Graham Spiers: Death of faith exaggerated

More people attend church than most doom-mongers would have it. Picture: Toby Williams
More people attend church than most doom-mongers would have it. Picture: Toby Williams
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DESPITE the drop in believer numbers, Christian faith and practice are still an everyday part of people’s lives in Scotland, writes Graham Spiers

We are in the midst of Holy Week in Scotland. Today, even the very phrase sounds quaint and old-fashioned. Last week, when I dropped the expression casually into a conversation with a (non-religious) friend, he appeared abruptly bemused. “Holy Week?” he said. “You mean…it’s Easter?”

Pictured is a stained glass window in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, that depicts the Ascension. 14th March 2008. Picture by JANE BARLOW

Pictured is a stained glass window in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, that depicts the Ascension. 14th March 2008. Picture by JANE BARLOW

If you are devoted in any way to the Christian Church the chances are you will be setting aside some time this week to commemorate the “passion of Christ” in the build-up to Easter Sunday this weekend. For the Church around the world these are momentous days. Speaking personally, this is a meaningful time for me, when it does no harm to be reflective and ask again about faith and belief.

Yet it is pertinent to ask how relevant Easter and “the Christ event” remain for people in Scotland in 2012, especially in this age of Richard Dawkins and the so-called decline in religious observance. Does it actually mean anything to us as a nation?

I’m going to be bold here. I believe Christianity and the role of the Church are still fairly significant in the life of Scotland. Another way of putting this is, the decline of Christian faith and church-going in Scotland, while indisputable compared with previous generations, is much exaggerated. On the contrary, Christian faith and practice, so far as I can see, remain among the foremost cultural practices of our nation.

There are still over 3,000 Christian churches in Scotland. The two great denominational pillars remain the Church of Scotland and the Catholic church, but when you throw in Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, plus the “independent evangelicals” and others, you have a faith-community that in some places is thriving.

Numerous polls have been conducted over the past ten years on this subject, and it wouldn’t do to belabour them. But a recurring finding is this: roughly 10 per cent of people in Scotland say they still go to church, either regularly or semi-regularly. Think about that: around 470,000 of us in this country remain “church-going” to a degree. This is no irrelevant rump.

Some other indicators – though now I am being selective – suggest an even greater Christian leaning in Scotland. The Tearfund survey of 2007 found that up to 18 per cent of Scots felt of a mind to go to church. That survey, conducted five years ago, by definition is now a little dated, though it revealed Scotland to be proportionally the most Christian region of the UK.

Of course, there are two separate aspects here. First, there is claiming to be a Christian. Second, there is being minded-enough to go to church.

The Church in general in Scotland has been frustrated by the fact that, while our nation openly professes its faith, fewer people come through its doors. Nonetheless, when the recent Scottish Household Survey found that 57 per cent of Scots considered themselves to be Christian it reminded me again that the “death of faith” in my country was a misnomer.

The old line remains true: far more people attend church on a Sunday than go to a weekend football match. Yet if you believed the media’s stock position, religion in Scotland is dead (or dying) and football is God. This is a distortion of the truth.

And, by the way, I am principally a sportswriter who adores football.

It transpires that so-called Christian “fripperies” or hangovers from our religious past actually still have a well-merited place in our cultural routine.

For example, BBC Radio Scotland, our national broadcaster, still carries a Thought For The Day feature at around 7:25am which, while rightly giving air to other faiths, in the main is still skewed towards a Christian message.

The same applies to The Chris Evans Breakfast Show on Radio 2 and to Radio 4’s Today programme. These programmes in total are listened to by tens of millions. Some view such broadcasting interludes as quaint or even absurd, but the truth is, the BBC knows what it is doing.

Time after time it has been shown that people have a desire for spiritual reflection, and that, specifically in Scotland, the Christian church remains a main place for many people.

My experience – and I live a fairly secular life, sometimes in highly impious places – is that Christianity is alive and kicking in Scotland.

Church-life, to use another old phrase, has evolved in a fascinating way. My family happens to live in the country, and I have found that our local village church is quite the hub of the community.

It is no longer just about 11am worship on a Sunday morning, but about various other activities where friendship or fraternity are seen to thrive.

The Church in rural parts, as we have discovered, can be quite different from the city. It is a great gathering place and is very Scottish. It is communal and welcoming. It is where mums and toddlers come together regularly and get to know each other, and where the dads, sometimes a tad stiffly, hang around at the edges, more tentatively acknowledging each other before joining in.

In the countrified setting such as ours – and where there is no otherwise obvious evidence of piety – it has surprised me how “going to church” is something to be enjoyed and savoured.

In this context the theological exactitudes of faith are not primary, though nor are they ignored. Instead, the church is a glue for a community, a place for sharing and for harmony.

If that’s all it is, then it’s not so bad, is it? Faith is not just intellectual: it is emotional and social, too.

Amid such throngs you will find those who are more rigorous about their faith, its teachings and alleged truths, and that’s no bad thing, either.

The Church in Scotland, I am convinced, has survived and is in part thriving because of its great variety. It offers a place for seething fundamentalists and carefree liberals. It offers Bible-thumping preaching here and hey-ho open-mindedness there. You can go into one church and get clanging guitars and crashing tambourines, or enter another and find solemn organ-playing and weary prayer.

The Church in Scotland remains a variegated leaf, which might in part explain why it continues to defy its doubters.

The Scots as “traditionalists” also partly explains the Church’s survival. Many, to be sure, have junked this particular tradition, but plenty more Scots like it and still embrace it.

There remains a youthful influx around our churches. There is still a healthy student population that is church-bound. As for the so-called “evangelical church tradition”, which is sometimes derided for its lack of intellectual engagement, there are many such churches in Scotland which are thriving, and I for one am not going to knock them.

All this is not to avoid the complicated theology of Easter. This is not an easy topic, whether it be a myth that has been passed down, or a true and startling event which enveloped the son of a carpenter called Jesus Christ.

In Scotland, however, Easter does not deserve to be passed over as a hapless relic of the past. It remains relevant to a significant proportion of people in this country.

• Graham Spiers is a sports journalist and broadcaster