What’s really happening to the churches in Scotland

Ruined Church

Over the last few weeks there’s been a number of articles that have appeared in the press highlighting decline in the religious life of Scotland and claiming in particular that it indicates a sudden decline in interest in organised religion in Scotland.

On the face of it, this seems difficult to argue with. Fewer people are going to church, church buildings are being closed and sold off up and down the land and therefore organised religion must be in decline. However, I think that the picture is complex. In particular, within the three largest church denominations there is clear and obvious decline in all of them but the reasons for, and the character of that decline, seem to me to be quite different across those churches.

Let’s take them one by one.

Firstly, my own denomination, the Scottish Episcopal Church. There is no doubt that the numbers of Episcopalians are declining though they have been doing so since about the 1920s. What is the nature of the decline here at this time though? Certainly, we’ve had problems within our senior leadership in recent years and that isn’t limited to one high profile case in one diocese. For several different reasons, some of our dioceses have had patterns of stable leadership disrupted in recent times. Now, whilst it is not my belief that bishops are solely responsible for either decline or growth in their dioceses, for a church which names the Episcopate as its defining characteristic in its name, this must matter.

It is very difficult to understand how many members of the Scottish Episcopal Church there actually are. The number of communicants on a Sunday has been steadily declining. The number of non-communicants who have some kind of adherence to the church has dropped off incredibly fast. However, the number of people in the Scottish census who claim to be Anglican or Episcopalian or who claim to belong to church with which we are in full communion is very significantly higher. As with all the church denominations that I’m discussing in this article, there are churches which buck the trend and are growing and attracting new worshippers. We find it very difficult to celebrate such successes and very difficult to learn from them. Not paying attention to what is working seems to me to be characteristic of decline. Many people I know in the Scottish Episcopal Church are quite upbeat though, notwithstanding the terrible statistics that we report each year. (And we’ll ignore the cries of those who want to count the dog training classes in the church hall as reasons to pay no attention to the decline of people actually turning up to worship God). The upbeat mood is partly because I think that quite a lot of clergy really do believe that the SEC has what many religious people in Scotland need right now. Liturgical worship and ethical values that align with the population are a great starting point. However, the quality of our worship is something we find difficult to talk about and our inability to communicate to local populations that something that will give them life in all its fullness is right on their doorstep is part of our story. I don’t think that continuing decline at current rates is inevitable but we need life-changing worship and a clearer narrative if things are going to change for the better.

The Scottish Episcopal Church has been the third largest church in Scotland for a long time. The next largest has traditionally been the Roman Catholic Church though that may change depending on how you count. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more Roman Catholics at mass on a Sunday than there are members of the Church of Scotland at worship. And I’m sure that it is the case that there are more people receiving communion from the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland than from the Church of Scotland. See what I mean about it being difficult to know how to count Christians?

The Roman Catholic Church has been declining in Scotland for some time as it has in most Western countries. Abuse scandals here and abroad have rocked confidence in the hierarchy of the church. Decline is real. People are not going to mass as they used to do and again, local churches are being closed down and sold off. However the Roman Catholic Church has its own distinctive pattern of decline. As an outsider, one of the things that I see most strongly is that there is a stronger cultural tie within Roman Catholic Communities than there is in other denominations. What that means is that those who grew up Roman Catholic are still quite likely to describe themselves as Roman Catholic long after they’ve stopped going to church. I suspect that members of the Church of Scotland who stop going, stop thinking of themselves as part of the Kirk much more readily. The Roman Catholic Church also benefits from the immigration of Roman Catholics from many different parts of the world. Congregations, particularly in the cities, are eclectic and diverse. The Pope’s emphasis on Mercy is a way of speaking which is beginning to change how people think about that church. It speaks well to Roman Catholics who have lost touch with parish life. Recent attempts to introduce synodality into the church – a more consultative way of being the church, have yet to see any fruit, but who knows…maybe there are glimpses of something fresh and new in those conversations. However, the Roman Catholic Church has within it its own worst enemies. Far-right populist Roman Catholicism seems on the rise. It doesn’t attract people like me but then it isn’t aimed at attracting people like me. The Roman Catholic Church has as its named charism the unity of a truly catholic gathered people. Unfortunately, that very ethos is challenged by division and factionalism that could put protestants to shame.

Finally, the Church of Scotland. It is the sell off of many Church of Scotland properties that seems to have attracted the attention of journalists in the secular press. The landscape of Scottish religion is changing right now by the disappearance of the Church of Scotland from many local areas. Buildings are being sold off at an amazing pace. Some of them have great history. It is worth taking a look at the list of buildings being sold to get an idea of the scale and pace of change. Many of these buildings have great history. Many of them are significant parts of the built heritage of our land. They are being transferred to private hands.

The decline of the Church of Scotland seems different to me to the decline of the other churches. Its speed is astonishing. Again, the defining characteristic of the denomination is being challenged by the decline – it is hard to claim to be The National Church when large areas of the country don’t have local congregations. The decline of the C of S seems to me to be more like what happened to the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1689 than what has been happening to the Scottish Episcopal Church over the last 100 years of decline. In 1689, Scotland decided that it didn’t want the Episcopalians. People lost local clergy and buildings and we disappeared from national life. This is what is happening to the Church of Scotland right now and it is a hugely significant thing to happen to this nation.

Many things are very different to 1689 of course. It is the Church of Scotland’s own policies which are driving the sell-off of buildings rather than national politics. Those policies are brutal and more than one friend in the Church of Scotland has commented that people in the General Assembly voted for them because they thought that a managerial approach needed to be taken to the church and that lots of churches needed to be closed though the very same people never thought it would happen to their own worshipping communities. People up and down the land have stories about the Church of Scotland closing up in precisely the places that one might have expected local parish churches to thrive.

In the midst of all this, it is important to say that the smaller denominations in Scotland would not all share the narrative of decline of the larger ones. The Free Church seems to have a confidence about it that many would not expect it to have. The tiny Orthodox communities in Scotland see conversions to Orthodoxy more often than many would suspect.

The message I get from this is that churches which have a strong sense of identity and have a clear way of communicating that identity are likely to do well in 21st century Scotland.

These reflections are merely those of someone in one part of the country, there may well be people who see different things happening in different places. Ecumenism is often limited to church leaders making bland statements these days rather than people from different churches meeting one another to engage on matters affecting church and state. Interfaith engagement somehow seems more interesting than ecumenical contact which has largely stalled. We like one another more than we used to do but we don’t do much together.

So there you have it. Decline is real but it is different in different churches. Only by being interested in it and thinking carefully about it do we stand much change of changing things.

Perhaps I’ll write a bit more again this year about how we might get out of the doldums.

In the meantime, it may be that others want to comment on their own perspective of what is happening to the churches in the comments below.


  1. Rosemary Hannah says

    Love and worship and ethics and education. Those are the foundations for my money. And while clergy should exemplify them and lead in them, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect an individual to be equally skilled in them, and absolutely certainly I think they are also to be the work of all the congregation.

  2. Bob Stoner says

    I see you didn’t mention the Methodist Church 😉
    Do we need to see the death of certain parts of the traditional church to release it to flourish?

    • I didn’t mention the Methodist Church largely because I don’t know enough about it in Scotland to comment on how it is doing.

      My guess is “not particularly well”.

      I don’t buy the idea that the church has to die for it to be reborn.

      Usually I think it just dies.

      Renewal tends to come from inspirational worship, preaching and music rather than extinction.

  3. Malcolm French says

    That’s not unlike the situation elsewhere – in particular in the two countries I’m most familiar with; Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand.

    And I think the crux of it is here in this paragraph:
    “The message I get from this is that churches which have a strong sense of identity and have a clear way of communicating that identity are likely to do well in 21st century Scotland.”

    If we don’t know who we are or why we gather, if we don’t know what Good News it is we have to share, we are severely hobbled.

    And what’s worse, sometimes that lack of knowledge, or confidence, or perhaps even self-awareness, can mean that our desperate attempts to reverse decline actually accelerate it instead because the stuff we think we need to pare away is, in fact, the stuff that can attract.

    The late Rachel Held Evans once wrote that, “The Church needs to keep its weird.”

    I think she (and you) are on to something.

  4. Christine McIntosh says

    I’m glad you mentioned music. Beauty, music, the sound of words … these things have the power to draw people in. Add a real sense of community..

  5. Ferdinand von Prondzynski says

    An excellent analysis.

    I was recently asked to stand in for a Church of Scotland minister at a particular ceremony. That ceremony happened to be in a church that, a week later, was due to be closed. So I had an opportunity to talk to the people who attended on this penultimate occasion for worship. It was for me a very interesting exchange.

    So here are the things that struck me. First, the Church seems to have lost its sense of what its role is in the community. As a national church, the C of S was present in towns and villages across the country, and even when participation declined, it was still there as a point of community focus. So right now, this sense of social glue is being abandoned, and as far as I can see without much consideration of the consequences, either for the church or for society. In my chat with the people in this congregation, it became clear that this hurt them almost as much as the loss of a place to worship.

    Secondly, the C of S does not seem to have any clear idea of how to communicate with its members. There was real disappointment, bordering on anger, that all these decisions were being taken without reference to those most affected by them. I cannot of course say whether that is a fair accusation, but it is certainly what the people there felt.

    When we look at what I consider to be a total mess in England, one can see a pattern between there and here, in that both the Church of England and the Church of Scotland seem to be heading to an organisational ethos that is far removed from the instincts of worshippers. I even wonder whether we should engage with such concepts as “organisational ethos”, rather than an understanding of Christian ministry.

    As for us, how good are we at presenting our kind of ministry to those who might find value in it, and who might, for all we know, the actively looking for it? I have recently walked around housing estates and knocked on doors to engage in informal conversation with those willing to have it, and that has been an eye-opening experience for me. I believe there is much we can do to bring about a bright future. And just to be clear, I do not think that this requires us absolutely to present our faith entirely in conservative evangelical terms! There is, I firmly believe, a good future also for an imaginative and lively Catholic expression of our faith.

  6. I could not help noticing that dog training is the reverse of God training. So perhaps we must begin at the end (now) and work backwards.

  7. Malcolm Green says

    The C of S’s problem is that it doesn’t have a “brand”. There’s a continuing appeal of ceremony, liturgy, music and a strong and vivid sense of tradition (RC/SEC) and the intensely personal appeal of the evangelical congregation. St Mary’s continues to attract new followers and St Silas’ has recently doubled its morning services to cope with the crowds. The C of S, unfortunately, finds itself in the middle. It needs an intensive debate among its members about what they think the church is for.

  8. Alastair O says

    Kelvin while I agree with much of your analysis it seems to me you erroneously equate closure of church buildings with the Church of Scotland withdrawing from parish life. An error usually attributable to journalists who have no understanding of what the Church is! Throughout Scotland the Kirk continues to reach out to the whole community.

  9. Martin Sinclair says

    I have the impression that the more the Church tries to fit in with modern society, the more it loses its uniqueness and becomes bland. This is especially true when the Church combines lukewarm Christianity with left-wing ideology.

    What is often described as “right-wing” is actually a clear focus on the gospel and sound doctrine, which helps people to navigate through the difficult times we all live in.

    People are searching for answers that they can’t find nowadays in the pulpit anymore, but more likely in civic clubs. As a result, established churches are losing their relevance. What particularly concerns me is that they keep doing the same things over and over again, but expect different results, which Einstein described as madness.

    However, there is a recipe for change!

    It involves repentance and turning away from wrong ways. We should also return to the King James Bible, Scottish Prayer Book 1929, and address biblical truths. People need to be challenged and sometimes offended in order to bring about change. Remember, people were also offended by Jesus and his disciples back then.

    Furthermore, we should throw away our TVs, pick up the King James Bible every day, and ask God for help. We often feel responsible for saving the world, but that is not our duty. Injustice and evil will persist as long as there are people. Our mission as Christians is to spread the gospel and refocus on God instead of ourselves. We should prioritize pleasing God rather than chasing after worldly sensitivities.

    Do we really believe God likes to be bothered by secular concerts or other events in his house? We need to cleanse our minds and churches and seek to proclaim His kingdom on earth! It’s not about what colours our vestments or altars are draped in, or what music the organist is playing. It’s only about God’s word and fulfilling His will!

    We need to let go of our vanities and recognise that we are the least in the kingdom of God. Perhaps then, the Lord will turn His face towards us again and grant us grace and growth.

  10. Elaine Bruce says

    Many Christian communities are dismayed at the number of attendees to services. They struggle to find an answer. A local church I attended brought yummy food for after service and if there was a new person that opened the church door and came to the service and after was to leave, someone from the regular congregation would literally run after them with encouraging words trying to recruit them.
    If the worship service itself is lacking, new members will be hard to find. People like singing and enjoy good music: they like praising God with their voices. Recorded music is not the same. It often has the wrong verses ( too many or too few), the wrong speed, usually too fast, people struggling to keep pace or giving up, not singing at all.
    In a Piski church in North Lanarkshire, I had suggested to the church leaders, instead of using recorded music, to place a free advertisement for a local young musician to play on keyboards the music for the hour long Sunday service ( of which I was quite willing to pay the musician). The musician might even bring his family and friends. My request did not gain any supporters.
    Last Wednesday, while talking to a retired priest who had been standing in for the regular priest, he mentioned that a Piski church in Dumfries and Galloway was also using recorded music. Is this to be a standard in the Scottish Episcopal church?
    Recorded music might be a temporary solution when faced with no music for church service, but can never be a substitute. In my opinion, the recipe for a thriving church is insightful sermons, a warm welcoming church, great music. Those churches that are growing have these three qualities.
    Have a good day to all

  11. Interesting article. I find the decline of the church in a once heavily Christian and missionary – sending country very sad. I note that the churches that seem to be doing the best are non-denominational churches especially and then traditional churches (like baptists – which I note you don’t mention) that stick to historical teaching of the truth of Christ as the God – man who came to earth, died on the cross for our sins, and was literally and bodily resurrection on the 3rd day and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. The world doesn’t need another social club of nice ethical people. It has those and the church can never really compete. What the church has is the powerful message of grace and redemption and the ability to have a loving relationship with the Creator of the universe.

  12. David Ross says

    The Church of Scotland is now reaping the harvest of what they sowed at General Assembly 2013.

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