It was bright, modern, with a lovely airy chancel and elegant bell-tower, on a stance with magnificent views over Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth. Built only in 1956, for years St John’s Parish Church was at the heart of the post-war Oxgangs housing scheme, when there was still no community centre or library or swimming pool. Services were packed; thousands of infants baptised, untold weddings celebrated; innumerable societies and organisations made use of its facilities.
But, late in 2013, final worship was held, for a trickle of people in their seventies; the congregation subsumed into Colinton Mains Parish Church, half a mile down the road. St John’s was sold. An Aldi supermarket now rises in its stead, because they tore down St John’s a few weeks ago.
The church’s demise is especially poignant because it opened its doors just as the clout of the Church of Scotland reached its all-time apogee. That very year, 1956, its membership peaked at 1.32 million; and church attendance generally, across Scotland, was as high as it had ever been.
And then it went to pitiable, relentless decline, in one of the most dramatic secularisations experienced by any country in the world. In just twenty years the Kirk lost 65% of her communicants. Scotland, a land so long defined by Biblical Christianity we were known as the ‘People of the Book,’ had her culture, her values and her education system substantially shaped by her faith and overseen by the Kirk. No one could ever have expected it to collapse, in historical terms, so suddenly. But it did.
That decline of churchgoing in Scotland – and the retreat of Christianity generally from the public square – has been so rapid that the recent past seems almost a foreign country.As recently as the 1990s, STV still broadcast Late Call, where every weekday evening a minister or priest could talk straight to camera, for four minutes and without interruption, about God, sin, death and redemption. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland enjoyed live television coverage, for hours on end; its proceedings filled pages of the daily papers and its Moderator broadcast to the nation every New Year.
In the 1970s, men like Cardinal Gray, Andrew Herron, Leonard Small and Maxwell Craig were household names. Every day at my Glasgow school began with unabashed worship: a hymn, a Bible-reading and a prayer. Our headmaster was not only a local elder, but sat on the Kirk’s Board of Ministry. Most of us went to church or at least attended, say, the Boys Brigade or a similar youth organisation on church premises. I still remember the faint frisson, in my Physics class one day in 1979, when we learned one boy in our midst had never been baptised; the bewildered pity with which we viewed another because his parents were divorced.
The era should not be unduly romanticised. In all state schools then, and into the 1980s, there was savage corporal punishment; relations between us and youngsters from the Roman Catholic secondary, on the other side of the railway, were so bad there were on occasion pitched battles on the street. And, as senior churchmen agree, behind the general respect still paid to organised religion into the 1980s, the mainstream churches already ran on empty.
It’s a balmy spring morning in Edinburgh and I ask Archbishop Leo Cushley, Scotland’s ablest Catholic leader and with a past, distinguished career as a Vatican diplomat, how Scotland lost her faith.
‘It’s a big question,’ he murmurs. ‘A number of things – I think, especially, the history of the twentieth century. We had atheistic regimes, extreme and evil regimes, ranged against the West. The Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Red China. And with the sheer size of their crimes – well, people started to say, “Where was God? Where was God when this happened?” I think we ignore at our peril just how much this shook so many people.’
But Archbishop Cushley is worried at still bigger implications for our society than Sunday becoming, for most, a day for shopping. ‘We underestimate how much the mores of the Western world have slid, and not even in an ancient pagan direction. We’re legislating now without regard for those ancient natural virtues – you know, justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude.
‘Even Cicero was mindful of them, and he knew nothing of Christ. And on top of these, the three Christian virtues – faith, hope and charity. People talk of “values,” but it all seems terribly vague.’
In Dundee, Rev. David Robertson – a passionate, casually clad Free Church minister who has built a substantial Tayside congregation since the early 1990s; on his arrival, attendance was in single figures – echoes much of this.
‘The First World War really shook people. I don’t think you can exaggerate the impact of that. By then we had this general, social, sugar-daddy religion of not much substance and, at a time of such horrors, it had no answers. And so people began falling away from it.’
Robertson points to doctrinal decline from the late nineteenth century, when – intimidated by Darwinism and dazzled by fashionable German scholarship – mainstream Protestantism the world over began to water down its beliefs.
By the Great War, some Scottish ministers already denied the deity of Christ. The Kirk is now all at sea on openly gay clergy; and early in 2015, the minister of Edinburgh’s Mayfield Salisbury Parish Church, Rev. Scott McKenna, unblushingly asserted that to preach Christ died for our sins is ‘ghastly theology.’
The sad farce in January, besides, at Glasgow’s Episcopalian cathedral – when, by the complacency of its Provost, Muslim readings from the Koran mocked the authority of Christ on the Feast of the Epiphany – are in like vein.
‘The Kirk’s membership did hit an all-time high in the Fifties,’ agrees Robertson, ‘but there were reasons for that. An economic boom, full employment, new housing estates. There was the Billy Graham campaign… anyway, at that time, there wasn’t much else to do on Sundays.
‘But then came the Sixties. And suddenly we had the sexual revolution, we had an atmosphere of counter-culture, anti-authoritarianism – huge questions were raised and the Kirk didn’t have the men of the intellect or, frankly, the moral backbone to address them.’
We had into the 1980s, David Robertson argues, perhaps a largely nominal Christianity, ‘but it still shaped public life and public institutions. Well, there is now a determined bid to dismantle all that. I think we’re going to see a society that is militantly secular and a church that is more and more militantly evangelical.
‘And I’d include the Roman Catholic Church in that. At its best, in its Christology, in its grasp of original sin, its value on human life, its witness against a “culture of death,” we share so much core-theology.
‘I think there’ll always be a Catholic Church in Scotland. But I don’t think there will always be a Church of Scotland. Its demographics are terrible. Forget the membership figures; I don’t think 4% of Scots attend the Kirk on Sunday. I’ve been in Dundee, now, since 1992, and pretty well on average one Church of Scotland in the city has closed every year. Numerically, they’re losing the equivalent of two congregations a week.’
It is difficult to grasp, until you think about it, what Scotland’s rapid retreat from her God entails. Supposing I had not been raised in a church-going family, my Glasgow school experience would still have brought me to adulthood with a basic knowledge of Bible stories, the Ten Commandments, the life and example of Christ and the great hymns of the church.
It meant that I (and most of my classmates) were very good singers, for we had to sing daily and keen attention was paid to standards. It meant that we were used to sitting still and listening; that we could engage easily with clergymen (for the parish minister took assembly once a week, and led a regular discussion-group for Sixth Formers) and that, to this day, we know how to comport ourselves in public worship. Not to mention how faith bled into other parts of the syllabus: in mid-primary, for instance, we learned about the saints of the Celtic Church, and heard about such missionaries as David Livingston, Mary Slessor and Gladys Aylward.
In secondary, we noted how much vital social reform historically, from the abolition of the slave trade to the protection of child-workers, had been driven by such Christians as Wilberforce, Fry and Shaftesbury – Scottish, scientific pioneers like Hugh Miller, Michael Faraday and James Young Simpson. And considered in these terms alone, you realise of how much succeeding generations have been deprived on an atheistic syllabus.
It is an unfortunate legacy of Scottish church history (until the Great Union of 1929, what is today’s Kirk was two rival Presbyterian bodies) that the 1918 Education Act set up non-denominational state schools that are, today, widely thought officially secular. But they were intended to be robustly Christian. Archbishop Cushley is first to acknowledge not just how the Catholic Church in Scotland has been bolstered by recent immigration – there is scarcely a town in the country where Mass is not regularly said in Polish – but by the blessing of its enduring state schools.
Noted, generally, for their excellent pastoral care and high standards of discipline, places in them are increasingly sought even by those of other faiths.
‘I do mourn the waning of the Christian religion in our non-denominational schools,’ sighs Cushley. ‘It’s nothing for me to rejoice in, that our main Christian denomination has no longer the impact it had. Now I walk into a Catholic school and I know what it feels like – the Christian faith is the very water-table; it’s part of the air that you breathe.
Under a self-consciously ‘progressive’ SNP administration – unlike her predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon has scant church background and no comprehension of faith – churchmen everywhere worry about what mainstream Scottish schools are becoming.
‘In my congregation,’ says Robertson grimly, ‘a 7-year old girl recently came home in tears. “Mummy, am I a boy or a girl? Teacher says we can choose…”
Our non-denominational schools are becoming centres of indoctrination – secular indoctrination. A “progressiveness” that wants nothing to do with Christianity and is becoming, basically, the State religion. ‘They talk of “equality.” But it’s not economic equality. There hasn’t been such a gulf in incomes since before the war. And it’s the poor who suffer most. I’d say the destruction of the family is even worse than the destruction of the church.’
‘Children are by definition immature,’ muses Archbishop Cushley on the current transgender fuss. ‘And yet we’re seeing life-changing decisions being made, with seemingly little prudence, and perhaps to an adult agenda…
‘There’s a lack of debate today. There are things that cannot be debated. Partly, I think, that’s the power of NGOs and campaign-groups. They’ve been very slick and very clever. The lobbying industry is so strong nowadays, and so self-serving – groups even win government funding to pay them to tell the government what the government is planning to do anyway…’
There are other unsettling straws in the wind. Last week one SNP MP, Carol Monaghan, was widely ridiculed for appearing at a Commons select-committee with Lenten ash drawn on her forehead – spite even a decade ago that would have been unthinkable bigotry. Earlier this week, it was reported that the local minister will not be allowed to hold the customary Easter service at Ullapool Primary School. ‘Several events have arisen in the last week that are immoveable,’ Rev. James Munro was advised snidely by the headmistress.
‘Many in the church think that the Easter narrative is a central aspect of our faith,’ Mr Munro quietly wrote in the local paper. ‘To cancel such a gathering for a school could be regarded as yet another example of marginalisation of the Christian way.’
But this is our hard new Scotland – where, several years ago, a triumphalist exhibition toured the land: photographs of churches derelict or converted into night-clubs and carpet showrooms, entitled only ‘Jesus Has Left The Building.’