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.

Turning Up and Being Counted

I’m currently going through a strange time. I’m away from my congregation on sabbatical. It is a good thing to do and I’m having a great time, meeting fantastic people and learning a thing or two by stopping for a while to breathe.

There’s always things that you miss when you are away from the place you know best. For me, the fact that Branston Pickle has not conquered the world is astonishment and I’ve missed it in far flung places all around the world over the years. However, there’s something more quirky, churchy and odd that I really missed this year.

Last Sunday was the day that the Scottish Episcopal Church counts all the people in its churches and reports the numbers back to each diocese, which then sends them to the General Synod Office in Edinburgh and the numbers are published in the new year. The count always happens on the Sunday next before Advent – the one we call Christ the King. The idea is that it is a fairly normal Sunday at a time of the year when most people are not on holiday and so you get a fair idea of the size of the worshipping population of the church.

They key thing though is that you have to turn up to be counted.

You might be on an electoral roll for a congregation (we report those numbers too) but if you are not there you would not be included in the annual count of who is in church on the Sunday next before Advent. You might have been baptised in the church or confirmed in it. You might have had the most glorious nuptials that church ever witnessed or have buried your great uncle Albert’s surprising bidey-in in the churchyard. You may have had tea with the rector once or even been to a carol service in 1972. But no matter how close you think your relationship is with the congregation, on the day when the count takes place, you won’t be counted unless you are there.

And I missed it.

Somehow not being counted made me feel a long way from home.

There’s all kinds of criticism of the kind of congregational statistics that we gather in Scotland, as there is in many other parts of the Anglican Communion. But the trouble is, we’ve got a great data set of next before Advent statistics and we need to keep measuring that one, even if we want to start to measure other things, if they are going to be of any use to us.

I’d quite like us to record average Sunday attendance as well. Some people want to count the number of people who enter the church at any time to measure the effective reach of the church. And some people don’t like the idea of counting at all.

But I do.

I don’t particularly want to rehearse the arguments for how we should count people in church but it does seem to matter to me that we have some sense of the trends and patterns of people’s worship patterns.

Quite a lot of people care more about the numbers of people whom the church is in contact with through the week and through the year than about the numbers of people in church for worship.

I’m probably in the minority by not counting myself amongst them.

I do care how many people are in church to worship and tend to think that worship is not only the most distinctive thing that churches offer but also the most interesting.

There are currently some very deep fears amongst clergy and lay leaders in a great many churches and of different traditions and theological persuasions around the numbers attending. It is also very difficult for Christians to talk about these fears openly.

There are obvious fears about how to keep paying the bills and the fact is, the greatest and most glorious expenses that most churches have are the people who work in them. Clergy, lay workers, musicians are all looking at attendance figures at the moment and thinking about the future a little nervously.

Clearly churches have to pay the bills and usually this money comes from those who turn up. One of the questions that the pandemic has raised is whether the link between turning up and coughing up (cash not phlegm!) is being broken.

I seem to be hearing stories of congregations being significantly down in number but where giving has risen at bit during the pandemic but no-one knows what that really means.

I have another anxiety which goes beyond worrying about how we are all going to pay the bills though. My primary anxiety about current changes in churchgoing is that what is done in church only really makes much sense if you are there every week to experience it.

The Liturgical Movement, which led to the kind of worship that many mainstream congregations now have, is predicated on the very idea that if you turn up, week by week, your personal faith will become deeper and more satisfying by being formed by the worship that you experience. Not just that, but when you gather all those individual experiences of deepening faith together, you build the strength, confidence and witness of the whole people of God who, acting out of that renewed faith, will turn the world upside down, usher in God’s kingdom of justice and joy and all the world will be saved.

(I know it isn’t particularly fashionable to talk about all the world being saved, but some of us still think it kind of matters).

One of the things that I realised as the events of 2020 unfolded was just how badly the Liturgical Movement had prepared us all for the pandemic. Somewhere along the way we’d become so focussed on community piety and devotion that we’d lost the idea that individuals on their own can deepen their faith.

Two years on, our communities can gather again in most places. However, all around the world, people are reporting that numbers are still quite disappointing.

It is clear that in many places some people have simply given up coming to church during the pandemic. Links were broken. Relationships were harder. Some people got angry in the midst of it all. And as usual with anger, it is difficult to pin down. Anger at oneself, anger at the pastor, anger at God, anger at those one lives with and anger at just about anything were all part of the pandemic.

However, my hunch is that numbers are still down in very many churches not primarily because of people who have left but more because of people who are turning up less often than they used to do. That was already a feature of life in the pre-pandemic church but as with so many things, the pandemic itself seemed to hit the accelerator on this process.

It is also the case of course that some people have changed health circumstances and are simply not able to do what they used to do.  (Online worship is a joy to some but we’ve no idea how to count those attending that way).

This year’s statistics, gathered in many different ways and in many different denominations, are going to show that a lot of people did not show up and were not counted.

But how are we going to talk about this in public?

Clergy are very wary of telling people that they must come to church every week and for good reason. We don’t need people to come to church because of a guilt trip that someone has induced in them. We need people to come to church for more positive reasons.

I want people to come because turning up helps them make sense of life. I want people to come because it is gloriously fun. I want people to come to be inspired to help make the kingdom of justice and joy a reality. I want people to come because it helps us to learn how to live when life isn’t gloriously fun. I want people to come because friendships formed as we worship together challenge us all to live as salt and light in the world. And I want people to know that sometimes,  out of what I can only describe as a very strange sense of humour, God even seems to enjoy teaching us good things through people whom we would never otherwise be with.

It has been the universal expectation of Christianity that worshipping together weekly is the norm for Christians. I suspect that there have been very many times in the history of the faith that those who count the numbers have sighed deeply and wondered how to convey the giddy joyful truth, that deepening one’s faith by committing to weekly worship, is life changing and life affirming.

Clergy and lay church leaders are planning how to deliver another festive season that will be both wonderful and exhausting. Very many, I suspect are also trying to work out how to convey that maybe, just maybe, part of our healing from pandemic-driven exhaustion might be found in finding regular, weekly rhythms of faith.

You know the drill. Advent Sunday is upon us. A new church year dawns. Ecclesiastical new year resolutions are the best new year resolutions of them all.

In a few weeks time we’ll be celebrating someone who turned up and was counted in a census just over 2000 years ago.

And a God is for life, not just for Christmas.