The ordinary people now leading church services in a bid to save the Kirk

On a Sunday morning in the tiny village of Fogo in the Borders, the church service is underway. But it is not a minister leading prayers at the lectern but Dave, a boat builder and joiner.

Rev Dr Dane Sherrard, clerk to the Presbytery of Duns in the Borders, where church members are being trained to take church services to combat a drop in minister numbers.

Dave, dressed in a black shirt with a white tie, is one of many ordinary church members now involved in a radical new approach the local Presbytery believes could renew interest in the Kirk and Christianity itself. Instead of ministers, it is people like Dave who are stepping up to deliver services – and putting the future of worship in new hands.

“I don’t think people are content with sitting in a pew being spoken to by someone in a dog collar,” said Dr Rev Dane Sherrard, clerk to the Presbytery of Duns.

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“Now, we have housewives leading services, we have an ex-policeman who comes in and handles the technology and we have the owner of a haulage company who leads prayers every week. We have a taxman who has just become an elder. And, of course, we have many farmers.

"Almost a year ago, all would have said they would do anything else for the church but this. But here they are, standing up and leading services on a Sunday.”

The new approach comes as the Kirk cuts minister numbers given the large amount who are due to retire, combined with a drop in those joining the Ministry. Full-time posts will be capped at 400 by 2025 – a drop in 200 – and in this corner of the Borders, just over four full time ministers will cover 22 churches.

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Meanwhile, congregations and income continue to dwindle, with the pandemic exacerbating the ongoing decline.

Members of Fogo Parish Church meet to plan their services. PIC: Contributed.

The Kirk lost around £11.8m in 2021, largely due to a drop in donations from congregations, such as weekly plate offerings and fundraising sales, as people stayed at home during lockdown.

Crucially, every presbytery is now in the process of reviewing their church buildings – which nationally have a capitalised value of more than £500m – to determine which ones are deemed surplus to delivering mission and worship.

Those which are not in good basic condition, lack useful facilities and face unaffordable maintenance and repair costs may be closed and sold off, with Fife alone looking to dispose of around one third of its properties.

The exercise is painful for many communities, given the prospect of losing a historic building woven into the fabric of local life, memory and community.

Rev Dr Dane Sherrard at Fogo Parish Church. PIC: Contributed.

But despite the fundamental challenges facing the future of the Kirk, in Duns the new direction for worship has instilled a feeling of “liberation” – and a belief that Christianity in Scotland could be on the cusp of a renaissance as more people get directly involved in church life.

Dr Sherrard said: "A lot of us were quite nervous about it to begin with and its going to be different, but I think it could change the whole shape of Christendom in the Borders.

“It's a difficult thing for a lot of church people to take on board. A lot of church people are older people and a lot of them think ‘ can we not stick with what we have got’ to see them out.

"There will be a bit of grieving for what has come before.

Dave, a boat builder and joiner, takes to the lectern for the first time at Fogo Parish Church. PIC: Contributed.

“But over the years churches have been declining, declining, declining. If we set the churches free, there is a chance that they will be able to grow again.”

Dr Rev Susan Brown, the Queen’s Chaplain in Scotland and former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, arrived at Greenlaw Parish Church in Duns last year from Dornoch Cathedral to support congregations in this new approach to worship, which was described as “daring” by the Kirk at the time. Ministers will still deliver sacraments, such as baptisms, under the model.

On a Monday, Dr Brown, often hosts a lunch to help prepare parishioners for the following Sunday service and sometimes she will write a sermon for others to read.

Using technology brought in just before the pandemic struck, services are recorded and saved on USB sticks and shared around other churches. Sometimes, they are recorded outdoors and usually posted on You Tube.

One man watches from New York – and sent $100 to the church as a thank you. Another has joined the congregations from Switzerland, where he joins the service on his laptop.

Communities across Scotland are now anxiously waiting to hear whether their churches will be closed following the results of the property review and difficult decisions are being taken by presbyteries on an ongoing basis.

Rev Dr Susan Brown, Queen's Chaplain and former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, is now a Worship Adviser in Duns and is helping ordinary church members to lead services. PIC: Church of Scotland/Paul Campbell.

In Inverness, there were tears in the pews at the Old High Church on the banks of the River Ness, where worship has taken place for hundreds of years, during the last regular service in January, with the church now closed for financial reasons.

In Shetland, the presbytery is looking to close 20 buildings across the islands, while retaining around 12.

In Fife, the presbytery has drawn up a list of 52 churches and buildings which could close – just over a third of its property in the area.

Among them is 12th century Culross Abbey, built in the village where a Christian community, which counted St Mungo as a member, is said to have been formed. At St Fillan’s in Aberdour, a public campaign has been launched to try and save the 12th century “mini cathedral”.

Dr Sherrard said he hopes the new approach to worship in Duns might help save churches in his presbytery.

He said: “We are offering an alternative. A lot of people think that people just want to hang on to a building for some kind of sentimental reason but spirituality and Christianity is often centred in a particular place where people have worshipped for hundreds of years, where children have been baptised, where adults have learned of their faith and where loved ones have been returned to God's care.

"If it is removed and the building is closed down, very often it sends a message to everyone around that its not just a building which has been closed, but that faith itself is dead.”

He added: "I am an absolute optimist and I believe there is a renaissance in Christianity around the corner. The reality is we can feel it and we can see it in the congregation.”

Culross Abbey in Fife is one of the churches which may close under a review of church property as the Kirk looks to shed assets that face expensive repairs and maintenance costs and which are deemed surplus to requirements. PIC: CC/Kim Traynor.
St Fillans in Aberdour, Aberdour, is at risk of closure with a campaign now launched by the congregation to save the 12th Century 'mini cathedral'. PIC: Andy Hawkins/CC.

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