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Losing Our Religion – The Daily Mail on the State of the Church in Scotland

The journalist John Macleod has just begun a major three part series in The Daily Mail on the current state of the Church in Scotland.  Given that this is published in Scotland’s best selling Saturday newspaper it is good to see the question being given such prominence.  Coming on top of a more local and narrow series in the Dundee Courier focusing on the decline of the Church of Scotland in the city, it is clear that the national press do have some interest in this.


John is a good person to write about this.  Not only is he an excellent writer but he has a good understanding of the issues involved.  I doubt anyone will agree with everything he says, but in my view his analysis is intelligent, preceptive and very helpful to those of us trying to understand what is going on.  This series is clearly a ‘big picture’ series and I think it would be helpful for Christian leaders of all persuasions to listen and learn from what John is saying.

I will try and post each of them on the Monday after they are published.  As always your comments are welcome.  Given that mine feature extensively in this first article I have nothing more to add!  The full text of the article is below:

It was bright, modern, with a lovely airy chancel and elegant bell-tower, on a stance with magnificent views over Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth.  Built only in 1956, for years St John’s Parish Church was at the heart of the post-war Oxgangs housing scheme, when there was still no community centre or library or swimming pool. Services were packed; thousands of infants baptised, untold weddings celebrated; innumerable societies and organisations made use of its facilities.

But, late in 2013, final worship was held, for a trickle of people in their seventies; the congregation subsumed into Colinton Mains Parish Church, half a mile down the road. St John’s was sold. An Aldi supermarket now rises in its stead, because they tore down St John’s a few weeks ago.

The church’s demise is especially poignant because it opened its doors just as the clout of the Church of Scotland reached its all-time apogee. That very year, 1956, its membership peaked at 1.32 million; and church attendance generally, across Scotland, was as high as it had ever been.

And then it went to pitiable, relentless decline, in one of the most dramatic secularisations experienced by any country in the world. In just twenty years the Kirk lost 65% of her communicants. Scotland, a land so long defined by Biblical Christianity we were known as the ‘People of the Book,’ had her culture, her values and her education system substantially shaped by her faith and overseen by the Kirk. No one could ever have expected it to collapse, in historical terms, so suddenly. But it did.

That decline of churchgoing in Scotland – and the retreat of Christianity generally from the public square – has been so rapid that the recent past seems almost a foreign country.As recently as the 1990s, STV still broadcast Late Call, where every weekday evening a minister or priest could talk straight to camera, for four minutes and without interruption, about God, sin, death and redemption. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland enjoyed live television coverage, for hours on end; its proceedings filled pages of the daily papers and its Moderator broadcast to the nation every New Year.
In the 1970s, men like Cardinal Gray, Andrew Herron, Leonard Small and Maxwell Craig were household names. Every day at my Glasgow school began with unabashed worship: a hymn, a Bible-reading and a prayer. Our headmaster was not only a local elder, but sat on the Kirk’s Board of Ministry. Most of us went to church or at least attended, say, the Boys Brigade or a similar youth organisation on church premises. I still remember the faint frisson, in my Physics class one day in 1979, when we learned one boy in our midst had never been baptised; the bewildered pity with which we viewed another because his parents were divorced.

The era should not be unduly romanticised. In all state schools then, and into the 1980s, there was savage corporal punishment; relations between us and youngsters from the Roman Catholic secondary, on the other side of the railway, were so bad there were on occasion pitched battles on the street. And, as senior churchmen agree, behind the general respect still paid to organised religion into the 1980s, the mainstream churches already ran on empty.

It’s a balmy spring morning in Edinburgh and I ask Archbishop Leo Cushley, Scotland’s ablest Catholic leader and with a past, distinguished career as a Vatican diplomat, how Scotland lost her faith.

‘It’s a big question,’ he murmurs. ‘A number of things – I think, especially, the history of the twentieth century. We had atheistic regimes, extreme and evil regimes, ranged against the West. The Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Red China. And with the sheer size of their crimes – well, people started to say, “Where was God? Where was God when this happened?” I think we ignore at our peril just how much this shook so many people.’

But Archbishop Cushley is worried at still bigger implications for our society than Sunday becoming, for most, a day for shopping. ‘We underestimate how much the mores of the Western world have slid, and not even in an ancient pagan direction. We’re legislating now without regard for those ancient natural virtues – you know, justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude.

‘Even Cicero was mindful of them, and he knew nothing of Christ. And on top of these, the three Christian virtues – faith, hope and charity. People talk of “values,” but it all seems terribly vague.’

In Dundee, Rev. David Robertson – a passionate, casually clad Free Church minister who has built a substantial Tayside congregation since the early 1990s; on his arrival, attendance was in single figures – echoes much of this.

‘The First World War really shook people. I don’t think you can exaggerate the impact of that. By then we had this general, social, sugar-daddy religion of not much substance and, at a time of such horrors, it had no answers. And so people began falling away from it.’

Robertson points to doctrinal decline from the late nineteenth century, when – intimidated by Darwinism and dazzled by fashionable German scholarship – mainstream Protestantism the world over began to water down its beliefs.

By the Great War, some Scottish ministers already denied the deity of Christ. The Kirk is now all at sea on openly gay clergy; and early in 2015, the minister of Edinburgh’s Mayfield Salisbury Parish Church, Rev. Scott McKenna, unblushingly asserted that to preach Christ died for our sins is ‘ghastly theology.’
The sad farce in January, besides, at Glasgow’s Episcopalian cathedral – when, by the complacency of its Provost, Muslim readings from the Koran mocked the authority of Christ on the Feast of the Epiphany – are in like vein.

‘The Kirk’s membership did hit an all-time high in the Fifties,’ agrees Robertson, ‘but there were reasons for that. An economic boom, full employment, new housing estates. There was the Billy Graham campaign… anyway, at that time, there wasn’t much else to do on Sundays.

‘But then came the Sixties. And suddenly we had the sexual revolution, we had an atmosphere of counter-culture, anti-authoritarianism – huge questions were raised and the Kirk didn’t have the men of the intellect or, frankly, the moral backbone to address them.’

We had into the 1980s, David Robertson argues, perhaps a largely nominal Christianity, ‘but it still shaped public life and public institutions. Well, there is now a determined bid to dismantle all that. I think we’re going to see a society that is militantly secular and a church that is more and more militantly evangelical.

‘And I’d include the Roman Catholic Church in that. At its best, in its Christology, in its grasp of original sin, its value on human life, its witness against a “culture of death,” we share so much core-theology.

‘I think there’ll always be a Catholic Church in Scotland. But I don’t think there will always be a Church of Scotland. Its demographics are terrible. Forget the membership figures; I don’t think 4% of Scots attend the Kirk on Sunday. I’ve been in Dundee, now, since 1992, and pretty well on average one Church of Scotland in the city has closed every year. Numerically, they’re losing the equivalent of two congregations a week.’

It is difficult to grasp, until you think about it, what Scotland’s rapid retreat from her God entails. Supposing I had not been raised in a church-going family, my Glasgow school experience would still have brought me to adulthood with a basic knowledge of Bible stories, the Ten Commandments, the life and example of Christ and the great hymns of the church.

It meant that I (and most of my classmates) were very good singers, for we had to sing daily and keen attention was paid to standards. It meant that we were used to sitting still and listening; that we could engage easily with clergymen (for the parish minister took assembly once a week, and led a regular discussion-group for Sixth Formers) and that, to this day, we know how to comport ourselves in public worship. Not to mention how faith bled into other parts of the syllabus: in mid-primary, for instance, we learned about the saints of the Celtic Church, and heard about such missionaries as David Livingston, Mary Slessor and Gladys Aylward.

In secondary, we noted how much vital social reform historically, from the abolition of the slave trade to the protection of child-workers, had been driven by such Christians as Wilberforce, Fry and Shaftesbury – Scottish, scientific pioneers like Hugh Miller, Michael Faraday and James Young Simpson. And considered in these terms alone, you realise of how much succeeding generations have been deprived on an atheistic syllabus.

It is an unfortunate legacy of Scottish church history (until the Great Union of 1929, what is today’s Kirk was two rival Presbyterian bodies) that the 1918 Education Act set up non-denominational state schools that are, today, widely thought officially secular. But they were intended to be robustly Christian. Archbishop Cushley is first to acknowledge not just how the Catholic Church in Scotland has been bolstered by recent immigration – there is scarcely a town in the country where Mass is not regularly said in Polish – but by the blessing of its enduring state schools.

Noted, generally, for their excellent pastoral care and high standards of discipline, places in them are increasingly sought even by those of other faiths.
‘I do mourn the waning of the Christian religion in our non-denominational schools,’ sighs Cushley. ‘It’s nothing for me to rejoice in, that our main Christian denomination has no longer the impact it had. Now I walk into a Catholic school and I know what it feels like – the Christian faith is the very water-table; it’s part of the air that you breathe.

Under a self-consciously ‘progressive’ SNP administration – unlike her predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon has scant church background and no comprehension of faith – churchmen everywhere worry about what mainstream Scottish schools are becoming.
‘In my congregation,’ says Robertson grimly, ‘a 7-year old girl recently came home in tears. “Mummy, am I a boy or a girl? Teacher says we can choose…”

Our non-denominational schools are becoming centres of indoctrination – secular indoctrination. A “progressiveness” that wants nothing to do with Christianity and is becoming, basically, the State religion. ‘They talk of “equality.” But it’s not economic equality. There hasn’t been such a gulf in incomes since before the war. And it’s the poor who suffer most. I’d say the destruction of the family is even worse than the destruction of the church.’

‘Children are by definition immature,’ muses Archbishop Cushley on the current transgender fuss. ‘And yet we’re seeing life-changing decisions being made, with seemingly little prudence, and perhaps to an adult agenda…
‘There’s a lack of debate today. There are things that cannot be debated. Partly, I think, that’s the power of NGOs and campaign-groups. They’ve been very slick and very clever. The lobbying industry is so strong nowadays, and so self-serving – groups even win government funding to pay them to tell the government what the government is planning to do anyway…’

There are other unsettling straws in the wind. Last week one SNP MP, Carol Monaghan, was widely ridiculed for appearing at a Commons select-committee with Lenten ash drawn on her forehead – spite even a decade ago that would have been unthinkable bigotry. Earlier this week, it was reported that the local minister will not be allowed to hold the customary Easter service at Ullapool Primary School. ‘Several events have arisen in the last week that are immoveable,’ Rev. James Munro was advised snidely by the headmistress.

‘Many in the church think that the Easter narrative is a central aspect of our faith,’ Mr Munro quietly wrote in the local paper. ‘To cancel such a gathering for a school could be regarded as yet another example of marginalisation of the Christian way.’

But this is our hard new Scotland – where, several years ago, a triumphalist exhibition toured the land: photographs of churches derelict or converted into night-clubs and carpet showrooms, entitled only ‘Jesus Has Left The Building.’


  1. Hi David, One key factor to remember from the 1950 was the strong Government encouragement for people in the post-war new towns to join the Church of Scotland for social reasons in order to create communities in those contexts where family ties were inevitably lacking. It has been estimated that around a million people associated themselves with the C of S at that time- and the same people ‘left’ the C of S in the 1960s. They had no Christian profession but their association with the C of S for around a decade has distorted the figures! The Billy Graham crusade of the 1950s was the most successful evangelistic initiative in Scotland in the 20th century. However, the media support was incredible and you would have needed to have left the country or switched off the radio and tv to avoid it! It was literally another world. I do believe that Callum Brown’s analysis of the key community significance of younger women is very significant with respect to Scotland. He argues that the standard secularisation theories are wrong – I agree with that – instead it was the loss of younger women who were the key evangelists to their communities that caused the fall in attendance figures in the 1960s. Some going away from the faith and others having no time for church work due to taking employment outside the home. it is more carefully argued than my simplistic statement here. I do take issue with his bigger picture analysis in the wider world. I think the future is much more optimistic for the Christian Church than he suggests. However, in his case (secularist) and mine we both have clear ‘faith’ convictions concerning the future. As a Christian I remain convinced in the final triumph of King Jesus! best wishes Brian

    On Mon, Mar 13, 2017 at 7:00 AM, THE BLOG OF DAVID ROBERTSON wrote:

    > theweeflea posted: “The journalist John Macleod has just begun a major > three part series in The Daily Mail on the current state of the Church in > Scotland. Given that this is published in Scotland’s best selling Saturday > newspaper it is good to see the question being given s” >

  2. Meanwhile the Church of Scotland triumphantly proclaims that the churches being closed in Dundee are really a sign of growth and development:

    I am not questioning that there may be genuine new Christian developments in the Church of Scotland in Dundee – I have no knowledge of that situation. But it is the “spin” that seems unreal. The local paper publishes an article on closing churches and lack of ministers and the response is to reinterpret the analysis of the facts.

    1. Robert, I think you’ve misread Robert Calvert in the CoS reply to the Courier’s article. It’s been a long time since Robert was President of the University of Dundee Christian Union, when I knew him, but I cannot imagine him doing anything else other than batting with a straight bat.
      The best credit he is able to give the Church of Scotland is that they neither prevent him from doing his network building nor tell him what to preach. Far from being triumphalistic, that’s what we used to call being thankful for small mercies. It seems to me as a friendly observer that Presbyterianism has always tolerated ‘networks’ that worked under the radar of presbyterial dignity but has come down hard on anything that resembled its own structures. For example: the praying societies were not generally interfered with, as far as I can tell, while the 18th century Moderates were gaining control of things, but the Marrow men — who must have looked like an ideal and rebellious presbytery — were greatly put upon and were virtually accused of trying to bring down the temple.


  3. Tragic, but nothing new. In 2 Kings 14:21-24 we read that it just took one generation to go from Solomon building the temple in Jerusalem to his son, Roboam, allowing multiple places of pagan worship as well as homosexual prostitution in the shadow of the temple his father built.

  4. I miss the evangelical church. I drifted away from it during university after spending a number of years heavily involved with first Campus Crusade for Christ in North America and then the Christian Union. I found it was all about “not drinking” or “not partying” or “not having sex”, doctrines which I agreed with, but it was a Christianity entirely based on things that we weren’t doing. In addition to that we didn’t really have anything to replace it with besides endless board game nights and conversations about how we weren’t like the people doing the “bad” things – “the world”. The other thing was that I was interested in personal sin, but I was also interested in protecting God’s creation in the environment, protecting the poor by questioning the systems that make people poor in the first place (what one might call social sin or collective sin), etc. but every time I brought this up I was shot down or dismissed. I remember attending an official event where all we did was try and see how much meat we could eat over the course of an all-nighter – this was an annual occurrence and in what way did this respect the Bible’s call to be stewards of the environment or reach out to the poor? I did enjoy the evangelism aspects of these groups initially but then began to wonder what we were evangelising people into, more board game nights? And eventually I drifted away. I would love to see a revival, in the church and in myself.

    1. Hi Bryan….good to hear from you…..I’m glad you miss the evangelical church although you do seem to have been in a somewhat strange one – if it was all about not doing things! It should have been all about Christ! I pray for a revival for you and for the church and for myself….if you would like to find a church which reflects your concerns drop me a line and I will do what I can to help –

  5. I find this to be not unusual, but significant: “Under a self-consciously ‘progressive’ SNP administration – unlike her predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon has scant church background and no comprehension of faith =”

    Though she frequently demonstrates her true and exclusive faith and publically and proudly confesses it.

  6. I don’t think you can underestimate the impact of ministers who spread a very weak theology because they were trained in a theological environment which essentially endorsed a vague theism. I speak as a relatively recent convert, who when growing up in the seventies, adopted an agnostic viewpoint in part because the ministers who I engaged with at school denied the miracles if Christ and his deity, while em phasing his “good man” status. However, I think the point about the horror of WW1 is well made

  7. Geoff:

    “Though she frequently demonstrates her true and exclusive faith and publically and proudly confesses it.”

    What do you mean by her “exclusive” faith?

    Where and when has the media ever reported that she has “publicly..confessed her faith”?

  8. Nice to read John Macleod again and I commend this Blog – much of it reflects how I feel. I’m an unusual former member of the Kirk (I became a member of Sandyford Henderson in the mid 1990s). Life took me to Canada and marriage to a Roman Catholic. Although certain liberal reformations within the RC church made that possible, I can never bring myself to convert, but there have been few options for genuine Presbyterian worship or fellowship anywhere anyway. It is spiritually unsettling, but I would have left the Kirk years ago had I remained in Scotland. The only remaining orthodox option available to ensure your children have a Christian upbringing (here) is Rome and it too is under tremendous strain outside of the cities. They are having serious trouble getting young men to head for the priesthood and this is hastening decline. The rural parishes are the first to feel it. I’m not always so sure that Rome will survive the secular onslaught, but I agree that it may be the last standing in western countries.
    A break to a different denomination (or creation of a new one) is the only option once the liberal elements finally wrest full control (from what I can see). They control the property assets and other funding, which is a huge material and organisational disincentive to those who would likely otherwise break away. It’s a lot to ask of the faithful to organise and do that in this day and age – but they may have to. Looking forward to reading more.
    In North America I have no doubt – “Progressive” and “Secular” are one in the same. Economic equality is carefully swept under the carpet by all interest groups and government parties.

  9. Google provides an analysis of the popularity of words, in books they have access to the electronic texts of. This shows that use of the word ‘christianity’ started to decline in the early 1840s, as did the word ‘christian’ and ‘gospel’:

    Perhaps familiarity bred contempt. It does seem that Christianity started to decline in Scotland as the railways developed and it became more urbanised. This predates a lot of the theological changes you allude to. In many ways, the wars of the 20th century helped keep the church going as the church became more embedded in the functions of the military and civic government. Then there was great commitment to building the church in the post war years. The generation that built those churches are now in their 80s and their churches are withering. If you look at the demographics, 80% of the current members of the Church of Scotland (as an example) will be dead by 2040. As they are only adding about 1100 by profession of faith each year you can see where that trend is inevitably taking them. I visited one church recently with 40 members. The youngest was 60. Surrounded by housing developments and young families it had failed to find a message that could reach them, and neither had any of the other local churches.

    The current solution being attempted by the main denominations (the ones active in ACTS we might say) is trying to appear to be significant, or give the impression of significance in areas other than pastoral or evangelistic ministry. There is hardly a government consultation they don’t turn up for, and the Scottish Government is increasingly funding posts or providing seconded staff for them. Some believe that the future lies with a religious tax, as in some other countries, with denominations getting a cut based on membership. Of course that would mean state funding of all religions so I am not sure how well the prospect would go down with the remaining church people.

    This is all a symptom of the change of Christianity from the personal to the societal. Instead of it being about how you, as an individual, respond to God, it is about affiliation to a group without that personal conversion or ongoing faith. I think this is what we saw after World War 2 – the need for national identity and the church was a big part of that. I sometime shear a gritted teeth envy from some church people that young Asian people in Scotland identify with Islam as part of their personal cultural identity. “If only our young people would think like that. Imagine a Scotland where being Presbyterian was synonymous with being Scottish and everyone went through the rites of passage of the church”. Of course that would not be true conversion or create the true church, but it would sustain the structures of the church. We used to have this in Scotland. Nearly everyone joined the church at one time, but it did not lead to a generation of disciples. That church I visited recently is a good example of cultural Christianity without inward conversion. This does not bear the necessary fruit.

    I am reminded of Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going” part of which goes:

    A serious house on serious earth it is,
    In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
    Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
    And that much never can be obsolete,
    Since someone will forever be surprising
    A hunger in himself to be more serious,
    And gravitating with it to this ground,
    Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
    If only that so many dead lie round.

    HIs vision of the church is around church buildings and those rites of passage. He does not seem to know the gospel message, but perhaps, like him, the church views itself as the provider of birth, marriage and death. Or a place where people can “reflect” on serious issues, whatever that means.

    Somewhere in all this there is the smoking embers of the gospel and a vague memory of Jesus of Nazareth. While that is there, there is always hope.

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