peters Free Chruch