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.

Cathedrals are growing. But so what?

I was interested, of course, to look through the press release this week about which churches are growing in the Church of England.

One might have thought at a casual glance and by the way that the headlines were phrased that there was evidence that the Church of England was growing again but it isn’t and the churches that are growing are not coming anywhere near to making up the losses from the churches which are not growing.

Several themes emerge, including:

  • Significant Growth from Fresh expressions of Church (new congregations and new churches) with around 21,000 people attending in the 10 surveyed areas of the 44 Church of England Dioceses.
  • Significant growth in Cathedrals, especially in weekday attendance. Overall weekly attendance grew by 35% between 2002 and 2012.
  • Declining numbers of children and young people under 16 – nearly half of the churches surveyed had fewer than 5 under 16s.
  • Amalgamations of churches are more likely to decline – the larger the number of churches in the amalgamation, the more likely they are to decline

There are not many surprises here – these themes have been emerging for the last two years. The last of them might give us pause for thought in Scotland where the push to cluster churches together with the promise that this is the best way forward is sometimes heard quite loudly. I’ve always said that linkages are generally less than the sum of their parts and you have to travel quite a way to find a linkage that has led to growth.

My mind is particularly caught, of course, by the assertion that cathedrals are growing. Now, Scottish cathedrals play by different rules than English cathedrals but I’m still interested in what is being said about cathedral life all the same. It would be fair to say that the picture would not be so clear across Scotland when it comes to cathedrals. My own congregation is reasonably bouncy at the moment and that is sometimes put down by other clergy as being the “cathedral effect”. Oh, cathedrals are doing well generally, I am told by people who don’t want to listen to what it is that makes them do well.

Cathedrals are doing well. But so what?

Cathedrals in England are, at least in part, funded by the state. (Part also funds the maintenance of Glasgow’s medieval cathedral, but that is another matter and for different reasons). [UPDATE – English friends who have read this are keen to point out that one should regard the Church Commissioners as “external funders” rather than state funders. I take the point, but most of the subsequent arguments still hold]

No-one ever seems to say, “Well, cathedrals are doing well, perhaps we should have more state funding of churches”. There doesn’t seem to be much recognition that the state plays a big part in paying for what is going on in English Cathedrals. Here in Scotland the congregation of St Mary’s has to find the money to pay me. If I were the dean of an English Cathedral I would be in a Crown Appointment and paid by the state. Those congregations down south also benefit from cathedral canons being paid for by the state and certain maintenance being done, not least to Cathedral roofs.

People are also sometimes dismissive of cathedral growth because it seems to be based on the fact that lots of people seem to want to “believe and not belong”. In other words, people rather like turning up for something nice liturgically but don’t want to spend their time keeping it running. There’s bound to be a bit of this, but so what? The Church of England at least is predicated on the idea that it is there precisely for those who live about the place who don’t contribute their time and talents. That’s what being an established and national church is all about isn’t it?

It also seems to me that cathedrals are often powerhouses of volunteering. Hereabouts in Glasgow we’ve got about 50 people who volunteer their time and talents to take some kind of leadership role within St Mary’s and maybe another 100 or so who volunteer to do something or another along the way. And you know what, just a few of those people pr0bably want to belong and not believe for cathedrals are also places where the sceptical and the doubting can and do want to contribute something.

Then there are the reasons that cathedrals are growing.

I think that is isn’t difficult to name the things that make churches grow:

  • A friendly demeaner – or at least the notion that this might be a place where one might make some friends. Also known as finding God in other people.
  • A sense of the holy or the transcendent. Finding God in ways that in some way reach beyond the everyday and the humdrum.
  • Music that the congregation is comfortable with and enjoys. (And this one ain’t about style at all).
  • An attempt to present things as well as possible – yes the quality question. People are used to high quality presentations these days – why should they expect anything less at church.
  • Governance that can sort out trouble and help troubled people not to upset everyone else. We don’t think about this nearly enough but appropriate authority structures are crucial to any growing church.
  • Good welcome procedures
  • Good communications – websites and all the rest that are built on ethos and not just info

It so happens that cathedrals can often do quite well at these things. These are some of the reasons that they are doing well at the moment.

However, I can barely think of anyone from outside the cathedral scene who really wants to know why it is going well and who has much interest in learning from what cathedrals do well.

I may have a go at addressing some of the things said about “Fresh Expressions” in the C of E report later. For now two things are worth noting – firstly that there does not seem to me to be much evidence in the report that Fresh Expressions Thingys are making that much difference statistically because they seem to be being measured in very different ways to other more traditional congregations. Also there does not seem to be much research on who is paying for Fresh Expressions Thingys. The question of how many bums are on beanbags is hard to resolve. Who is paying for the beanbags is easier to establish and it very rarely seems to be the users of Fresh Expressions Thingys. In short, there’s a suspicion around that Fresh Expressions Thingys are being sponsored by rather trad congregations via diocesan grants schemes. That was certainly the feeling I got from Fresh Expressions Thingys that I encountered in the USA when I was travelleling there on sabbatical. The constant questions when Fresh Expressions Thingys are being talked about are how do you evaluate success, how much is it costing and who is paying the bills.

Having said all that, I was very struck by someone who said to me a while ago that the reason that St Mary’s is doing well at the moment is not because it is a cathedral but because it has been nurtured into being a Fresh Expression of traditiona church which happens to appeal to a bunch of people that never thought that church would have anything at all to offer them and who are surprised to find themselves caught up in the business of heaven in a place of surprise and wonder.

The Church of England research is fascinating, deserves to be talked about and raises far more questions than it answers.

Cathedrals are growing.

But so what?