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Scottish Census finds ‘shoots of growth’ amid decline

21 April 2017


Young worshippers: Holy Trinity Church, Keith, Easter 2016

Young worshippers: Holy Trinity Church, Keith, Easter 2016

CHURCH congregations in Scotland are vanishing at a rate equivalent to ten a month, the 2016 Church Census suggests.

It found that 7.2 per cent of the Scottish population — about 390,000 people — attended church regularly, compared with 17 per cent in 1984. If the downward trend continued, the numbers could fall to just under 300,000 by 2025, the report’s lead researcher, Dr Peter Brierley, said.

The decline in numbers covered all denominations except Pentecostals, where attendance has almost doubled since 2002 to 19,000, accounting for five per cent of all Scottish churchgoers in 2016. And in some areas — mainly immigrant and Messy Churches that have started in the past ten years — the figures have improved. Dr Brierley said that his report was not “a pessimistic story of inevitable decline”.

More than 500 congregations had reported significant growth over the past five years, which had added 6000 people in their churches each Sunday. The census, by the Brierley Consultancy, focused on congregations rather than churches, as several church mergers had taken place without the usual closure of church buildings.

It found that more than two-fifths (42 per cent) of churchgoers were 65 or over — twice the proportion for the population. The oldest worshippers were in the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Scotland.

Four-fifths of church leaders were male, with an average age of 57, and two-fifths were responsible for more than one church, especially those in Scottish Episcopal, Church of Scotland, Methodist, and Roman Catholic Churches.

“Senior leadership will wish to consider the strategic implications of the key findings . . . and the undoubted fact that, within overall decline, there are definite shoots of growth along mostly non-traditional lines,” Dr Brierley said. “Will formality, rules, inflexible structures, resistance to innovation, tradition, and rigid denominationalism hinder these shoots of growth, or adapt to encompass them?”

The Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, said: “The challenge for faith communities in Scotland and elsewhere is to find ways in which churches can learn to survive and thrive. Social change — and the Holy Spirit — are creating a situation where the status quo is no longer a ‘safe option’, and the challenge of change is unavoidable.

“Of all the factors which have led to decline, one of the most obvious is a generational failure. The children and grandchildren of today’s churchgoers have not followed them into active membership.”

He continued: “If churches are to succeed, the way ahead will require prayerful faithfulness, with hard work and visionary and skilled leadership. Churches will look very different. Some suggest that there are particular values which will bring growth. But there is no alternative to a path of spiritual faithfulness lived with an outward-facing commitment to growth, and with integrity of life, community, and service. I believe that many congregations in the Scottish Episcopal Church are already on that journey.

“In recent times, the Scottish Episcopal Church has had a renewed focus on mission. We are developing outward-facing, welcoming, and inclusive patterns of congregational life, and offer attractive worship and engaging presentations of faith. We care for those in need, and we have a passion for justice.”

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