Is the Church of Scotland in terminal decline?

Church of Scotland Assembly Hall

I suppose it is a good thing that most modern denominations now have press officers and issue press releases. It helps keep the church in the news, after all. But we also run the danger of 'spin'. It's hard to be a prophet in the land of spin. I wonder if sometimes the church makes an enormous mistake when we try to spin bad news as good news.

This week the Church of Scotland released its 'Blue Book' –  a 428-page book of papers for the General Assembly. It contains some good things, but the picture it offers of the Church is of one in serious decline.

1. Membership is down 16,000 to 380,000.

2. Number of ministers is down from 940 in 2009 to 811 in 2014.

3. The Church expects to be at least 200 parish ministers short by the 2020s, even with declining congregations.

4. The act re-allowing ministers to depart from the 'official' stance and practice on same-sex partnerships has been passed by Presbyteries and will become law at this Assembly.

I was asked by the Scottish press to comment and I did, pointing out the facts above. Of course the Church of Scotland was asked to respond and the Principal Clerk's office said: "The gloomy picture painted by the Free Church bears little relation to reality. The official membership of the Church of Scotland has gently declined by 16,000 in the course of a year. It is a similar picture in many other mainstream churches. However, with approaching 400,000 members, the Church of Scotland remains one of Scotland's largest and most robust organisations.

"Moreover without ever registering as members, countless thousands of Scots attend church services and are committed participants in church initiatives such as food banks. As regards ministers, 20 out of 800 have left because the church is considering allowing congregations the option of selecting a minister who is in a same sex relationship. It is a cause of sadness when a minister leaves but the church continues in its work and service."

Rev Peter Donald, minister at Crown Church of Scotland in Inverness, said: "Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but a harsh condemnation of a sister church is not entirely helpful."

It is the lack of realism (while claiming the facts "bear little relation to reality") in the official responses that jar. Losing 16,000 members per year 40 churches per year; 16,000 members per year; 879 elders per year; 25 ministers per year, is not "gently declining". Its free fall. By any standards. To try to spin the whole issue by stating that there are thousands who are not registered as members who attend services is the kind of spin that qualifies as deceit. Of course it is true that there are thousands throughout the land who attend the Church who are not members, but there are hundreds of thousands who are registered as members who do not attend. One minister told me of a church he visited with more than 2,000 members on the books, which had an attendance of 25! While that is an extreme, it is doubtful whether even one third of the memberships actually regularly attend services. The situation is worse than the figures portray.

There was on average last year only around one profession of faith per congregation, and two new members by certificate. Yet there were three removals by certificate, ten by death and seven "for other reasons". To put it another way, on average, each Church of Scotland congregation gained three members but lost twenty. For every person who became a member of the Church of Scotland by profession of faith in Christ, ten existing members died. The Church of Scotland is literally dying. And the leadership seems to want it to go "gently into the night".

My comments were not a "harsh condemnation" but a realistic appraisal, without a hint of schadenfreude. Thankfully there are those within the Church of Scotland who recognise the situation and who want to do something about it. Rev Alan McWIlliam, a key leader in CLAN stated, "Sadly this is a fair and measured comment by David on the state of the Church of Scotland."

As a minister in the Free Church I have no desire for the Church of Scotland to decline. I want it to flourish and prosper but right now its decline seems terminal and the whole church in the UK should be concerned and pray. I pray that the Church of Scotland will be renewed and revitalized and that these figures will be reversed. I long for the day when we can say that for every member of the Church who dies, ten are being added through the new birth.

The rest of the Church needs to learn from what is happening north of the border. I believe that the Church of Scotland is declining numerically primarily because it is in a theological and moral decline. Only the robust biblical faith of our Reformation forefathers will be able to stand, and flourish, in today's secular culture.

For example, on the question of same-sex partnerships, the 'Blue Book' shows a Church which is hopelessly confused as it attempts to balance on the one hand those who uphold the traditional biblical Christian teaching, with, on the other, those who just want to go along with the spirit of the age, and ignore the teachings of Christ. To claim that the Church upholds the traditional view on same-sex partnerships, but will allow its office bearers to 'depart' from that, is as stupid as it is suicidal. To declare that same-sex marriage is not marriage, and then allow ministers who are living in a sexual relationship outside marriage, to continue as ministers, is as far removed from the Reformed standards of the Church, as it is possible to be. The Church of Scotland is in danger of not only abandoning the faith of its forefathers, but also the faith of Christ. Until she repents and turns, then she cannot expect His blessing.

We need prophets not spin doctors. We need Christians who will have the love and guts to speak the Word of the Lord into a culture that rejects it because it does not like what it has not heard. To paraphrase – the wages of spin is death, but the gift of God (the Good News of Christ proclaimed faithfully) is eternal life. May the Lord grant repentance, renewal, reformation and revival.

Rev David Robertson will become the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland in May.