By this they meant a trajectory towards a more ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ theology and practice. For over 20 years I have been writing about the Church of Scotland’s ‘trajectory’ – a trajectory which I believed would end up with its demise. I had thought it would be a gradual decline resulting in extinction by 2050. I was wrong. As this year’s Assembly demonstrates, the Church of Scotland has now fallen off a cliff edge and is in a state of terminal decline. It is doubtful whether it will exist in any meaningful form by 2030.
Visiting my home country this July/ August, it was depressing seeing the growing number of closed churches and the increasing irrelevance of the Kirk in modern Scotland. It all came home to me when I read the summer magazine of a once strong evangelical congregation in the city of Dundee – a city I ministered in for 27 years. The editor stated it would probably be the last as the church was going to be merged with three others to create a ‘super parish’.
The minister of another church in that same city – a church that used to be the strongest evangelical Church of Scotland – wrote in the same magazine of how his church was to be merged with five other congregations – four of which are liberal. The Presbytery of Dundee itself, which has existed for 500 years – is no more. It has been amalgamated as part of the Assemblies plans to reduce the number of presbyteries from 41 to ten.
About 30 years ago I served as an advisor on a Church of Scotland committee – as such I was often in the HQ of the CofS administration, ‘121’. I remember on one occasion a key leader telling me that the Church had no plans for growth – just managed decline. The plan worked – decline managers are the only growing ministry in the denomination.
Turning from the local parish magazine to this year’s General Assembly, the scale of the crisis becomes even more evident. The Assembly were told that: only 60,000 people now attend any Church of Scotland on a regular basis; the expenditure in the previous year was £142million, the income £110million, of which congregational contributions were only £41 million; just 44% of congregations contribute enough to pay the whole cost of their ministry; Budimir care home in Portree is set to close. The list goes on.
How did we get to this sad state of affairs? The issues are complex, but at the end of the day I would suggest three main factors.
Firstly, the Church has departed from its Biblical foundations. This year’s Assembly reported that ‘The Church of Scotland has a subordinate standard (the Westminster Confession of Faith) which many of its office holders reject, and vows which they do not understand’. I recall two Church of Scotland elders attending a course I taught on Christian theology telling me they hadn’t a clue what they were supposed to believe!
The Assembly also decided to ‘explore transgender identities within the content of the Church’s life and ministry’. This has been the pattern for decades – as Scottish society regresses back to a pre-Christian Greco/Roman paganism, the Church sets up a committee for ‘theological reflection’ and then a few years later meekly follows wherever the culture leads.
Secondly, there has been a blind lack of realism as ecclesiastical games get played and most people ignore the elephants in the room. For example, the above-mentioned parish magazine went on to spin the forced amalgamation as a cause for thankfulness and an encouragement to look forward with a sense of expectancy. Yet it is clear that this is an occasion for lament as yet more churches in effect close – in communities that really need them. The Trustees report of the General Assembly put an even more fanciful spin – ‘The Trustees are working towards readying the church for growth’. I doubt any of them really believe that. Managed decline is the best that they can aim for.
Finally, it saddens me to say that the evangelicals have facilitated this collapse. Although there are courageous exceptions, some of whom have paid a heavy price for their faithfulness; the reality is that the weakness, factionalism and lack of vision from the evangelical leadership has allowed the liberal establishment to play them like fish. Most evangelical leaders seemed more concerned about persuading other evangelicals to stay in, than they were about challenging the cancer of progressive theology which was eating up the whole church. One result is that evangelical congregations are being destroyed by forced mergers with liberal ones.
Scotland as a nation is regressing from its Christian foundations and Godly heritage, and returning to its pagan past. That is seen not just in the Church, but in societal decline across many areas. Ironically, in the name of liberalism, society is becoming more illiberal, authoritarian and intolerant. The Church of Scotland reflects this new Scotland.
But that is not the whole story. Those churches in Scotland, of all denominations, which stick with Christ and His word are a shining light in an increasing darkness. The Church of Scotland may be dying, but the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church of Christ.
I have written numerous blogs on here about the Church of Scotland – just type Church of Scotland into the search engine to get them!