Whither the Kirk?

I watched with interest the BBC documentary last night about the Church of Scotland. (A Church in Crisis on BBC 1 Scotland) I guess that those who were hoping for a celebration of 450 years since the Scottish Reformation were a little disappointed. The programme was something of a lament and really rather sad.

They kept coming back to the question, “What would Scotland miss if the Church of Scotland did not exist?”. That’s not a great starting place, but there was no great attempt to answer it either and that’s more the fault of those making the documentary I think rather than those contributing. It would have been good to get some more voices into the mix. Surely there are some Scottish politicians ready to speak up for the C of S? Or ecumenical chums?

The overall feeling of the whole piece was a loss of morale. That’s interesting to compare with the Scottish Episcopal Church. We’ve suffered much the same numerical decline, I think and starting from a low base too. (If the C of S had our numbers, it would be presumed to have virtually disappeared already). However, there is no loss of morale. We’re talking about expansion in this diocese. When we bicker, we are likely to be bickering about how to bring that expansion about. Though bickering is not generally much fun, there are sparks of life within those arguments. We talk about turning things around and growing again. That might be a belligerent denial of reality of course, but the hope still burns strong.

I’m puzzled as to why the C of S folk went on national television and said the things they did and coloured in the picture which the BBC had already begun to paint of apparently inevitable, terminable decline. I guess lament is part of the psyche in Scotland. There was something of a sense of the maudlin songs one sometimes gets at a particular point of a good ceilidh. You know, the point where folk have been drinking but are not drunk and someone starts to sing dreary songs that everyone knows but can’t remember being taught. Sometimes in these parts we like to wallow in it. Was that what we were seeing last night on the telly?

Of course, there’s no good watching something about the 450th anniversary of the Scottish Reformation and presuming that one is merely an observer. My own church has roots in that movement just as much as the Church of Scotland does. Its where we come from and part of who we are. Notwithstanding that, quite a lot of Episcopalians, myself included, would be keen to say that the Scottish Reformation was not entirely a Jolly Good Thing.

And that opinion was missing from the BBC’s programme last night too.


  1. I missed last night’s programme, but I thought your comments were interesting.

    In a sense, perhaps it’s unsurprising if the SEC is inwardly more positive about itself than the CofS. My take is that in the recent past, at least, the SEC started from a lower common denominator, not being the “local” church in the same way as the Kirk, and so it doesn’t have to contend with others saying of it “look how the mighty have fallen” in quite the same way.

    As to the health of the Kirk (and the SEC for that matter), I think we need to reflect on our self-perception and to consider carefully the points and places in which a dying church (congregation or denomination) should be allowed to die gracefully, and the ways in which we might see new life emerge from the rubble.

    As a young(ish!), relatively new Christian I have seen examples of (both urban and rural) SEC and Kirk congregations where there are few signs of new growth, little to draw in younger (under 50 year olds, to pick a random-ish number) new folk, and much to sustain negative preconceptions of church as boring, irrelevant and so forth.

    We as a faith community need to get much better at stepping up to the mark in our creativity and engagement with our society. The sad truth is that most young adults do not know and have not heard about Jesus Christ, and unless we engage with them in ways culturally relevant to them, and which do not presuppose previous knowledge (too often taken for granted) they never will.

    It troubles me, but I do think it’s true to say that in the SEC and in the Kirk we have a church sustained by the traditions and cultural reference points taught to a previous generation. Culture has shifted radically, with the result that the same will not be able to be said in 20 years time.

    Our challenge is clear. Whether the Kirk and the SEC can step up to the mark to address what it means to live out the Great Commission in the 21st century is less so.

  2. I didn’t really understand who this programme was aimed at, or even what its aim was.

    Yes, numbers have fallen, but perhaps the small number of people who remain are there because they actually want to be, not because it’s the done thing on a Sunday morning.

    And personally, I rather like the idea of a church “sustained by traditions”. Clearly the church has to be relevant to modern society, but in abandoning the traditions of worship then you lose the centre of why the church exists in the first place.

    There was something very Presbyterian about the programme with its “we’re doomed” mentality. I find the SEC generally more positive in outlook.

  3. The only book the presenter seemed to have used in his research was ‘The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000’ By Callum G Brown – indeed Callum Brown was one of the speakers. The thesis of this well argued sociological study is that “quite suddenly in 1963 something very profound ruptured the character of the nation and its people sending organised Christianity on a downward spiral to the margins of social significance”. That something he identifies as new media, new gender roles and a moral revolution which has dramatically ended people’s conception that they lived Christian lives.” It could be said to have happened as “sex began” between the end of the Chatterly ban and the Beatles first LP as the poet Philip Larkin so famously put it.”
    To balance this statistical decline the programme flagged up some of the “church without walls ” iniatives in a lame sort of way. All in all a most unsatisfactory programme that only told half the story.

  4. Good crit Kelvin. My reflection at the end of the programme was, “Lord, we visited this stuff over 30 years ago, and have come out of it stronger and better Church in the SEC.” Hopefully, we stopped longing for ‘the good old days’ a long time ago!

  5. MartinRitchie says

    I thinking “Pausing Place” makes a good point about needing to creatively engage with society. From my own experience of working with a CofS congregation, this creative engagement is a weak spot for many.

    As a counterpoint to the programme, interesting to note in the latest “Life and Work” a very positive article about a growing CofS congregation in Stornoway – and I mean really growing! So not all doom and gloom, and I’m sure there are many more examples of bright spots, just as there are in the SEC!

  6. Graham Vahey says

    If the C of S disappeared completely we would be at a loss. During the dark and bleak years of Thatcher’s reign she refused to visit Scotland for 5 years. When she did she expressed shock that we had Royal Regalia and ordered it to be removed immediately for safe-keeping to England. Her ‘Sermon on the Mound’ is now historical for its condescension to the Scots. She was none too pleased to be handed two reports on poverty in Scotland by the powerful Church and Nation Committee. Indeed, it was to this Committee that the population turned to for a moral lead during Thatcherism. When James VI (‘Jamie the Saxt’) became James I in England, the population turned to senior Scottish earls for a moral lead. Unfortunately, the Piskie Church does not give a moral lead in Scotland, apart from the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the recent past. The RC Church does pronounce on moral issues. Could it not be conceivable that all the major Churches could unite in a Committee to pronounce for Scotland on moral issues as the Church & Nation Committee once did?

  7. Aldous N. Gaiters says

    Speaking as a Nonjuror myself I am sure the SEC has a right to a moral voice in Scotland. Taking the US daughter church of the SEC as a model you could see where the fissures would appear. There is room for a modern liberal Christian voice, but even I an old Liberal myself, would have to fear that such a voice might appeal to only a select few.

Speak Your Mind