The Church in Scotland The Free Church

The Two Faces of the Church of Scotland


No sooner do I begin my new series of the state of the Church in Scotland than the Scottish Social Attitudes survey is published, resulting in headlines along the lines of ‘Atheists now the majority in Scotland’.   I was going to move on to the Catholic Church this week but that will have to wait until next week (by the way thanks to all my Catholic friends for the comments and info you have sent in anticipation – keep them coming!) The reaction of the C of S has been fascinating and we need to try and make some sense of it all.  I include various responses below.

Lets begin with the survey itself.

Firstly, it does NOT say that the majority of Scotland’s population are atheists. 

It does say that 52% claim no particular religious affiliation –which is a bit different.

Secondly, you need to remember that it is only a survey of 1288 people, which in 2014 indicated that the number of non-religious people was decreasing (down to 45%)– this time they changed the questions so the result is a bit different.  Warning – always beware of surveys!   But even so the survey does give us some indications.

  • 66% of Scots say they never go to church.
  • Over the past 15 years the Church of Scotland has declined from 35% of the population to 20% now.
  • Catholics have risen from 14% to 15%
  • Other Christian are static at 11%
  • Other religions static at 2%

Secularist response

The atheistic secularists were beside themselves with joy and lost no time in getting on the airwaves pronouncing the death of religion and seeking to exploit the situation for their own purposes.

Two thoughts came to mind.

Firstly if the Church with its millions of members should be excluded from public life, why do the secularist organisations whose memberships number in the hundreds or thousands, think that they should not only have a say but have The say?

Secondly why are they so obsessed by the issue of religious representatives on local council education committees?  Surely there are far more important and significant issues in Scotland for people to be concerned about?  I think it indicates their continued campaign to get rid of Christian influence in schools in Scotland.  They want to indoctrinate children into their ‘one-size-fits-all’ atheism and we are just in the way.

C of S Response

– The official response to the survey was as pathetic as the figures are catastrophic for the Church of Scotland.

Rev Colin Sinclair, Convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council.

A senior Kirk official has warned against measuring the strength of the Church by reports of a decline in membership numbers. We do not minimise the challenges we face; yet what the statistics actually show is that one in five people in Scotland do feel connected to the Kirk.

“Being aware of the secularisation of our society we are developing fresh expressions of church alongside traditional forms in order to engage with people. These are often more informal and relational and they are set in contexts in which people feel on their home ground and therefore in a safe place.

“We have set up some pioneer ministries that will work in our communities to help us learn lessons that will shape the whole church. We have published a resource “Exploring Faith” to explain what our faith is and why it matters.

“We have contacted those who have stopped attending church but want to hang on to their Christian Faith. We want to hear their stories and understand the lessons we can learn from them.

“How encouraging that faced with this survey we can report the highest number for nine years of new ministers coming into our church.

“It is only when it becomes “unfashionable” to have faith that we find out for ourselves the true value and meaning of a gospel centred on Jesus Christ that transforms lives and communities. “

Perhaps the best comment on the above comes from Al Mohler.  Al is a Southern Baptist Leader who has a sharp and excellent daily cultural analysis from a Christian worldview  – Sometimes its good for us to see ourselves as others see us.  I think he gets it spot on in his commentary on the 6th of April.

Commenting on Colin Sinclair’s remarks he states:

Al Mohler | The Briefing | 6th April, 2016

“Well, to state the matter as simply as possible, when a church leader begins to explain a drop of this nature in the percentage of the population going to his church, when he uses this kind of language, there you have a pretty significant clue as to why people are leaving that church. Of course, what we’re looking at there is an abject disaster. But it’s a disaster that is being met with a rather smiley face from the Church of Scotland.”

I should also point out that the disaster is far worse than the massaged spin put on them by the C of S.  The majority of the 20% of Scots who are ‘connected to the C of S’ have no real meaningful connection.  Two-thirds never attend a church.  So that’s us down to about 7%.  And of them how many attend a church where they will actually hear the Gospel?    It would be interesting to know the real figures but I doubt that more than 150,000 Scots are in the Kirk on any given Sunday (and I suspect that it is below 100,000).  In other words, no matter the spin, the Kirk overall is in free-fall.

The C of S’s smiley face tells us that things are good because they have Crossreach and the Guild.  Crossreach is the third largest provider of Social Care in Scotland – its £51 million budget largely funded by local councils, The Guild with 23,000 members raises thousands of pounds for charities.   Both of these are of course good.  But is that the purpose and raison d’etre of the Church.  It must be the fruit, but is it the root?  Does the Church of Scotland now believe in justifying itself by works?

I would suggest that the C of S publicity machine have actually got this wrong.  They have undersold the church and made it sound wet and self-righteous.  Personally I think there are many other good things within the C of S that they could have highlighted.   There are ministers who go about their work, unsung and unheralded, who are actually doing a good job within their communities of bringing the good news to those around them.   There are churches where people are being converted and there is some renewal.  Not many, but they do exist and to be honest, they are the only hope for the future of the Church. I have spoken at local C of S outreaches and shared in ministry with some fine Christians.  In other words there is some spiritual life.

SCOTTISH  COMEDY THUMBThe smiley face is also seen in the almost desperate clinging on to the straw offered by Steve Aisthorpe’s book The Invisible Church that now seems to be the standard narrative.  Yes – the numbers are declining but its only because they are not coming to us.  They still belong to us and are just waiting for us to reconnect with them.  

Another gem was reported in The Herald –

“This is no great surprise, but whatever people may say about their religious practice, the Church of Scotland will be there for them when the chips are down. It’s at vital moments in life that people appreciate the wonder and mystery of it all, so the church has the exciting challenge of speaking into that fertile space.”

It’s little wonder that the C of S is in free-fall if this is the kind of verbose meaningless waffle that is issued on their behalf. The message “We are good people and we are here to bury you when the time comes,” is hardly the Good News that will defeat the forces of evil.  Let the dead bury their dead.  We are here to resurrect them!

This is all summed up by the Moderator Rt Rev Dr Angus Morrison –

carousel (1)“As a Church we have to take heed of these findings, something we are already doing by investing money and resources in our pioneer ministry programme, which is bringing our Church into the wider community.”

So the message from the C of S HQ to its beleaguered congregations is don’t panic!  We are doing good work.  We still have 1 in 5 people in Scotland say they belong to us.   We have more people coming into ministry than we have had in a decade.  Things are on the turn.


The Frowning Face

But there is another reaction within the Kirk.  And it isn’t so happy.

There are those who recognize what is happening and have spoken out.  Take this for example from the Dundee Courier

The Courier & Advertiser 28 Feb 2015

SCOTTISH  TRAGEDY THUMBCHURCHES FACE an “intolerable and utterly unsustainable” lack of interest from their congregations, according to a minister.

An outspoken and wide-ranging attack has been made on members who fail to attend for worship or offer financial support to their churches.

The Rev Scott Burton, minister at St Matthew’s Kirk in Perth, said: “I have no reason to believe anything other than the fact that it’s only going to get worse in the next decade.
“It’s time for someone to say it as it is I’m afraid — and I’m either brave enough or stupid enough to be the one who’s choosing to say it.

“I see the bank balance (deficits), I lead worship in the more than half-empty
buildings, I feel the never-ending pressures, I counsel the office-bearers who are tearing their hair out to make ends meet. So I assure you, I’m not exaggerating.”


And there are a handful of evangelicals who are prepared to put their heads above the parapet and speak out.  This excellent letter from the retired Rev Bill Wallace puts it well:

The steady decline in religious commitment in Scotland and the Church of Scotland in particular (“Kirk is hit hard by slump as Scots stop going to church”, The Herald, April 4) gives the impression of a church with its head in the sand. To suggest that the Kirk is there primarily for the dying and distressed is surely missing the whole thrust of Jesus’s ministry and teaching. He said his mission was to give “life and life to the full”.

One of the problems that faith communities face is that there is a growing disapproval of anything that suggests enthusiasm or wholehearted commitment to any religion.

Current attempts at new legislation to curb religious extremism have had the effect of giving popular approval only to lukewarm religious commitment. Jesus called for wholehearted commitment and a willingness to do what is right by his and the Bible’s standards irrespective of the cost. Public opinion crucified him
What is often overlooked in current discussion is that the Church of Scotland still has the largest membership and weekly attendance of any organisation in Scotland today. However if it continues to seek to be “relevant” by adjusting its teaching and standards so that they are no more than 10years behind the opinion polls the future is bleak.

Sad DepartureThere are those who recognize what is happening and have left.  Al Mohler mentions David Randall’s excellent book A Sad Departure (Banner of Truth – foreword by Sinclair Ferguson).  This is required reading for anyone who wants to understand what is going on.

And there are those who either don’t seem to recognize what is happening or are deliberately closing their eyes and turning on their friends.   Take this response for example: An anonymous letter –

I put a response to it on the commentators blog page but just in case its not there you can get it by looking at the comments section on my first post

And I received several other messages from people who have been ‘hurt’, ‘annoyed’, ‘angry’ at what I have written.   I think this indicates a clear part of the problem within the C of S.  There are a significant number of evangelicals who have bought into the myth that the C of S is the only real show in town, that loyalty to the C of S is equivalent to loyalty to the Gospel and that those who leave, or criticize from outside, are in effect traitors who have deserted the cause.   Life is not so simple that everyone can be put in this category but it is a very strong thread and one that is creating havoc.    It is incredible that evangelicals can actually write ‘What you say is true, it’s the tone I don’t like.’  Since when did we become people who prioritised perceived tone over truth?  Is being ‘nice’ the new litmus test of the Gospel?  Where is the hurt and anger over those who deny the basic truths of the gospel?  Why the anonymous letter to me over my blog critiquing Life and Work, rather than an open letter to Life and Work, expressing ‘hurt, annoyance and anger’ at the heresies contained therein?  “Yes, yes,yes…we agree…just don’t say it in public.”  Is that what the Church of John Knox, the Thunderer, has come to?!  Ssh……

And what is it with evangelicals and anonymity?  “I have to write an anonymous blog so that people can focus on the message and not the messenger,” writes a man in a blog attacking the messenger!   I am so thankful that Moses, David, Jesus and Paul were not anonymous so that people could focus on the message!   Why can’t evangelicals just speak out in public?  Are we reduced to gossiping or ‘politicising’ in private or in our own conferences and get-togethers?    Why is it that many C of S members write me to thank me for what they read here – because they don’t read it anywhere else?

Before I wrote this blog I scoured the web and the media to see what evangelical groups within the C of S had said about this, or indeed any other current issue and, with the exception of Bill Wallace’s letter above I couldn’t find anything.  The last post on the Covenant Scotland FB page was on the 8th of Feb.   This is hardly being the campaigning voice for biblical Christianity within the Kirk?

Anyway back to the main issue – the future of the Church of Scotland.

The Scotsman on the 4th of April had a fascinating article on how much land and property the Church of Scotland owns.   They have 4,000 buildings and 12,500 acres of land with a total value of £515.8 million.   Each year some of these buildings are sold and the Trustees get 10% of the money – some of which goes into a general fabric fund.    The point is simply this – that the C of S will be able to live off the legacy of the past for many years, and the centralised bureaucracy will continue to thrive.  The C of S will have its committees, press office, projects and politicised structures for many years to come.  But will it be a living and growing church or just one in which the spiritual parasites live of the rotting carcass of a once vibrant body? I suspect that it will be the latter – although in the midst of the ruins it would not surprise me if God raises up some new life!

“When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”  Psalm 11:3

We need to seek truth with humility. We need to speak truth with love. There is no point in us playing games, issuing propaganda, massaging figures and deluding ourselves into some kind of false hope.   What is Christ saying to the churches?  How can real Christians work together and bring the Gospel to our nation?   We need to stop being anonymous feart Christians, afraid to upset the powers that be, or the few people that still attend our services.  We can genuinely love, live and follow our Head.  Or we can continue to play our wee political games, engage in our personal agendas and justify ourselves whilst Scotland goes to hell!

Coming up next week (DV!); The Catholic Church in Scotland.   Followed the week after by the Charismatics and then we will get on to the Calvinists (all thoughts, info etc. gratefully received!). 

After publishing this I came across this extraordinary letter in  The Herald today which clearly illustrates the depths of confusion within the C of S today.

SPEAKING as a Kirk minister, it is clear to me that we are not, nor have we ever been, a Christian country (“Kirk is hit hard by slump as Scots stop going to church”, The Herald, April 4, and Letters, April 5 and 6). At an institutional level, religion has historically been a means of social control, an attitude that is still seen in the Kirk’s refusal to recognise marriage between persons of the same gender.

Popular piety is being rendered irrelevant by those folk who, under the guise of protecting their conscience, restrict the consciences of ministers who wish to be able to solemnise the commitment of partners to one another in marriage. Do we require a recruitment and retention policy? No we don’t. What we do need is a commitment to being a Christcentred Kirk, otherwise “policy decisions” are only attempts at rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Rev John Nugent, St Fergus Manse, Miller Avenue, Wick.

He wants a Christ centred Kirk whilst ignoring what Christ says about marriage!  I guess Christ just means ‘your own personal Jesus’….the ‘pick’n’mix Saviour.  Desperate!


    1. I, by the Grace of GOD, am a member of the holy Catholic Church, mentioned in the Apostles Creed, whose only Head in Earth and in Heaven is Jesus. Christ the LORD. When you refer to the ‘Catholic Church’ I suspect you mean the ROMAN ‘Catholic ‘ Church whose Head is the Bishop of Rome . It is misleading – indeed somewhat offensive – to confuse these two bodies which are so diametrically opposed in doctrine and practice.

  1. “When Peter came to Antioch I opposed him to his face beause he was clearly in the wrong………he separated himself….because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrasy even Barnabus was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all….” !!!! (Gal. 2, 11-14).

    I feel constrained to say that I really object to St. Paul’s tone. He was clearly unloving and lacking in grace. If he felt that he needed to challenge St. Peter then he obviously should have done so in private so as not to cause offence. After all Peter was clearly entitled to his “safe place”. And then to document his criticisms in a public letter to the Galatians which was bound to be circulated to other churches in the region. All this must have been very hurtful to Peter and damaging to his reputation, and undoubtedly would have created division and conflict in the churches.

    What a disgrace! I hope that no one else reads this letter.

  2. The problem is….Where do those who are on the payroll get their security, significance, status, acceptance and identity? Not in Christ. Who and what do they trust?

    The nub of goodfeltg’s quote from Galatians is being “not in line with the gospel.”

    Do those who know what the problem is know what the answer is…the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Simple? No, Simplistic? No. But it covers the “what”, and the “why”, not the how, when or where.

    The problem is. ..not having an identity … an identity that is not in line with the gospel, an identity of being anonymous. Of not being changed like Saul to Paul.

    The church has something that is unique, precious, in jars of clay, that no other body, group,or organisation has anywhere in the world – the Good News of Jesus Christ.

    And a model for advocacy is “Stand up, speak up, and shut up.” in that order..

    The world can often better carry out other activities the church engages in and trumpets at the expense or neglect of the gospel and instead of becoming a “thunderer” it is transformed into an association of “Wee Twees” (with apologies to David)

  3. So the Cof S cannot say “silver and gold have I none, but such as I have I give unto you” (sorry for the AV but it sticks). Reliance on wealth is a snare. I look forward to your thoughts on the Episcopal Church of Scotland, which also has an investment portfolio, producing more than 60% of the total income and is rapidly following its American daughter church towards discipline from the Anglican Communion. Sad that Bill Wallace will have retired by now I’m sure. The Church needs more Wm. Wallaces.

  4. As a member of the CofS I used to get upset about such comments made. I’ve grown a thicker skin these days. I always go back to the dynamic within Evangelicalism in the late 60’s between the two esteemed figures of Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones and John Stott with Lloyd-Jones attack on denominations and Stott’s disagreement with him with talk of a beloved denomination and the scriptural reference about a remnant. All in the debate about ecumenicalism.

    The fact they could remain friends in spite of differences is an inspiration.

    Issues and context change but one thing that doesn’t change is human nature. It is natural to find a strong cohesion with one’s peer group, to find security in it and be hostile to anyone outside of the groupthink. We see this dynamic that Paul addresses between Jewish and gentile Christians.

    So primarily what do we regard ourselves as? As being “in Christ” or as being Evangelicals and/or with an affinity to a particular denomination with the truth that everyone else has to adhere to or are apostate?

    Having been falsely accused yet again of blasphemy this week I am all too aware of the personal cost of following Christ in a culture where even Christians as the theologian Miroslav Volf put it often merely reflect the same sicknesses of the surrounding society.

    We all like to have security power and approval my first question is where do we get that from? If form God then how can we work together in unity. If not then what do we do about that? Certainly not endless arguments that only end up in quarrels but at the same time capturing every though and making it obedient to Christ and demolishing arguments and pretenses that set themselves up against the knowledge of God.

  5. Wattie Livingstone said:
    “I, by the Grace of GOD, am a member of the holy Catholic Church, mentioned in the Apostles Creed, whose only Head in Earth and in Heaven is Jesus. Christ the LORD. When you refer to the ‘Catholic Church’ I suspect you mean the ROMAN ‘Catholic ‘ Church whose Head is the Bishop of Rome . It is misleading – indeed somewhat offensive – to confuse these two bodies which are so diametrically opposed in doctrine and practice.”
    I am grateful for that comment, Wattie, as it answers a question I asked some time ago: How is ‘the Church’ defined? I asked that question for several reasons but I was particularly interested to see if the definition included the Catholic Church. Your answer tells me that for you, at least, ‘the Church’ does not include the Catholic Church.
    Incidentally, what do you call a member of the Greek Catholic Church? Or a member of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church? They would be very perplexed if you called them Roman Catholics. However, members of both Churches are part of the Catholic Church as they are in communion with the Pope. You see, within the Catholic Church there are different rites (ways of celebrating Mass) and each of these Churches has its own rite. Another rite is the Roman rite. You could, I suppose, call Catholics who worship using the Roman rite, Roman Catholics.

  6. Given what has gone on in the CoS over the last twenty years or so regarding blatant departures from the Bible and “affirming” sin rather than challenging it, I find it odd that there are still self-styled “evangelicals” claiming to be members of this disgraceful property portfolio management corporation. What are they doing/think they are doing by remaining in such an apostate entity? What exactly would it take for them to leave? I was going to suggest approving stuff directly against the Word of God, but we have long passed that point! What do they think they are achieving by staying in an organisation now dominated by atheists desperate to be “relevant”? All they do is help legitimise an “inclusive” coffee club in its pretence to be a “church”.

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