Michael Gray: How can the Kirk bring itself back from the dead?
MAY 19TH, 2015 – 12:30 AM. The National newspaper
THE General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was once as close as it got to a Scottish parliament. As the assembly meets this week, times have certainly changed.
Relevance, it seems, is in short supply for organised religion. The national church – for all its significance to old, civic Scotland – is suffering a deep decline in membership and in ministers.
It’s a lack of youth that’s the problem. Believers pass on faster than the newly born can be converted. That trend doesn’t end well.
I remember my own ritual trips to local Kirks. My parents – less inclined to the CoS than their own – allowed our grandparents to give us a taste of faith.
I remember the awkward bonding sessions at “Sunday school”: the Bible stories and strangers frothing together in a strange faith-based experiment.
Then – after you were promoted – there were the cold, grey halls. Those five times my age huddled in dignified silence as words rained down from the lectern. The drone of the organ was followed by the congregation. At least they had music and biscuits.
The order, community and gentle sense of purpose was comforting to church regulars. For a young person, however, is was restrictive and all a bit stuffy. Can you really have authorised fun in the name of God?
It’s one of the reasons I doubt the church can avoid slipping slowly into terminal decline.
The assembly is attempting a “rebrand” to cross this generational divide. But the trends aren’t isolated to Scotland. Across Europe, we’re losing our religion.
Science has risen. Why seek knowledge from ancient, narrow scriptures, when vast digital encyclopaedias spring up by the gigabyte?
Authority has changed. Rampant individualism means – for better and worse – that we determine our own lives and priorities.
And Scotland is now a secular and multi-faith nation. Religion no longer has a Christian monopoly.
Change wasn’t within church control, yet it has now left organised religion looking less relevant to young people.
The church should be commended for its work on social justice, democracy and disarmament – but that doesn’t articulate a purpose for religion and scripture.
This change is not sudden. David Hume, famously, was a sceptic of religion. Karl Marx, father of communism, was even more scathing.
He described religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions … the opium of the people.”
The direction of modern Scotland suggests that in the face of change the old national church will struggle to stage its own resurrection.