Christian Living Ethics Sex and sexuality The Church in Scotland Theology

Unless the Church of Scotland returns to the Gospel, it will die

Christian Today asked me to write this article about the C of S assembly decision.   It is different from my earlier article on the Wee Flea earlier this week.

What Happened?

After a long and protracted process which began with the Scott Rennie case in 2009, the Church of Scotland approved the solemnisation of same-sex marriages in the Church by a vote of 276 to 136 at this week’s General Assembly in Edinburgh. Ministers can now apply to be celebrants, and no one will be compelled to take part.

The Moderator, Rev Dr Ian Greenshields, explained why this had taken so long.

“The Church of Scotland is a broad church and there are diverse views on the subject of same-sex marriage among its members.”There has been a lengthy, prayerful and in-depth discussion and debate about this topic for many years at all levels of the Church to find a solution that respects diversity and values the beliefs of all.”

There was considerable concern at the beginning of this process that the evangelicals would leave. Given the decline in the Church, the Church leaders were well aware of the devastating impact this would have – so they played the long game using a mix of carrot and stick.On the one hand they appointed evangelical moderators (whose job was to ensure that the evangelicals stayed on board and ensured that there were theological commissions with evangelicals on board – although always a minority). On the other hand, they made it difficult for evangelicals to leave – for example playing hard ball over buildings and finances.

These tactics worked. Although a number of evangelicals did leave – including almost all the big evangelical congregations in the cities – there was not a mass exodus. Indeed, some evangelicals facilitated the change.

What does it mean?

The politicians approve. For example, the SNP tweeted their delight: “Congratulations to the Church of Scotland – to all those campaigners for today’s historic moment! An overwhelming majority in the General Assembly in favour of allowing ministers to conduct same-sex marriages.”

And of course, the media are on board. It is incomprehensible to most modern journalists how anyone could be opposed to same-sex marriage. To them it is like being opposed to love! The trouble is when you ask them to define ‘love’, they struggle.

The Church of Scotland is now fully on board with the progressive ‘values’ that run contemporary Scotland. This week they also passed a motion supporting the government’s ban on so called ‘conversion therapy’. It’s strange that they appear to be silent about the other great social issue currently dividing society – transgender ideology. It would be good if the Assembly told us what a woman is and acted in defence of women.

Where is the Church going?

The answer is: to extinction. The Church of Scotland has seen a fall of a third of its membership in the past decade. The Trustees report stated: “A 34 per cent reduction was seen between 2011 and 2021, with no indication of this trend reversing from 2021 congregational data.” Over the past 60 years, the Church has lost a million of the 1.3 million members it once enjoyed.

A BBC Scotland journalist suggested that the reason for this decline was because it had not accepted same-sex marriage sooner. The trouble with this description is that it is demonstrably false. Churches which are more liberal tend to decline more quickly. The work of John Hayward on Church growth modelling is fascinating.

He argues from the data that the Church of Scotland is likely to be extinct by the middle of this century. He also shows that every church that has supported progressive ideology and same-sex marriage has declined.

There are some in the Church of Scotland who know this. Rev Phil Gunn, minister of Rosskeen Parish Church in Ross-shire, asked the Assembly: “A Church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a Gospel that does not unsettle, proclaim a Word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin or a Word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed, what kind of Gospel is that?”

Unless the Church of Scotland returns to the Gospel, it will die. To some, this seems a strange statement. What does same-sex marriage have to do with the Gospel? It’s straightforward. We do not make up the Gospel. We receive it by revelation from Christ – through his word. Part of that is his teaching about marriage. When we start to dismantle that word and rearrange it according to the views of our culture, then it is not the Gospel we believe, but ourselves. When we move away from Scripture, we move away from Christ. Whenever a Church does that, it withers and dies.

When the world lauds the Church for adopting its values, it is a sign that the Church is unnecessary, irrelevant and judged by Christ. That is why observing the General Assembly this week was a bit like being at a funeral. The stench of decline and spiritual death was everywhere.

Hayward expresses it well:

“I suspect many people in the church do not support the church’s redefinition of marriage. But they do not have the power to prevent change.

“Like other older denominations, the Church of Scotland has a disconnect between its ecclesiastical leaders and its members. The former are not overly bothered by church decline. For them, the church is about politics and power, not size and conversion. The people who disagree are faced with the choice between leaving or staying in a congregation dominated by tensions between people for and against SSM.

“This is not a recipe for recovery but for accelerated decline. The future of the progressive denominations is bleak. Despite the enthusiasm of leaders for the new ideology, they face division and despondency in the church and a faster decline. The embrace of same-sex marriage is the final gasp of churches near the end of their lifecycle. Desperately sad.”


PS.   I cited John Hayward’s fascinating work in the above – not knowing that it would also be featured in todays Times – it’s good to keep ahead of the curve!



  1. Maybe it’s progress, here, with some welcome final clarity?! The cards are now down and anyone with wit [‘Whitsun-Wit’] should surely leave. The mass closure of unused CoS premises tells its own story. Sad and glad are the emotions this raises. Sad to see it-but glad at least, it’s now clear. As evangelicals we need to repent of ill treatment dished out to single or celibate people at times, plus unpleasantness towards same-sex attracted people. But are the truths of the bible and biology abundantly plain for all to see? There is a deeper deadness present in abundance, around a thinly veiled contempt for evangelism in CoS. I came across a CoS parish with no preacher on some Sundays and mentioned this to a retired preacher. Although he had completed full ministerial training the CoS parish had zero interest in a freely available evangelical, charging no fee, with decades of preaching experience and holding evangelism meetings. Last one out, turn the lights out [CoS RIP…….]

  2. I have charted a simple graph of declared members in C of S on the “x” axis with years from 2011 until 2019 on the “y” axis.
    The graph turns out to be very near a straight line decline. Extending the y axis shows membership reaching zero by about 2030 if nothing positively different happens

    1. I do a more detailed analysis. The attrition rate has flattened to 5% per year (it was increasing every year) which means the straight line turns to the bottom of a curve with 100,000 stable membership by 2040. That’s assuming they still only recruit half a member per congregation per year, which is the current situation.

      You can find a summary of my stats here:

      It is difficult to predict beyond that, but you would presumably have another fall off as the people now in their 40s and 50s died off in the 2060s. Its hard to believe they get so few responses to the gospel.

  3. 2000 years ago the equivalent might have been:

    “Congratulations to the Churches of the Roman Empire– to all those campaigners for today’s historic moment! An overwhelming majority in the church in favour of allowing ministers to conduct ceremonies of emperor worship.”

    It’s no wonder the church is declining as it brings its views and values ever closer to that of the state. There’s no reason for the church to exist if it isn’t in some way counter-cultural and doesn’t offer anything the secular world isn’t already providing.

    1. Or, to put it another way …

      “Gratulationes Ecclesiis Romani Imperii – omnibus illis expeditionibus hodierno tempore! Maioritas nimia in ecclesia permittit ministros ut caeremonias cultus imperatoris exerceant.”

    2. Or, more accurately,

      “Gratulationes Ecclesiis Romani Imperii – omnibus illis expeditionibus hodierno tempore! Maioritas nimia in ecclesia permittit ministros ut caeremonias cultus imperatoris exerceant.”

      1. The church should be preaching the word of God. Instead of going what the world is doing. God tells us its wrong to have two men or women to lie together..

  4. David, I am a retired Church of Scotland minister from Stirling and during my preaching, and in Bible study, I would often say that the Church has to ‘die on the Vine’ as we left Scripture behind. It brings me great sadness to see this become true. My calling, in later life, was to ‘preach the Word of God’ and I sought to do this in a believing and encouraging church. The statement that connected with me in John Hayward’s analysis is about ‘the disconnect between members and the ecclesiastical powers.’ I could not agree more!

    1. Brian I am sorry but I must disagree. I am not sure who you mean by ‘Ecclesiastical powers’. You will know that the Assembly Trustees are now the principal governing body within the Church, accountable of course to the GA. I declare an interest as a serving Assembly Trustee – and also, as you may know, parish minister in The Raploch (which as you will know is in Stirling). If you are trying to tell me that, because I am an AT, I am somehow now disconnected from my parishioners – come and visit us down the road here in The Raploch – one of the poorest parishes in the country, as you will know – and you will, I am sure, revise your opinion.

      1. Barry, I know Raploch very well. I was quoting John Hayward and by ‘ecclesiastical powers’ I understood this to mean those in power positions across the church who really control the church. I was on the Business Committee of Stirling Presbytery and experienced how that committee could completely control the agenda and decisions at each meeting. I was often seated with friends who were elders who would give a nod then ask me what had been decided. I don’t recall a single vote needed during my time. This is true all the way to the General Assembly, where the cohort of former moderators, among others, would ensure that the ‘right’ decision was made. The people at the top, often lawyers, are those who decide the future of the church in their image. This is the disconnect between the decision makers and the genuine people in the church.
        This is the reason for our decline. ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed bu the renewing of your mind’. Why? ‘Then you will be able to discern the will of God, His good, pleasing and perfect will’. Have we any sense of this. I think not.

      2. Barry,
        One wee correction. The ATs’ accountability is to the Lord of all Lords, and as such must be accountable for upholding the truth of His infallible, inerrant word.

      3. Larry, thank you for making that so clear. I don’t know who or what the Trustees are, but in my former professional life (IBM) it was always the case that the company would reorganise whenever it was in trouble and I feel the CofS is doing just this. There is no awareness of what the Lord is already doing, and has done, and no intention of seeking His will. Thank you again. Yours in Christ. Brian W.

    2. For some reason the blog won’t let me reply to your reply Brian so I’m replying again to the original! I certainly recognise some of what you say, but some other comments are outdated. The Assembly Trustees – the main governing body now (a big change since your day) – contains, I think, just 1 lawyer, but 4 representatives (myself included) from Priority Areas parishes – i.e. the poorest areas of Scotland. Again, I take issue with your statement that we, as members of what you term the ‘ecclesiastical powers’ are somehow ‘disconnected from our members’. Again, come along to Raploch anytime and see for yourself! And I have to say my elders never struggle to understand the business of Presbytery – indeed, some are instrumental in same.

  5. It is already dead. It is apostate and has embraced heresy. For any born again believer in the Lord Jesus Christ there is only one course of action – withdraw from iniquity (2 Tim. 2)

  6. John Hayward “argues from the data that the Church of Scotland is likely to be extinct by the middle of this century.”
    Some years ago, a senior figure in my local Church of Scotland parish said that at the current rate of decline the parish would have no members in 2050. Currently it is one of the biggest parishes in the Church of Scotland. Some of its members describe it as a “questioning parish”. I think that that means they question anything which has been believed by Christians for the past 2,000 years. Some years ago the minister attended the General Assembly and came back saying that the Kirk was still looking for a big idea.

    1. When I was a student at New College (I graduated in 1993) my colleagues who were in the C of S thought it might last long enough for them to see their pensions. That’s proving to be about right. If they were born in 1968 they will be hitting 65 in 2033. Some were obviously older, but most were mid 20s. They had a completely different view of ministry to the one I was following at the time.

  7. Just to acknowledge that things in my own backyard are far from rosy.
    John Hayward says, “The Church of England and Catholics should last until the second half of the century. However, they need to take urgent action now. Stemming losses is not enough. None of us can prevent ageing! Whatever their current denominational emphases, they should put all aside to encourage members to make new disciples who can replicate themselves. Praying for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit would not go amiss either.”
    The Catholic Church needs to take action now. Are we?
    The Catholic Church should put all aside to encourage members to make new disciples. Are we? Or are we more concerned about things like immigration and climate change?
    On the latter point, Sherry Weddell, an American Catholic, has written a book called, “Forming Intentional Disciples”. An intentional disciple is someone who goes out and finds new disciples and brings them into the Church. And this video from Ralph Martin is highly instructive:
    In this video Ralph Martin questions the Catholic Church’s post Vatican 2 pastoral strategy and says that the emphasis needs to be on calling people to repentance and seeking forgiveness for their sins.

  8. Just focusing on some of the more despondent the comments rather than the article (which is a helpful one) I do not want to criticise anyone who us despondent, but I would like to say that I don’t think that recent events mean mean that people should automatically leave the CoS. The Saducees in Jesus day were even more apostate but He attended the Synagogue largely silent for 30 years. How many Saducee sermons did He sit through? Darkness makes light shine brighter and those in the CoS who are full of God’s spirit can have the privilege of shining for Him there. There were MSM sex workers in the Temple not that long after King Solomon died, but God’s people did not set up a separate church. I am not in the CoS but I believe that our believing brothers and sisters in that denomination need our encouragement, love and support to shine for Jesus where they are rather than take the easy route out. I agree that for some it may be best for their spiritual health to leave, but others may have a clear call to stay in the CoS and be his salt and light there. Let us pray with all our might. Let us encourage ourselves as David did at Ziklag. James encourages us to look to the faith of Elijah who was just like us but full of faith. Christ HAS won the victory! We are on the winning side! Hallelujah! Let us fight on our knees.

  9. Whose gospel is it?

    Can you imagine the Royal Mail employees being allowed to alter the messages of the mail they carry, according to their own personal views, or those of the wider community they are delivering too?

    When the Courts issue a summons, should the post man/woman decide it’s not fair and change the message?

    If the Queen invites A-D to her Palace, should the post man/woman give that invite to E-F?

    As you say David, whose gospel is it? If it is the word of God, then any messenger has no right to touch that message, or it’s recipients. Jonah is an example of a man who did this, and look what happened.

    The gospel of man is no more of any value, than a postman trying to send bogus invites to the Queens jubilee, or avoid the accused from being dealt with at Court.

    The message is Gods. We are merely carriers. That’s is what a messenger, angel, evangelist is! A messenger, not an author.

  10. From my local newspaper Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald this morning –
    “ MORE than half of the Three Towns’ Church of Scotland churches are to close over the next five years, according to a mission plan drawn up by the Kirk.

    This mission plan will see them join with five other presbyteries to create the Presbytery of the South West Scotland in September 2022.

    The properties will be closing due to “a surplus of buildings” described in the plan, and the closures will lead to the union of several congregations in the area.

    The decision on which buildings should be closed was based in conjunction with ‘asset management building audits’ (AMBAs) carried out on each church”

    It’s a funny kind of mission plan that withdraws rather than go forward.

  11. Sorry for all the comments David, I should have organised my thoughts better, but as a close witness to a lot of this (I was at university with some of the main players and I worked at “121”, although that is covered by an NDA) I feel I have some colour to add to the sorry story of how things got here.

    In the early 90s sexuality and gender were not really live issues on the C of S. A few C of E women had come up to Scotland to study Divinity in order to fast track their entry to Anglican ministry when that became possible, but the gender issue really had been dealt with in the Kirk by that time. Similarly, homosexuality was briefly covered in Practical Theology classes, but it wasn’t a massive issue. Evangelicals mainly accepted the John Stott position that it was caused by a faulty relationship with a parent of the same sex, resulting in overcompensation. That’s just what most people I knew thought, and they treated it as a pastoral issue.

    What was really going on in the Kirk was a belief that “fundies” (as evangelicals were often referred to as, or even “pentys”) needed to be marginalised and encouraged to leave as it was not the church for them. I had been brought up in the Church of Scotland, but had “gone Baptist” mainly because I couldn’t envision spending my life building something that wasn’t based on communicating the gospel. Obviously, the Baptists haven’t done too well either over the past 30 years, but I hope we have communicated a bit more effectively.

    The feeling amongst my peers in the C of S was that being a Christian was about how you interpreted the “ups and downs” of life. If you were a Christian you would gain comfort from feeling that God was beside you in them. That was portrayed as the benefit of being a Christian. As it was a “positive” benefit it was more sellable than the original Gospel, which was portrayed as condemnatory and old fashioned. The problem was that along with it went the doctrine of universal salvation – that everyone was going to be forgiven by God eventually. This negated the need to be a Christian in the first place, so Christ as “the accompanied” through life became harder to sell.

    At the same time, people started having less time to commit to organisations like churches, sports clubs, musical groups, and social clubs. Only the very keen are willing to devote time to it. Not as big a problem for evangelical churches, but Liberal churches struggle with apathy.

    Then things moved into supporting the “cause of the week”. If you look at recent history, the Church of Scotland has had campaigns on long term issues that have lasted quite short periods of time. Like HIV, Climate Change, and Violence Against Women. All long term issues, with resources put in for a few years and then things shut down. That’s all public domain stuff if the lawyers are reading. It was about appearing relevant. Even the Palestinian cause has gone a bit on the wane recently if you look more closely at how they are handling it.

    As you are probably aware, the mechanics of shifting the Kirk round started with ministerial selection (selecting only enough evangelicals to cover the evangelical congregations needing ministers), church closure selection favouring churches that had well-connected elders and ministers, selecting committee members who favoured that agenda, promotion of people considered “one of us”, making all former moderators commissioners at the General Assembly and having them sit in a special area (not to be underestimated as first time Commissioners can be overwhelmed and take their advice when they speak in contentious debates ).

    There was also a “heightening” of the church: more liturgy (a lot of the key players are members of the Church Service Society), the Moderator wearing a pectoral cross (the early 2000s) and ring (1930’s but not really used until more recently). Closer relationship to government, with increased government funding of the church and staff secondment from civil service (the question of how the church can help deliver Government strategy and gain a bit of favour/cash).

    So, all of these forces wanting to change the church rose up and a lot of the evangelicals (like me) ran away! Now, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as the churches that are growing are often led by people from a C of S background, but the theological underpinnings of a lot of those new churches can be a bit shaky.

    In conclusion, what I am saying is that the sexuality issue is really secondary to this. It has been made the “cause célèbre” to make the evangelicals look out of touch, non-mainstream and worthy of condemnation. I think if we had questioned more the idea that the Christian faith is simply an optional add on life enhancement, then we might have had more success. That was probably the real battle.

    1. Gordon – do you have any sources of evidence, other than your own opinion, to back up many of the statements you have made, eg around ‘only selecting enough evangelicals etc etc’? Would be interested to see the hard facts which back up your assertions. Thanks,.

  12. John Hayward’s web pages show an interesting counterbalance. He documents the growth that came from revivals, sometimes at the darkest of times. The ongoing ordinary means of grace work is important, but surely we should also implore God for an outpouring of the Spirit in revival.

    On a sarcastic note, all is not bad news. The CofS has apologised to witches (real or imagined) so perhaps there will be a massive influx of pagan worshipers to fill their pews.

    Ian Watson made a hearfelt plea at the FCS General Assembly to CofS evangelicals, “Come and join us. You will find a welcoming spiritual home that does not compromise the truth and is growing…” I concur – there is an evangelical alternative in the Free Church of Scotland.

  13. I would imagine that at ministerial selection they will weed out those who think that homosexual conduct is unbiblical and that those engaging in it should be lovingly called to repentance. To be anti conversion therapy means that the CofS position is that it is wrong to call such to change behaviour. They did this wrt woman’s ordination. New candidates will be asked to accept the law of the church.

  14. I have just followed the link to the article in The Times (as appears at the end of the article above) and found at that moment that there were 666 comments. Now, I’m not particularly into finding significance in numerological coincidences, but to see that my own comment, warning about the spiritual death of churches that accept same-sex marriage, was the 666th was distinctly spooky. Make of that what you will.

  15. They overcame by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony”

    This Sunday I was able to share the gospel with three people over coffee following a powerful sermon on the coming of the Holy Spirit. It turned out that one was a Jew, one a Muslim and one a beggar in the street.

    I was at the assembly and was one of only four who spoke against the adoption of gay marriage, but let’s get our eyes back on our calling.

    “Go into all the world and preach the gospel.”

    I’m not a theologian, I am a theophilist.
    Let us all, ministers, elders and BScs
    (Bog Standard Christians) as I am,
    help the folk of this poor benighted nation to find the one who loves them to bits!

    It’s not rocket science.

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  18. Entering this late.

    Sad that the Lochwinnoch Church of Scotland after 2 years empty may become a community centre.
    My family left the Calder UF Church some years ago when it came out that church management had
    decided to support the neighbouring church in its struggles, and we had not been informed at the time. My thoughts were : why be drawn down trying to rescue a ‘drowning’ church. Church of Scotland had decided on the wrong path. At the time, I also worked out the kerb of decline in the Church of Scotland and compared it with the rise of the charismatic churches.
    Interestingly, a parallel can be drawn with the downfall of the SNP, which instead of concentrated on their main ‘gospel’ were influenced by the ‘Greens’ ? to support many dubious causes, without having learnt from from Labour’s past failings.

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