How On Earth Did We Get Here? Explaining the Decline of the Scottish Church

On Easter Sunday 2017, the results of Peter Brierley’s Scottish Church Census were revealed. While everyone expected the numbers to be bad, they were perhaps not prepared for just how bad they were. For the Church Census revealed thatbetween 1986 and 2016, only thirty years, churchgoing in Scotland had fallen by 50%. Worse than that, in the fourteen years between 2002 and 2016, Church of Scotland churchgoing had fallen by 40%. These headline figures are reflected in other numbers, with rates of belief, baptisms, new members, and all other indicators showing a similar trend. The demise of the Scottish Church is precipitous, calamitous, and real.

How on earth did this happen, and who or what is to blame for it?

In his 2004 book Mission Implausible, the priest and writer Duncan McLaren lists the ‘figures of blame’ that people often identify for this disastrous decline: 

  • Popular culture, starting from the 1960s
  • Poor ministry and congregational life
  • The abandonment of tradition for the contemporary world
  • Poor PR and advertising
  • Incompetent, out of teach leaders
  • The complacent liberalism that animates much of the Church

Which of these ‘figures of blame’ do you find most plausible? We all have our pet hates (!), and they are never so visible as when we try and make sense of the mess we find ourselves in.

While he agrees with some of the usual diagnoses surrounding these ‘figures of blame’, MacLaren opts for a sociologicalapproach: massive changes in society and economy have destroyed the plausibility of the faith, and we must now restore its plausibility by adopting new patters of ministry and mission that ride the wave of these forces.

In Part I of Mission in Contemporary Scotland, I offer my own extended account of how we have reached the point where 93% of our neighbours do not regularly attend church. While acknowledging the benefits of sociology, and accepting that social forces are currently the most important factor working against us, I part from MacLaren in thinking that the activity of the Church was sometimes decisive in getting us to this state, and is holding us back in some important respects. Here is a summary of some of the varied factors in Scottish secularisation that I identify in the book:

Chapter 3 charted the disintegration of the parish state, and the secularisation of Scotland. Industrialisation, class struggle, evangelicalism and patronage all played a role in the creation of the Free Church of Scotland, which directly led to secularisation, and the replacement of the Church’s social functions by the state. This reduced the social significance of the Church, and produced the necessary conditions for a collapse in the plausibility of the faith. When added to welfare security and affluence in the mid-twentieth century, Scots became freed from their historic dependence on community and elites, and began to adopt a variety of non-religious identities.

While a whole range of factors were at work, I identify three of the factors above as being particularly crucial, including one which was – and indeed is – fully within the Church’s control, a mistake we continue to perpetrate to this day.

But what do you think? Is there one single factor you would identify as being all-important, or is it a combination? If the latter, what kind of combination? In short: how on earth did we get here?

One thought on “How On Earth Did We Get Here? Explaining the Decline of the Scottish Church

  1. I often encounter people who say ‘I’m not religious but..’ What then follows is a most profound question – one not easily answered by traditional doctrines and narratives held sacred. Put bluntly, spirituality hasn’t faded, it just doesn’t fit existing patterns of organized religion; or perhaps their stereotype of faith communities.

    To that end, I am trying to synthesis a common ground between science and belief where, at least, some elements of agreed understanding can emerge. For many young people, this means moving our Christian perspective from man (I use that word advisedly) to creation. Put bluntly their wonderment at the world vastly exceeds our capacity to explain with the theological tools we have to hand.


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