IT is an institution which once formed the bedrock of the nation and could command the attention of tens of thousands through its proclamations from the pulpit.
But now the Church of Scotland‘s declining influence has been revealed in fresh figures which show it is losing vast amounts of money each year and struggling to hold onto congregations.
Kirk leaders are preparing a radical shake-up which could see parishes merged and individual Ministers covering a wider area than ever before, while positions could be cut to save costs.
Two reports are due to go before the General Assembly, which opens on Saturday in Edinburgh, proposing significant reform to the structure and organisation of the Kirk, including potential job losses – though that they may be offset by congregations adding staff at local level.
The General Assembly in 2018
A Church of Scotland spokesman said:
“Throughout its history, the Church of Scotland is always changing and reforming.
“Last year the General Assembly instructed the Council of Assembly to bring proposals to the 2019 General Assembly to help the Church meet the demands of mission in the 21st century.
“Over the last number of years we have recognised that to carry out this mission effectively we need, amongst other things, different governing structures, different buildings and different types of ministry from those that have served us well in the past.”
It has emerged that the The Church of Scotland lost £4.5m last year, while congregations have been declining for decades.
The Kirk has lost 80 per cent of parishioners since the 1950s, and the number attending services continues to dwindle by roughly 4 per cent a year — the equivalent of more than 100 people a week.
Overall, membership of the church has fallen by almost 20 per cent in five years, from 413,000 in 2011 to 336,000 at the end of 2017.
This comes against a backdrop of Christianity itself falling away in Scotland, with only seven per cent of Scots attending church according to a 2017 survey.
The Scottish Church Census found a record low of just 390,000 people now go to Sunday services, down from 854,000 in 1984, when records began.
Last year, a report for the General Assembly laid out the challenges facing the Church of Scotland in stark terms, warning that young people were turning their backs on organised religion.
“There are missing generations in congregations. Not only do we have very few children compared to 10 years ago, or similarly young people (under 25s), the number of folks in their 30s and 40s is also very small.
“Given that the majority of those attending Church are over 60, these missing generations pose a real challenge to the very existence of the Church.
“We cannot afford to ignore this and fail to produce a plan to address it.”
Various plans have been suggested to reverse the decline, or at least stabilise the Kirk’s finances and position, with the latest being to merge presbyteries and cut administrative costs by nearly a third in an effort to safeguard the future of the Church.
Churchgoers on Shetland have already experienced a version of this contraction of services, after the Kirk decided to close 20 churches, with residents of islands including Foula and Fair Isle having to take a ferry or plane to attend services.
Plans for the islands offer a hint at how the larger presbyteries might operate: 13 local parishes became one, with three ministers and four more ministry staff.
However, previous attempts to create larger presbyteries have been rejected by the assembly.
A report from a special commission reviewing Kirk structures and recommending improvements will be debated next Monday.
There was a “disturbing lack of concern to curb and control expenditure”, the commission found, and an “inefficient use of scarce resources”.
After leaving secular employment, many ministry candidates were still forced to take out student loans to train, the report noted.
A second report, the Radical Action Plan, aims to build up a £25 million growth fund over seven years to secure the Kirk’s future.
Local churches would use it to develop “new ways of doing church” as it seeks to remain relevant to Scots.
The same proposals would reform the traditional Kirk Session, the councils which oversee churches at parish level.
One in six congregants serves on a session, compared with about one in 100 a century ago, thanks to a decline in membership and demographic changes.
Elders are appointed to sessions for life – something, the report says, that is an unappealing prospect for younger Kirk members. The assembly will consider bringing in shorter terms, and slimming down sessions to a more proportionate level.
The church spokesman added:
“The Radical Action Plan and the Special Commission report are aimed at ensuring our structures, first and foremost, support the local church.
“The proposals are designed to encourage growth across the country whilst reducing our central and national costs.”
Written by: Jody Harrison
First published 15.05.19: