Monday, July 10, 2017

What happened to the Church of Scotland?

What has happened to the Church of Scotland? I don't mean what is happening to it now, because it is obvious that whatever happened, happened years ago and just now we are seeing the effects.

A recent article from the BBC has the slightly misleading headline, "Religious affiliation in Scotland 'declines sharply'". The title explicitly points to a decrease in the number of Scots who self identify as members of a church. The apparent conclusion is that religion in general in the country is becoming less important. But if we dig into the data we get a slightly different picture.

Right off the bat the article notes that since 1999 the percentage of people reporting "no religion" has increased from 40% to 58%. This definitely makes it look like religion in general is struggling in Scotland. But not until the end of the article do we find out that as a percentage of the overall population all other religions or Christian denominations have remained constant. Within statistical uncertainty there has been no change for everyone other than the Church of Scotland (the Kirk). The entire increase in people reporting "no religion" is driven by former members of the Kirk.

It is interesting to note that while the other denominations are not picking up those leaving the Kirk, their membership is keeping pace with population growth. They may have a hard time bringing in new converts but they are not in the state of crisis seen in the Kirk. From the data the number of people who self identify as members of the Kirk has decreased by a half since 1999. If half the members of the church of Scotland chose to leave in 18 years while all other religions and denominations have continued to grow, albeit at the rate of population growth, then that indicates that there is, or was, something about the Church of Scotland that resulted in this sudden drop that was not present in other denominations and religions.

This kind of thing does not just happen overnight, or even in just a few years. In order for there to be this dramatic of a decrease over the last 20 years means that the seeds of this crisis were sown long ago. That is why at the beginning I said that it is not happening now but happened years ago.

So there was something about the culture or the teachings of the Church of Scotland that brought it to this crisis. I do not have enough insight or data to determine how it got to this point. But it is also interesting to note that there is data that shows that similar trends hold for the church of England. Since 1983 the number of people in England who self report as Anglican has dropped from 40% to 17%, while the number of non-religious has climbed from 31% to 48%. The proportion of people from other Christian denominations have remained roughly constant, with some fluctuation, but the number of non-Christians has climbed from 2% to 8%.

But this is not isolated data. I recently read an article from The West Australian entitled, "We’re losing our religion". This article followed the format set by the BBC article by noting that the number of people reporting "No Religion" has increased, but when we look at the data the same trend holds. The percentage of Anglicans has declined, while all other denominations have stayed the same (with the exception of Catholics, whose representation declined by 5% of the population).

So while there are definitely more people who self identify as having "No Religion" the vast majority have come from either the Church of Scotland or the Church of England. This massive shift in social attitudes definitely has put pressure on other denominations, but the data indicate that at least in Scotland, England and Australia, religion in general is not going away, just a particular form of it.


LL said...

I served a mission in Scotland in the late 1970's - and yes, that makes me slightly older than dirt. Yes, they did have bagpipes that far back.

I took my district to COS meetings occasionally (Oppo Research) and the six elders in the Aberdeen South District always outnumbered native Scots, to the embarrassment of the priest. So I'm going to go out on a limb and say that from a myopic perspective, they've been having membership issues for some time.

We also went to see a Billy Graham revival in Keswick, England (then part of the mission) when I served in Carlisle. We weren't all that well received by Billy but it was one of our tracking areas. Billy was preaching about angels and pointedly said that was something that Mormons knew nothing about. I found that amusing. Later, he asked the four of us how we found his sermon. I mentioned that at one point he mentioned driving down the Washington DC Beltway. I commented that if he looked up, he'd have seen an angel atop the temple.

Quantumleap42 said...

[I started typing this comment several days ago, got distracted and just got back to it.]

The data from the Church of England goes back to 1983, and even then they were losing members, so this started well before then. In the early 1900's the Church of Scotland was very active, sending missionaries all over the world. They are credited with the establishment of Christianity in many parts of Africa and other parts of the world.

But something happened. I don't know what, but ever since WWII activity and identification with the church has declined. Because the same thing is happening in other British, and British aligned countries (such as Australia and New Zealand), there was something in the culture, in the teaching, in the theology, in the general practice that lead to this.

LL said...

My sense is that the wholesale embrace of sodomy was not well received outside of the men of the cloth. The African congregations in the CofE and CofS have a different take on the subject, but Lambeth Palace and its plethora of lesbian bishops sets the standard and CofS follows in its wake.