The Slow Death of the Church of Scotland Accelerates
There is some really sad, but inevitable, news coming from Dundee this week. I have just read in The Courier that another three churches are to merge in Dundee.Broughty Ferry congregations to merge as ministers retire and worshipper numbers dwindle
The Church of Scotland congregations in Broughty Ferry – St James, St Luke and the New Kirk are to become one congregation. Why does that matter? It is the continuation of a trend in Dundee, and throughout Scotland of church decline – especially – but not soley in the Church of Scotland. In 2020 after being in Dundee as a minister for 20 years I worked out that one church per year had closed for each of those years. It was a desperate picture of decline – and yet very few people in the church were prepared to face up to it. Although I recall one contact at ‘121’ (the C of S administrative HQ) telling me that the C of S had no plans for growth, only ‘managed decline’.
Reasons for Decline?
This latest story sees the same pattern of denial, excuse and defeat being repeated. The inability to grasp reality seems endemic within the Church. The Presbytery clerk tells us his reasons for decline. It’s the falling birthrate, the changing nature of the population in Scotland, the fact that immigrants are not likely to be Christian and if they are, not Presbyterian; and fewer youth organisations. The solution is that the church needs ‘to change many aspects of how it is run’ and embrace digital technology in order to be more accessible to younger worshippers.
This is like a drowning man clutching at straws. The birthrate in Scotland is in decline (like the church and the general culture) but that does not explain the decline in the Church of Scotland. Less than 3% of the 50,000 babies born are baptised into the Church of Scotland. Baptisms have declined by 70% over the past decade – births have declined 15%. Immigrants are far more likely to be Christians than native Scots (I was told for example that there are 80 African churches in Scotland). And the idea that it is the decline in the youth organisation which has led to the decline in the church gets it the wrong way round. Its because the church is in such a mess that the youth organisations have declined. That comment also exposes the weakness of the C of S – which for far too long relied on artificially inflating its numbers by counting all those who were connected with its youth organisations as part of the church – even though they seldom if ever came to church. I recall one minister in a congregation where the attendance did well to reach 30, claiming 1,000 adherents because she was a chaplain in a local school and the Guides, Brownies and Scouts met in her hall! There are numerous examples of this kind of exaggeration. I think of the church that claimed over 2,000 members but if you went there on a Sunday you would be part of a ‘crowd’ of 30.
I know the three churches in Broughty Ferry that are amalgamating (ie. two of them closing and the third living off the legacy income for another decade before it closes). I recall speaking in one at a choir service – where the language of the choir beforehand indicated, not only a lack of knowledge of the Gospel, but a hostility to it. In another I spoke to the minister who indicated that despite a nominal membership of almost 1,000, she expected to be the last minister because attendance was only 100 – 70% of whom were women over 70. It was literally dying. She was right. What amazed me was the self- justification for the ministry by claiming a ‘congregation’ of several thousand. The Church of Scotland has an outdated and quite deceiving system of claiming everyone within the bounds of the parish who are not Catholic as ‘theirs’. The jargon of ’church without wall’’, ‘people of faith who do not attend’. ‘ministering to the whole parish’ is a form of self delusion worthy of the Father of Lies himself.
The Church is Dead – Long Live the Church!
Saddest of all is Broughty Ferry St James – who had a growing and developing church under the ministry of Alberto de Paula. The Presbytery in their wisdom wanted to link this growing evangelical congregation with a declining liberal one. When Alberto and the vast majority of the congregation decided that they could no longer go along with the decisions of the C of S assembly they left to form Broughty Ferry Presbyterian Church – which later on joined the Free Church and is still a living and developing church. https://broughtyferrypresbyterianchurch.org
The Church of Scotland Presbytery showed their lack of reality when they refused to let St James stay in their own building and instead pretended to have the ‘old’ congregation there. It was a petty and spiteful decision – a real example of cutting off your nose to spite your face…”if we can’t build a lively church there – we are certainly not going to let you do so”. There was no concern for the gospel. No concern for the glory of God. All was church politics. And now the chickens have come home to roost. Doubtless St James will be sold on. Yet another church building to be turned into a storage facility, nightclub, apartment block? One wonders if the Presbytery would now sell the building to Broughty Ferry Presbyterian? (If they wanted it!).
Some may think that all of the above is a bit hard. But what if it is true? Maybe sometimes the truth is hard. Should the doctor not tell you that you have cancer because its ‘a bit hard’? I think the cruelty is in not telling the truth and letting people carry on in their delusions. Because of Covid one is now able to look at a wider variety of services online – I decided just to choose one congregation at random (not a well known evangelical one…nor a well known liberal). This is what I saw – and I don’t think it is atypical of many congregations. In a building which could hold a couple of hundred I counted 18 people – 16 middle aged and elderly women, 2 men. Because of Covid there were some exceptional items (the singing was by video, the congregation masked, and the minister wore gloves), but the rest was ‘normal’. Bible reading, prayer and then a sermon in which the fully robed minister explained in solemn, sing song tones why one of the miracles of the bible was not really a miracle, but nonetheless showed us that God was with us. There was nothing of Christ, no balm in Gilead – nothing to get out of bed for on a Sunday morning. Are we surprised that such churches are dying? (Of course there are Church of Scotland’s which are not like this – where the Word is still preached and Christ is still lifted up – but the trouble is that these are the exception rather than the rule).
What about the solution offered?
The newspaper report contains two suggestions from the Presbytery.
- Change the way the church is run – This is the proverbial rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. What’s the point? Amalgamating congregations, reducing Presbyteries, re-organising committees, re-distributing staff are all relatively pointless. Rearranging the position of the seriously ill patient on the bed, does not cause them to get better! Can these bones live? Should be the heartfelt cry of all who care for the Church?
- Appeal to the young worshippers – The first question I have is ‘what young worshippers’? The sociologist, Callum Brown predicted that by 2011 there would be no Sunday schools left in Scotland. He was wrong – but not by much. You can’t appeal to young worshippers if there are none. First of all they need to be told about God – before they can worship him. Trying to attract people to worship Christ, without their knowing Christ, is the wrong way round.
One of the most astonishing conversations I ever had in St Peters was with an elder from a village church in Angus. He didn’t know who I was but told me quite proudly that he belonged to a church where the minister did not teach the bible. When I asked him why he replied, ”because it doesn’t attract the young people”. When I then asked him how many young people were in his church – he said ‘none’. At that time we were in a period of blessing where the congregation had grown to around 100, 80% of whom were young people who had been drawn by the preaching of the Word. Of course there are other factors but a church that has turned away from the Word of God, other than to use it as a prop for our own thoughts, or as an historical artifact which needs to be explained away; is on the road to extinction.
But the problem is even deeper than that. Even those churches which are more faithful to the Word, both within and outwith the C of S, have a tendency to just hold on and batten down the hatches. There is a lack of vision, purpose, depth, love and joy.
The Presbytery Clerk actually illustrated the problem with his final comment.
“He reflected that, now in his 60s, life has been good to and for him, but the next generation must establish for itself who will shape their philosophy and beliefs.”
That’s the problem! It’s the ‘I’m alright, Jack’ attitude combined with the laissez faire ‘anything goes’. ‘Life’s been good to me, now find your own way’, is a million miles away from Jesus’s “I am the way, the truth and the life’; or Knox’s ‘Give me Scotland or I die’! The next generation does not establish for itself who will shape their philosophy and beliefs – it’s this generation which passes on and shapes. And we have done a dreadful job of it. We have taken the riches from previous generations of the Scottish church and created a wilderness for our children! Where there is no vision the church perishes. May God have mercy on us!
(Added note: I am writing about the particular situation of the Church of Scotland in Scotland. I am aware that there are many other churches in Scotland – of many different shades – some of which are growing. Already the C of S – in terms of actual attendance has been overtaken by these other churches – many of which are evangelical – and include immigrants and young people!)
A Repeated Conversation!
You can just type in ‘Church of Scotland’, or ‘Church in Scotland’ to the search engine on this blog and you will see that for many years I have been writing about the decline of the Church of Scotland – desperately hoping that what I saw was wrong – and that my many critics would turn out to be right. When I suggested that the church was on an inevitable trajectory which would see its slow death – (or to be honest its slow suicide, because it was largely internal, rather than external, forces which were killing it) I was met with the usual ‘O troubler of Israel’ remarks and the defensiveness – especially from some evangelicals. (How can I ever forget the anonymous letter from 15 ‘evangelicals’ on the Glasgow Presbytery after I wrote about their disgraceful decision to evict the Tron from manse and church building!) . Here are a few from the past few years.
2013 – In 2013 I wrote this response to Eric Alexander’s letter saying why he was staying in the C of S (a pastoral letter which unbeknown to him was being used all over the C of S seeking to persuade evangelicals to stay in) https://theweeflea.com/2013/08/27/alexander-leaving-eric-alexander-on-leaving-the-church-of-scotland/
In 2014 we looked at the challenges facing the Church of Scotland – https://theweeflea.com/2014/10/10/the-church-in-post-referendum-scotland/
IN 2015 – Ten reasons why the Church of Scotland is in decline.
And this was for me the most revealing – https://theweeflea.com/2015/10/06/the-scottgate-tapes-a-revealing-insight-into-the-current-state-of-the-church-of-scotland/
Or this from 2016 – when the C of S permitted SSM – https://theweeflea.com/2016/05/23/a-rubicon-has-been-crossed-the-church-of-scotland-assembly-decision-on-saturday/
What struck me with this was this statement from the clerk Rev. John Chalmers: “We had a debate which made very clear that we were not interfering with our theological definition of marriage and were not going to the place where ministers or deacons could themselves conducting same sex marriages.”. Two years later the C of S went to that place as we all – including John – knew it would. Is this not just straight forward deceit. Why would we expect God to bless a church which acts like that?
2017 – Or this article on a report in The Times July 2017 – https://theweeflea.com/2017/07/03/the-decline-of-the-church-in-scotland-the-times-report-and-response/ Once again the world offered the church its advice….“If the kirk is able to push through liberalising measures such as allowing ministers to oversee same-sex marriages ceremonies, it is possible that its appeal may broaden to younger, more socially liberal Scots”. And once again the church listened – and accelerated its own demise.
Iain Montague of the Scottish Centre for Social Research suggested that by becoming more liberal in social attitudes the Church could arrest its decline. “It will be interesting to see what impact liberalising measures, such as the Church of Scotland’s efforts to allow ministers to conduct same-sex marriages, have upon these numbers in the future.”
Peter Kearney of the Catholic church had a good reply. His line “Decline is most catastrophic amongst Christian denominations who have embraced secular liberalism” . He was spot on.That’s why these three churches are ‘amalgamating’ in Dundee….
I’m not going to say ‘I told you so’. Because I didn’t. Christ told us so. Anyone who reads the Scriptures intelligently knows that whilst the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, the Bride of Christ – any local (or denominational) church which turns away from Christ and his word can expect to have their ‘lampstand’ removed (Revelation 2:5). Christ warns that lookwarm Christianity means “I will spit you out of my mouth (Revelation 3:16). We are told that those he loves he rebukes and disciplines so we have to be earnest and repent – then he will come in and sup with us. It’s not about changing our organisation – it’s something much more profound. Until the churches listen to what the Spirit says – we will continue to decline. The Church of Scotland is a sad and heartbreaking warning to us all. But new light and renewed life can come. As well as the churches in the photos above – all of which are now living and growing churches – St Catherines Argyle Church left the C of S and was turned into Chalmers Church – which is now thriving and sending Gospel workers all over Scotland….it’s not all decline!