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The Church in Scotland – The Record Editorial for January

The January Record is just heading to the printers – lots of good stuff in this month – here is a foretaste of the editorial.  Get your copy of the complete magazine from your local Free Church, or from the Free Church offices…
Record January Cover

“The state and fate of the Kirk is a topic which should be of wider interest within Scottish society and beyond”

414MCn0X5gL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_So writes Doug Gay in his fascinating book Reforming the Kirk, the Future of the Church of Scotland. He is right. We should be concerned about the state and fate of the whole church of Jesus Christ in Scotland – not just the Church of Scotland. In fact we should be more than concerned – we should passionately care. Which is why I am going to break an editorial convention – that one must never comment on another denomination in your own magazine.

Yes we are deeply concerned about the state of the whole Christian church in Scotland. I will leave it to another time to discuss the Catholic church rejoicing that it is now the largest church in terms of attendance, and what are known as the smaller conservative Presbyterian churches (they think the Free Church has gone to the dogs anyway). The Scottish Episcopal Church are going through their own version of the traumas and disturbance hitting the wider Anglican church. And the charismatics are as confused and messed up as the rest of us!

“Who cares for the Free Church compared with the Christian good of Scotland?”

I was once told that in terms of evangelism and church there was only one show in town – the Church of Scotland.   It is still by far the largest non-Catholic denomination in Scotland; it has significant resources and a still important presence in many of the communities and institutions of our society. Some think that the Free Church with its historic claim to be, the Church of Scotland, Free, might have a certain degree of schaedenfreude or joy in the travails of the Church of Scotland.   Are we not waiting in the wings to take over? No. No. No. Anyone with the gospel and glory of Christ at heart will long for the renewal and revival of the Church of Scotland. We state firmly with Thomas Chalmers – “Who cares for the Free Church compared with the Christian good of Scotland?”

It is for that reason that for several years I have been studying, observing and writing about the Church of Scotland. I have been appalled at the schisms within Scottish Presbyterianism. The old story of the Scotsman being rescued on a desert island being asked – “why have you built two churches?” “Oh, the first is the church I go to, and the second is the church I don’t go to”.   Because we are biblical Christians we believe in unity and so several years ago the Free Church did look seriously at the possibility of the Free Church returning to a renewed and revived Church of Scotland. But it was not to be. Mainly because of the fact that the Church of Scotland is now in free-fall and the reason for that free-fall.

The Church of Scotland is in terminal decline. In 1956 there were 1,319,574 members in the Kirk. Today it is a million members less.   That might be ok if we were talking about a Kirk that is getting rid of the dead wood, cutting back to the core, committed people and reforming itself. But that is not happening. In the many years I have been commenting on this I have been told that I am too negative and pessimistic and that things are not as bad as they seem. That is true. They are worse.   The Kirk is dying and unless there is a resurrection it will over the next couple of decades fade away.

 Why is this happening and what can be done? Doug Gay points out that some ‘theological conservatives might name it as judgment for various kinds of apostasy” before somewhat snidely remarking “various Free Church of Scotland commentators could be cited here, some of whom I will not dignify with a citation”!   We don’t need to be dignified by others citations, but it nonetheless remains the case that the primary reason for the decline of the Church of Scotland is not the secularistion of society – it is the secularization of the church. The proposals for ‘reform’ in Gays’ book are a great example of the proverbial re-arranging of deckchairs on the Titanic.

Doug Gays First Chalmers Lecture on which his books is based. 

What about the Free Church? Are we any better? In theory yes – after all we hold unswervingly to the Bible as the Word of God and we have not abandoned our Confessional theology. But it is all too possible for such to be merely outward conformity, lacking heart, reality and above all the Spirit.  Whilst we mourn over the Church of Scotland and long for its renewal; our primary concern is the cause of the Gospel in our beloved land. The question is whether the Free Church is fit for purpose (together with other churches) to pick up the baton that has been dropped by the Kirk. That is a question for next month. Meanwhile we pray.


Great Joy for all the People – The Christmas Record


  1. A few days ago we celebrated Christmas Day. A time of rejoicing. As the hymn says, “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel..” How did we ‘rejoice’? One way would be by singing. Readers can, no doubt, think of other ways. So I was struck by David’s claim that the Catholic church has been ‘rejoicing that it is now the largest church in terms of attendance’. (Interesting that David uses a small ‘c’ for church in this case.) I did notice an article in the Scottish Catholic Observer which provided that information. But ‘rejoicing’? I haven’t heard any singing or other signs of rejoicing. The article started off by stating, “Catholics are to become the largest church-going community in Scotland. Census shows number of Christians attending services in Scotland is falling, but Catholic drop is smaller than other churches.” It also stated, “The report found 135,600 weekly Catholic Mass attenders compared to 136,910 attending Church of Scotland services.” So David was wrong to use the present tense. And Fr Thomas Boyle, the Catholic Church’s representative on the panel that commissioned the report, acknowledged that ‘recent scandals’ must have had some effect on the commitment of individuals to Church attendance. No rejoicing there. So if David does get round to discussing “the Catholic Church rejoicing that it is now the largest church in terms of attendance” he will probably only be repeating what the Catholic Church itself acknowledges. It acknowledges that Mass attendance has declined and it acknowledges that that decline has been slowed as a result of immigration. I think his article would be unnecessary. The Scottish Catholic Observer has already written his article for him.

  2. Why do you persist in referring to the ROMAN Catholic Church as ‘the Catholic Church’. I am aware that its members (and the BBC) refer to it thus but this is wrong. There is only one holy catholic church and it is that Church whose Head in Heaven and on Earth is Jesus Christ, the LORD. You know that, so why follow Rome in her arrogance? That criticism apart, may I congratulate you on your writings in ‘the weeflea’. Your thoughtful analysis of what is happening in our society and in the church at large is much appreciated. I wish you well in the coming year. May God Bless you and yours. W.

  3. wattie,
    To some extent you have a fair point. After all, Catholic schools call them ‘Roman Catholic’ and the term ‘Roman Catholic’ is used by that Church in other contexts. My own parish church calls itself ‘St Andrew’s RC Church’. Pope Pius XII used the expression, ‘Roman Catholic Church’ in his Encyclical Humani Generis issued in 1950. However, in most official situations, the Church calls itself simply, ‘the Catholic Church’. To answer your claim about arrogance I suppose it’s rather like a particular Church calling itself ‘the Church of Scotland’. That title could also be labelled arrogant as it implies that it is the only Church in Scotland and maybe some people might like to call it something else such as ‘the Established Church of Scotland’. Or how about the Orthodox Churches? Maybe a wee touch of arrogance there, suggesting that everybody else is heterodox. So maybe we should call them something else. However, life would get very complicated if we all started inventing new names for other Churches so it is probably much simpler to call Churches by whatever name they call themselves so, perhaps, David is simply following that convention.
    But if we wish to rename Churches according to our own theology then I’m afraid that we Catholics are going to have to stop talking about the Free Church of Scotland. You see, according to the Second Vatican Council, there are no Protestant Churches. Instead they are called ‘ecclesial communities’. So we Catholics should refer to the Free Ecclesial Community of Scotland. But we don’t.
    But for a Protestant I do see your problem in one Church calling itself ‘the Catholic Church’. On a recent visit to the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool I saw a display which referred to the Church of England as ‘catholic’ but hastily went on to explain that it was in no way ROMAN Catholic. (Don’t confuse us with that other lot down the other end of Hope Street.)

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