Insight: ‘Can you imagine the country without its Kirk?’

A worshipper in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh. Photograph: Neil Hanna
A worshipper in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh. Photograph: Neil Hanna
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ALREADY facing relegation to second place, the Church of Scotland is asking how it can avoid sleepwalking to oblivion, writes Dani Garavelli

When the Very Rev Dr Lorna Hood became minister of Renfrew North parish church 38 years ago, she had to fight more than 33 other applicants for the post; back then, the Sunday school children would take up the whole central section of the building and sometimes spill over into the gallery.

The Very Rev Dr Lorna Hood would like to see more children coming to church. Photograph: John Devlin

The Very Rev Dr Lorna Hood would like to see more children coming to church. Photograph: John Devlin

By the time she retired last year, the Kirk was struggling to find new clergy to fill vacancies, with parishes regularly left rudderless for two or three years. In Renfrew North, which is still looking for a replacement, the Sunday school children filled only seven or eight pews; yet that was busy compared with some parishes which struggled to reach double figures.

“I suppose having been moderator and then having retired and had the opportunity to go round different churches doing supply, you do realise the precarious nature of many of our congregations that are small and elderly,” says Hood.

“For me the big issue is the lack of children – I just don’t see enough happening to capture our young people. In the early days, when I was a chaplain going into schools, I would say: ‘Today, we are going to talk about the Good Samaritan,’ and everybody would know what I was talking about. Now, they would look at me blankly. We are losing our heritage, the stories of our faith.”

When Hood started out, there was also the youth fellowship, where young people would meet to talk about life and faith. “It was the best dating agency,” laughs Hood. “We didn’t need Match.com and Tinder back then. But nowadays people don’t want to sit around in a draughty church hall when they could be at home or in a bar or a club.

People are much less loyal and more willing to walk away from something that doesn’t give them what they need

“Life has changed, but we haven’t really changed. We are still stuck in the same way of doing things. And it’s depressing because you don’t know the answer.”

Hood is not the only one downbeat about the future of the Kirk. Last week, another former moderator, Albert Bogle, suggested it could easily be “sleepwalking into oblivion”.

“A great cultural tsunami has turned the social and spiritual landscape of church life, certainly in the western world, on its edge,” he wrote in the church’s house magazine, Life and Work.

Christianity is in a state of crisis in Scotland. After centuries of fighting off persecution, all denominations are now faced with a tougher enemy: apathy.

A Messy Church event at Coldingham and St Abbs.

A Messy Church event at Coldingham and St Abbs.

Secularisation, combined with a backlash over sexual scandals, means it is harder for all denominations to keep existing members and attract new ones.

According to the last Scottish Church Census, the number of regular church-goers across the country has more than halved from 854,000 to 390,000 (just 7 per cent of the population) since 1984, when records began.

Two-fifths of Scottish churchgoers are over 65 and, though the rate of decline has slowed, it is predicted the number of regular worshippers will drop by a further 100,000 in the next eight years.

Meanwhile, Christian denominations are also under pressure from humanists, who have turned atheism into an ideology. The organisation now has 14,000 members in Scotland, and is stealing a march when it comes to christenings (or naming ceremonies), weddings and funerals.

Mass with Bishop John Keenan and Father Joseph Burke by the Mercy Bus, at Paisley Cross Cenotaph. Photograph: Paul McSherry

Mass with Bishop John Keenan and Father Joseph Burke by the Mercy Bus, at Paisley Cross Cenotaph. Photograph: Paul McSherry

Within this landscape of general decline, the Church of Scotland is faring particularly badly. Last week, the Scottish Household Survey showed that while the percentage of Scots saying they were Catholic had gone down by just one per cent (15 per cent to 14 per cent) since 2009, the proportion who declared themselves affiliated to the Church of Scotland had decreased from 34 per cent to 24 per cent, leading the Catholic Church to forecast that in seven years it would have overtaken the Kirk as the country’s most popular religion.

According to Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and sociology of religion at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, there are two main factors behind the Catholic Church’s relative stability.

First, those brought up within the RC faith in Scotland are more likely to continue identifying as Catholic into adulthood, and second, it has benefited disproportionately from immigration.

“There has been a long history of tribal belonging with Catholicism, especially somewhere like Glasgow [with its history of Irish Catholic immigration],” he says.

“In addition, people from majority Catholic countries have come to Scotland in a way they haven’t from majority Church of Scotland countries. Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians are all having a fairly significant impact.”

It may also be true that the Catholic Church in Scotland is experiencing a double bounce off the back of Pope Benedict’s visit in 2010 and the popularity of his successor, Pope Francis, who has spoken out quite strongly on socio-economic inequality. In the past seven years there has been a revival in vocations with more young men becoming seminarians at the Scots College in Rome; and this year 12 new priests were ordained – a 20-year high.

Former moderator of the Church of Scotland Albert Bogle. Photograph: Ian Georgeson

Former moderator of the Church of Scotland Albert Bogle. Photograph: Ian Georgeson

Here too, the Catholic Church may benefit from being part of a global movement which is thriving in places such as Africa and South America. Clergy from other parts of the world often spend extended periods in Scottish parishes, and earlier this year, Andrew Niski, who moved to Scotland from Poland, was ordained as a priest in Inverness.

Still, it would be a hollow boast were the Catholic Church to crow about overtaking the Church of Scotland: there’s no disguising the fact that they’re both peddling outmoded wares in an ailing industry. The Catholic Church also has an ageing population and the recent influx of priests is not nearly enough to compensate for the ones who are dying or retiring.

For all Christian denominations, the biggest challenge is attracting more young people. Here, the Catholic Church has one obvious advantage: its own schools. Wherever you stand on the issue – and many vehemently oppose them – Catholic schools mean even where the parents are lapsed, children are being introduced to the faith through masses and the preparation for the sacraments.

In recent years, the Catholic Church has also introduced two Duke of Edinburgh-style schemes, with a focus on community engagement: the Pope Francis award (for Primary 7s) and the Caritas awards for sixth years.

Though a large number of teenagers do drift away, a minority stay, and, as those who stay are swimming against the cultural tide, they are likely to be more committed (and more socially conservative) than their parents.

Social media gives those young people the opportunity to communicate with others of a similar disposition; and then there are pilgrimages, such as to Lourdes, volunteering in developing countries and global congresses such as World Youth Day.

Without denominational schools, the Church of Scotland struggles to reach children in the same way. “When I was at school, you had services,” says Hood. “Now, we have accepted religion should not be practised within education because of the multicultural society we are part of. But if children are not being taught about their faith heritage at Sunday school and they’re not being taught about it at school, where is it going to come from?”

Hood says young parents are not coming to church because lifestyles have changed, with sports taking priority on a Sunday morning. “We need to make our worship more relevant to everyday life and to do other things at other times,” she says.

One of the ways the Kirk is attempting to achieve this is with Messy Church, a phenomenon that brings whole families together to express their faith through arts and crafts, games and music followed perhaps by a reading or message.

The Rev Eleanor McMahon is an interim minister sent to help congregations find a new sense of direction after the death of their own minister or following a period of conflict.

She has been involved in Messy Churches at four parishes, including the one she is based in now: Govan and Linthouse. “The millennial generation – parents in their 20s and 30s – have different life patterns. They are working, their families are more diverse, children may be away at another family at the weekend,” she says.

“Messy Church is an attempt to make church more accessible in terms of time, atmosphere and environment. They all run differently, but they are all noisy, open and welcoming. “

Many churches have also tried to keep up with advancing technology. “Gone are the days when children were handed a colouring sheet to colour in one of the Bible stories,” says Hood. “They live in an age where there are gadgets all around them – we have to adapt in order to fit into that. We see more and more churches coming to Presbytery looking for permission to put in audio visual equipment to develop their worship.”

Before she retired, Hood had plasma screens installed at Renfrew North. “We would have a family service once a month – we had a big Praise band as well – and whatever the theme was, I would try to include a wee video that they could relate to.”

Figures showing humanist wedding ceremonies are outstripping those conducted in the Church of Scotland have prompted ministers to set up stalls at wedding fairs. “I think we are showing the church is willing to be there at this important part of your life,” says Hood. “Very often people who have had a wedding in a church will come back years later and say: ‘I don’t know if you remember, but you married me. Is it OK if I come to see you?’ That’s why the Church is there: to be a servant.”

In an attempt to move away from the idea of a church as bricks and mortar, the Kirk has also appointed a number of Pioneer ministers; their job is to go into communities and engage with those who still believe but have become disconnected from their faith. In a similar vein, a Catholic Mercy Bus – with a picture of a smiling Pope Francis on the side – brought mass and confessions to towns across Scotland this summer.

These initiatives are all aimed at making churches more accessible and inclusive; yet all denominations have been split on LGBT issues, particularly same-sex marriages.

The Catholic Church has not budged from its original position, which is that, while homosexuality itself is not a sin, homosexual acts are. The Kirk is moving slowly – glacially slowly, some would say – towards allowing same-sex weddings to be conducted in church, while the Scottish Episcopal Church gave the go-ahead to same-sex weddings earlier this year (and was last week excluded from ecumenical and leadership roles in the Anglican Communion as a result).

But what impact does each denomination’s stance have on its membership? The Catholic Church believes its steadfastness/intransigence has played in its favour.

“Some people would say the Church of Scotland has moved with the times, but actually that doesn’t do you any good because the more you move with the spirit of the age the less people see that you have something unique to offer,” says Ian Dunn, the editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer. Then again, I know through personal experience that the Church’s treatment of LGBT people has driven liberal Catholics away.

Hood believes the Church of Scotland has come a long way, but still has a long way to go. “When you actually meet [LGBT] people, when some of your friends are in same-sex relationships, then that’s when the change in attitudes takes place,” she says. “One of the saddest letters I ever received was from someone in my congregation who was having a civil partnership. She said: ‘I have been part of the Church all my life, but I can’t [get married here], yet someone who doesn’t care anything about faith can walk in and have their wedding.’”

The Rev Kelvin Holdsworth, provost of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow, says he is reaping the benefits of his church’s inclusivity, as his congregation has doubled in the past ten years.

“People are searching for something that is believable and gives them inspiration. They are much less loyal and more willing to walk away from something that doesn’t give them what they need,” he says.

Holdsworth insists the more he talks about including gay people, the more young families want to bring their children to the church, so they grow up in a place where sexuality is not an issue.

As for being sanctioned by the Anglican Communion, he says it works in his favour. “The more progressive we are, the more people come,” he says. “Do you remember we had a bit of trouble when people objected to us inviting Muslims and there was a reading from the Koran? Our congregations went up by 20 per cent after that.”

Elsewhere in the world – in Africa and Latin America, for example – religion is thriving. But can Christian churches in Scotland withstand the rise of western secularisation? After all, no amount of eye-catching initiatives will win over the increasing number of people who no longer believe in God.

Dunn says the events of the past few years have made him more hopeful the Catholic Church in Scotland will still exist in 50 years’ time.

“Five or ten years ago I wouldn’t have been so sure,” he says. “I’m not trying to play down the very real problems the Catholic Church has, but I do think there is now reason for optimism.”

Hood too says she is confident the Church of Scotland is capable of weathering the storm. “It’s part of our heritage – part of the life of Scotland. Can you imagine the country without its Kirk or a place for its Kirk?

“Things will happen; things will change. In 40 years’ time, it may not be a church in the way we recognise it today – but the Kirk has overcome a lot worse over the centuries; it will overcome this.”