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Why I like ministering in a secular space  

22 February 2019

Churches that are sacramental can flourish in Enlightenment-shaped societies such as Scotland, says David Chillingworth

IN HIS book Edinburgh, Alexander McCall Smith explains what lies behind the beauty that draws more than three million tourists a year to the city and, in particular, to the Georgian perfection of the New Town. It is “Acre after acre of harmonious, civil and humanely proportioned buildings. This is reason expressed in stone. This is the Scottish Enlightenment given physical form.”

He might just as well have been talking about the peculiarly embedded nature of secular society in Scotland.

Like many clergy of my generation, I seem to have spent most of my working life in a Mrs Partington-like struggle against the incoming tide of secularisation. But it is my time in Scotland which has led me to reflect on that most deeply.

For secular society in Scotland is significantly shaped by the Scottish Enlightenment. Nothing in my previous experience prepared me for that. The Scottish Enlightenment put into the DNA of Scottish society a value-system based on individualism, humanism, and rationalism. Affirmation of human reason was combined with a rejection of any authority which could not be justified by reason.

How different that was from my previous experience, which led me to see secularisation as loss — simply a phenomenon of the modern world about which one could do very little. A slow attrition in faith communities reduces numbers, increases average age, and leads to a focus more on survival than on growth. We find more elegant ways of describing it: saying that people have “lost the habit of God”.

AS I reflect, I realise that I have experienced an extraordinary range of expressions of secularisation.

By birth, I come from the small Southern Irish Protestant community. Irish Partition in 1922 took away the Britishness of my forebears, and they were “squeezed” by the overwhelming power of the Irish Catholic Church. Their carefully sustained minority status held back the tide of secularisation — even if it made the Church of Ireland a little “clubby”.

In Northern Ireland, the long years of the Troubles also held back the movement of secularisation. It was sectarianism — that toxic mix of faith and identity — which was the cause. Northern Ireland’s churches struggled bravely against it. But the “head-count” dimension of sectarianism also artificially sustained those same churches. And there was a cost. Churches that were unable to prevent themselves from being co-opted to serve the causes of identity and belonging inevitably paid a price in spiritual clarity and integrity.

When I moved to Scotland in 2005, it took me a while to understand what I was experiencing. The familiar figures were there, of course. Peter Brierley’s 2016 Scottish Church Census recorded that 7.2 per cent of the Scottish population regularly attended church, down from 17 per cent in 1984.

The minority-church status of “Piskies” — as the Scottish Episcopalians are often called in Scotland — was also familiar, and sectarianism is present in Scotland. But the secularisation is very different: not so much a loss as a puzzlingly empty space.

Other things are different, too. The Church of Scotland is the national Church, and fulfils a national position with and on behalf of Christian and other faith communities. But it is not always easy for Churches to get a hearing in the public square or to join in national debate.

Missing, too, is what one of my friends used to call “the penumbra”: that ill-defined group of people on the fuzzy edge of church membership. In Scotland, to a degree that I had not see elsewhere, you either visibly belong or you do not.


AT PRESENT, I am exercising a short-term interim ministry in an Edinburgh congregation. Secularisation has taken its toll: we are a modest congregation in a cavernous building. But I am particularly challenged by the presence of international students: young adults who come from places where secularisation is as yet unknown. They must wonder what has happened to faith communities in Scotland.

I must confess, however, that I have come to like the experience of ministering in this apparently empty conceptual space. It is largely unencumbered by nominal churchgoing or by sectarianism. Once I got used to that, I realised that I was in a place where, to a surprising degree, spirituality was alive, and people were testing faith without either guilt or sense of duty.

I have learned, too, that faith communities that could “do spirituality” could survive — and maybe even thrive — in this apparently difficult environment. People still want to pray and to learn. They explore sacramental worship in which they can “touch, taste, and feel” the presence of God.

There will never be the apparent solidity that establishment or post-establishment brings. Churches here will be a little edgy — exciting and rewarding places to be.

The Rt Revd David Chillingworth is a former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

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