This article is published in Octobers ‘Record’ – the monthly magazine of the Free Church.
As I write this the result of the September referendum is unknown. All the polls indicate a ‘No’ win but polls have been wrong before. Who knows what may happen in the polling booth and as I have no desire to be stoned as a false prophet for making hasty predictions I will not hazard a guess. Rather my concern in this article is to reflect on a post-referendum Scotland, which whatever the result, will leave the church in general, and the Free Church in particular with some significant challenges and some great opportunities.
The Challenge of Militant Secularism.
In June of this year the Scottish government in conjunction with the University of Edinburgh issued their ‘Faith and Belief Scotland’ report. Apart from its showing a continued decline in those wishing to claim a connection with the Church of Scotland (down from 34% to 28%) and an increase in those who describe themselves as non-religious, the main item of interest was the finding that there was increasing polarisation between some who described themselves as ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’. This is indeed new territory for many people because of the misunderstanding of what secularism actually is and the way more militant atheists use it as a kind of Trojan horse in order to impose their faith on society.
On the service secularism is something that many Christians would agree with. At its most basic level it just simply means the separation of Church and State.
The Scottish Secular Society declares that it is working “to secure a secular future for Scotland, where all are free to follow their faith or convictions without fear or favour.” That all sounds wonderful. Until you actually discover what they mean. They are quite happy for Christians to believe what we want to believe, as long as we don’t seek to practice our beliefs in public life. For them a secular society means a society that is governed only according to their beliefs and faith. They of course deny that it is a faith – but that is precisely what it is. They have faith that human beings are fundamentally good, can do without God and need to be freed from the virus of religion. They also have faith that their way is the only way and anyone who disagrees should be excluded from civic society.
This type of atheist secularism is still very much a minority, but it is becoming increasingly vocal and militant. Whether it is seeking to get Christian teaching excluded from our Christian state education system or Gideon bibles banned from hotels, the Scottish Secularists will leave no stone unturned in their campaign to purge public Scotland of any remaining vestige of Christianity. Who in their right mind thinks that voluntary prayers at a council meeting is a breach of human rights?! As one comedian joked, that means that many schools are the equivalent of Stalinesque camps!
But it would be a mistake to see the more militant secularists as being the main danger. The bigger problem is that those who govern our society, lacking any coherent philosophy and belief system, tend to govern according to their own prejudices and instincts, which are informed by the dominant cultural narrative. That narrative is secular humanism.
The Challenge of Church Decline
Going hand in hand with a more militant atheistic secularism, and the adoption of secular humanism as the religion/philosophy of the State, has been the decline of the Christian church overall. Although the majority of people in Scotland (just) would still claim some kind of Christian faith, the fact is that the number of those attending church and engaging in any kind of Christian practice is declining. The Church reached a numerical peak in the 1950’s and it has been downhill ever since. Rather than that decline bottoming out (as for example in London), in Scotland it seems to be accelerating. The Church of Scotland has dropped below 400,000 members (it is doubtful whether more than 100,000 actually attend church each Sunday – meaning that less than 1% of Scotland’s population are actually in the Church of Scotland on any given Sunday) and is continuing to lose 20,000 members each year. It is facing a major financial crisis and above all a ministerial one, with only a handful of the required 30-40 ministers being trained each year. And its recent decisions on the shibboleth issue of our culture (homosexuality) mean that that situation is unlikely to be reversed. The picture is of a declining church in a declining culture. The Catholic Church is still struggling to recover from the child abuse scandals, and there is not much evidence that other Protestant churches are making much of an impact.
The Challenge of a Confused Culture
As a result of the new moralistic philosophy of secular humanism being adopted by the metro-elites and governors of our culture, and the lack of a coherent and strong ‘salt and light’ Christian church, our culture has become increasingly confused. Overall there has been a general dumbing down as politicians and others offer the ‘bread and circus’s’ mentality. Things that would have been unthinkable a decade ago (such as same sex ‘marriage’) have now become the norm of the new morality. Things that are unthinkable just now; infanticide, involuntary euthanasia, polygamy, paedophilia could easily become the new ‘norm/human right’ in a world where the rich and powerful determine what the moral values are. We are a society that has ‘equality’ as its mantra, but yet we are becoming more unequal. In one of the richest societies in the world we have tens of thousands who are relying on food banks. We say we value education yet we are dumbing down. Our politicians say they want to support ‘the family’ but are unable to define what that actually is, and as a result many of their actions end up undermining the family.
If Scotland has voted to remain in the United Kingdom we are faced with a society governed by leaders who talk about Christian values, but don’t know what they are. If Scotland has voted to become independent the Scottish government has already indicated that they are prepared to go down the somewhat fanciful, idealistic and dangerous route of the secular humanist Nirvana. The bottom line is that either way lies ruin and destruction. Our ‘progressives’ think that they ‘progressing’ towards a new utopia, whereas in reality they causing us to regress to the Greco/Roman/Pagan culture.
So is it all doom and gloom? Not at all. This is a day of opportunity.
The Opportunity of an Ignorant Culture
There are many people who are anti-Christian who just have no idea what Christianity teaches. To bring the living water of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to such spiritually thirsty people is a wonderful opportunity. Yes we can lament that most children in Scotland are today growing up without knowing the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Ten Commandments, but we should also do our best to tell them, the whole story of the Bible. We really can go to every person in Scotland and say ‘we have good news for you’, in the knowledge that for the vast majority it will indeed be news.
The Opportunity of Failed Secularism.
Where did the New Testament church flourish? In a Greco/Roman/Pagan culture! Why could we not flourish there again? As people discover that the values and practice of secular humanism lead to greater inequality, less social justice, more corruption, more sexual abuse and the decline of community and the family, there is a great opportunity for us in the church to proclaim and model a different way. The spiritual, material, emotional and social thirst of the people of Scotland will not be sated at the broken wells of secular humanistic atheism, nor at the poisoned wells of the new age or man made religions which are the cause of so much evil in the world. Like the New Testament church we can model a community based on the love of Christ which sets people free,creates new communities, feeds the poor, cares for the weak and turns the world upside down!
The Opportunity of a Renewed Church
Although overall the Church in Scotland is in decline, it is not all bad news. I see three areas where there is encouragement and renewal. Firstly in the independent evangelical churches associated with FIEC – eg. Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh and the work of Twenty Schemes in Niddrie and elsewhere are beacons of light. Secondly there are other biblical churches who have Christ and his Word at the centre of their lives and message who are seeing growth and development – some will be in the Church of Scotland, others associated with CLAN or other charismatic and ex-Brethren networks and some in the Baptist and Anglican churches. And, as Prof Finlayson used to say, how can anyone who believes in a Sovereign God exclude the possibility of him yet working in and through the Catholic Church?
And then there is the Free Church. In my view at the end of the 20th Century we were tottering on the edge of the cliff, about to fall into extinction. But in these first couple of decades in the 21st Century, the Lord has been gracious to us. We are seeing the first signs of a renewed and reinvigorated Presbyterianism in Scotland. New churches are being planted, people are being converted, The Free Church College has been relaunched as Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and there is a new leadership rising. Of course there are still significant problems and hurdles to overcome (not least our own sinfulness) but there is a hope, a ‘buzz’, an enthusiasm about the Free Church that I have never experienced before. When I hear cynical colleagues enthusing about Presbytery meetings I know that the millennium is near!
When I came to Dundee in 1992, St Peters was about to close. There were hardly 40 people involved in the Free Church in the whole of Tayside. Now with a revitalised St Peters, a church plant in St Andrews and a redeveloping Perth there are more than 500. It is not an impossible dream to see within the next decade a Tayside Presbytery. The bottom line is that new and renewed churches mean new and renewed Christians, which will then have a ripple effect throughout Scottish society.
The worst place to be an atheist is in an atheist country. Conversely the best place is a country where a Christian tolerance and view of humanity is deeply rooted within the structures, institutions and psyche of the nation. The vision of a ‘benign secularism’ is at best a fantastical dream. The choice is not between a theocratic Presbyterian Taliban state run by evangelical rednecks, waffling wooly liberal clergy and authoritarian paedophile priests, or an absolutist state where religion is reduced to the status of a knitting club. Why can we not reinvent the traditional Scottish model of an open tolerant State founded upon and with the ethos of, a biblical Christianity which recognizes that neither the State nor the Church is Absolute? Our societies metro-elites want the fruits of Christianity, without the roots. That’s not how the universe works. If post –referendum Scotland is to flourish then we need to heed the mottos of our two greatest cities and make them the anthems for the renewed nation. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain”. “Let Scotland flourish by the preaching of the Word.”