A Letter to the Church of Scotland
Many historic Churches are facing closure which is a concern for all of us in the faith. Stephen Watt writes about it today. We also have a Scottish conversion story from Forres in Moray.
Dear Church of Scotland
From what I can see from an accumulation of articles and social media postings, the Church of Scotland is in the throes of closing large numbers of churches including many historic buildings. The essence of the crisis appears fairly simple. Active membership of the Church of Scotland has plummeted over the years. The Church of Scotland has inherited large numbers of buildings both from earlier periods of much larger attendance, and also from the creation and then healing of various schisms within Presbyterianism which have resulted in large numbers of buildings from the previously separate churches being found in very close proximity. With this longstanding problem increased by a precipitous drop in congregations as a result of COVID, the Church of Scotland has had to take dramatic action in order to ensure its financial viability. As is the way with many churches facing the inevitable decisions consequent upon secularisation, you have presented this in terms of increasing your missional capacity for the future. However, the underlying reality is more prosaic: the need to reduce expenditure in the face of reduced income.
I don't know what you should do about this. With an increasingly secularised Scotland, it is impossible for churches to maintain their existing buildings and other fixed costs. This is a problem common to most denominations in Scotland and not just the Church of Scotland. However, the Church of Scotland as historically the National Church has within its charge far more historic and culturally significant buildings then most other denominations within the country. And so, if you walk around Scotland just now, you'll see many redundant and increasingly neglected church buildings with the promise of many more to come. But why does this matter to someone who is not a member of your Church?
A Church of Scotland spokesman was reported as saying that the Kirk is not a ‘heritage society’. In one sense that's true: your primary task is not to look after old buildings. But in another sense, it seems wrong: if you are the inheritor of significant cultural assets you have responsibilities to those assets and to the nation of which they are an important cultural heritage whether you like it or not. Whilst I'm sure that any decisions about church closures are being made with some attempt to preserve important cultural heritage, it's hard not to conclude from the published statements I've seen that such decisions result from a contrast between a desire to preach Christ to Scotland and maintaining out of date buildings. It’s that supposed opposition between preaching Christ and the maintenance of religious heritage that I want to focus on and question here.
Aristotle in his Ethics talks about the existence of two sorts of good life: the life of contemplation of divine things and the life of political activity. He is sufficiently vague about what these both entail and the relationship between them to have generated a small industry of scholarly comment on these subjects. However, the very acknowledgement that any well-functioning society needs in some way to pay attention to the contemplation of what may also be called the permanent things is something that strikes me as both true and almost invariably overlooked in modern Scottish political discussions. Churches themselves often seem oblivious to the empirical fact of secularisation and the academic literature around it. Too often churches seem to believe that, with a bit more effort around congregational mission, a long term process of secularisation in Western Europe will suddenly be reversed. So while I understand the Church of Scotland’s focus on how you will maintain congregational life and missions to gather more into those congregations in a time of deep financial crisis, I'd like to switch my attention to how churches will relate effectively to those who are likely to remain outside the boundaries of institutionalised religion in the foreseeable future. In other words, how do churches and in this case the Church of Scotland relate to those who still feel the human call to contemplation of the permanent things or, if you prefer, spirituality, when for various reasons they find themselves unable to partake in a more structured Christian religious membership?
If you look at the state of the unchurched or ‘nones’ in post Christian Western Europe, very few of them identify with hard-line materialist atheism. Instead, many who have become estranged from formal religion have maintained an awareness of the transcendent in the form of values such as the sacred or the beautiful and pursued these through an interest in the arts, walking in nature or visiting heritage sites. One of the things so familiar in the Scottish townscape, so familiar indeed as to become almost invisible, is the presence of monumentally and architecturally striking churches even in the smallest and least attractive villages and towns. You will very often come across a number of striking church buildings towering above their neighbours with an impressive spire or tower. If nothing else, the abandonment and demolition of such buildings would impoverish our architectural environment: we will see less beauty. We will also lose that daily contact with how our ancestors struggled with the permanent things reflected in these buildings. So apart from beauty and monumentality in the service of spiritual values rather than the towers of glass representing the financial services industry, a great deal of the church architecture of Scotland embodies the virtue of pietas or piety which is the respect owed from one generation to its predecessors and their values.
Whilst there is a great deal more to be said about the nature of these transcendent values, enough have been sketched out here to explain at least initially what might be lost if, as seems almost certain, there is a massive abandonment of church buildings within a very short frame of time. In essence this will be a public performance of a denial of interest in contemplation and spirituality that neither represents the reality of secularised Scotland nor an aspiration the majority of Scots would endorse.
So that's the dilemma: the financial reality of the impossibility of leaving things as they are against the desirability of maintaining such buildings as a witness to spiritual values. I frankly don't know how to resolve this dilemma. Local efforts are sometimes made to retain church buildings in community use. Some buildings will survive functioning as domestic homes, carpet warehouses or some other secular function. Some will be demolished. The very least I would like is a deeper national conversation about what is happening in the face of the Church of Scotland's unilateral decision to abandon large numbers of its buildings. There is almost no reflection in political or even church spaces about what life is like in a secularised but not unspiritual Scotland. Too often such reflection as exists is dominated by Christians who are always waiting for a sudden reversal of decline or by the extreme fringes of destructive humanism which sees secularisation simply as the desirable removal of Christianity. Even for those of us who are fully committed to institutionalised religion have a stake in ensuring that the atmosphere in which we live in Scotland is one of spiritual exploration and interest in contemplation of divine things rather than one that is actively hostile to it. Given that perspective, the mission to bring people to Jesus is not easily separable from being a ‘heritage society’ when that heritage is ensuring that the permanent things of beauty, sacredness and pietas survive in a public form.
So, Church of Scotland, I sympathise with the financial dilemma you’re in. But if you claim to be the National Church, you need to act more as the trustee of our built spiritual heritage rather than as the organisers of a closing down sale.
With best wishes
The most comprehensive article on the position in the whole of Scotland I have found is:
Dick Sandra. ‘Dwindling congregations leave Church of Scotland with a different mission’, The Herald, 10 December 2022. (Available online: https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-herald-1130/20221210/281956021824947 )
An online search will quickly bring up a host of articles on local closures. For example:
Clarke, Debbie. ‘Save our churches: campaigns launched after closure threat hangs over 50 Fife buildings’, Fife Today, 28 April 2022. (Available online: https://www.fifetoday.co.uk/news/people/save-our-churches-campaigns-launched-after-closure-threat-hangs-over-50-fife-buildings-3671226 )
A Scottish Conversion Story
Connor Stephen recounts his journey of faith, from New Atheism through neo-paganism and finally into the Catholic Church.
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