Leader: Kirk must not despair at modern decline

A worshipper in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh. Photograph: Neil Hanna
A worshipper in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh. Photograph: Neil Hanna
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Headlines proclaiming that Christianity is in crisis are nothing new, but the sharp decline in affiliation to Scotland’s biggest church, the Church of Scotland, is genuine cause for the organisation to fear for its future.

The Catholic Church has suggested it could usurp the Kirk in terms of numbers in just seven years. Until now, the suggestion of such a prospect would have been ridiculous. But although the timescale may be longer, it is possible that demographics will indeed produce that outcome.

It should be of little comfort to the Catholic Church that it could overtake the Church of Scotland, because that process would be the result of an increasing secularisation of society, rather than any advances made in the name of Catholicism. If anything, the Catholic Church has been fortunate to have its own numbers shored up by immigration.

How can any church halt this decline? The Very Rev Lorna Hood, a former moderator, admits they don’t know the answer.

The difficulty is that there may not be one.

Societal change is an irresistible force, and although churches may act progressively to move with the times, and adopt increasingly liberal policies, this is not a tide they can turn.

But while numbers of churchgoers have diminished, they are not negligible. These organisations remain significant despite some wanting them banished, and although there needs to be a reassessment of the level of representation the bodies merit, it would be a mistake to consider them irrelevant. That day might come, but it is not now.

Today, the churches can try to broaden their reach, but they have to adapt to reality and accept that numbers will continue to fall. There is nothing to be gained from living in a perpetual sense of crisis over historical statistical comparison.

Churches can look to the future, but they cannot turn back the clock.