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The church in Scotland

May 2007 | by John Murray

If we compare the church in Scotland today with that of the 1950s we see great changes. In the postwar years, God and his Word had a central place. Membership of the national church, the Church of Scotland, stood at a record high of 1.32 million.

Family religion was strong and the Lord’s Day was widely kept, with local byelaws strengthening its observance. The Presbyterian Church in her various branches could justly claim an authority over the religious and moral life of Scotland.

However, as with the rest of the UK, the ‘swinging sixties’ dented Christianity’s dominance. After the ‘high’ of the 1950s –
boosted by the apparent success of the ‘Tell Scotland’ movement – the decline in church membership accelerated.

Since then, liberal theology has prevailed in Scotland’s divinity faculties, and prominent churchmen with heretical views have been tolerated.

Church of Scotland

The Scottish Church Census of 2002 showed that between 1994 and 2002, attendance at Sunday worship in the national church declined by 22% to 230,000. If this slide continues, says Professor Callum Brown, it will lead to the extinction of Sunday schools by 2011 and of membership by 2033.

Of the 1200 ministers in the church of Scotland today, perhaps one third would claim to be ‘evangelical’. But judging by their congregations, fewer than 5% could really be viewed as such.

The evangelical wing of the Church of Scotland, represented largely by the Crieff Fellowship, hoped to change the national church through the preaching of the Word. They failed, however, to take a united stand on the authority of Scripture against the ordination of women and now (in conjunction with ‘Forward Together’) find themselves fighting a rearguard action against the blessing of civil partnerships.

The General Assembly of 2006 voted narrowly in favour of ‘Declaratory Act anent Civil Partnerships’. The matter was sent down to presbyteries to vote on before it could become law, and Evangelicals have hailed a victory in that 36 presbyteries rejected it and only 9 voted in favour (although the overall votes cast were 1563 against and 1009 for).

Ecumenism

Meanwhile the Roman Catholic Church has declined in membership by 19% to just over 200,000 – representing 35% of Scottish churchgoers. But numbers have recently been boosted by Polish immigrants.

Leading Catholic churchmen have been outspoken against the introduction of anti-Christian legislation in the Scottish Parliament. The late Cardinal Thomas Winning was hailed as ‘the voice of Christianity in Scotland’.

Most other mainline denominations are linked with the Church of Rome in ‘Action of Churches Together in Scotland’ (ACTS). This organisation appears far more concerned with inter-faith dialogue and social issues than with the defence and propagation of the gospel.

The strongest testimony to Scotland’s Reformed heritage and the evangelical faith is found in the smaller Presbyterian churches – although they represent no more than 5% of the whole churchgoing community.

However, the large number of groups involved (Free Church of Scotland, Free Church of Scotland [Continuing], Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland [and Ulster], Associated Presbyterian Church, and Reformed Presbyterian) sadly reveals the divided nature of the Reformed cause.

Increases

On the positive side, the decline in the rural congregations of these groups is offset by some sizeable urban congregations and a few significant church plants in new areas. All these are blessed with a steady stream of young evangelical men for the ministry.

Evangelicalism is also maintained through independent Baptist, Brethren and FIEC congregations, and through some thriving denominational congregations (bordering on independency) in the cities.

In the Church of Scotland, the Tron and Sandyford Henderson churches in Glasgow, Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh, and Gilcomston church in Aberdeen, continue to flourish and have undertaken large refurbishments.

In the Scottish Episcopal tradition, St Paul’s & St George’s in Edinburgh, and St Mungo’s in Balerno, have large congregations. On the Baptist side, Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh continues to draw numbers, while congregations in Morningside and Stirling have witnessed increases.

By far the greatest numerical growth (11% according to the 2002 Census) has been in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. These are generally characterised by a seeker-sensitive approach in evangelism.

Many are well organised and have something to teach us about engaging with the local community. They demonstrate a real concern for the broken ones among society. However, doctrine tends to be sidelined and modern worship styles often become the touchstone.

Revival

Scotland stands in great need of spiritual recovery. There are large tracts of the country devoid of any evangelical witness. Ignorance of basic Christian truth is widespread and the church as a whole is failing to make an impact.

The average age of church members in the mainline denominations is quite high. Also, the nation lacks evangelical leadership. There is an absence of passion and love for the lost. But surely our greatest need is for a God-consciousness that would, by the mercy of God, presage repentance and revival.