strength of the Kirk is not as a national institution. Revival lies within its
THE LATE 1990s some folk within the Church of Scotland predicted that, on current trends,
the Kirk would cease to exist by 2047 at the latest. Then, in 2001, I was commissioned by
the then Moderator, Dr Andrew McLellan, to write an 'Outside Verdict' on the Church of
Scotland, and its future, that would be published in book form.
book duly came out in 2002 and prompted something of a furore, not so much because I
painted a stark picture of an institution in decline, but more because many of my
proposals for revival were regarded as at best controversial and at worst downright
offensive. There followed a pleasing national debate, but this intensive discussion
produced no real residue; the whole thing petered out quickly, and very few of my
suggested remedies have been implemented.
this time I joined the Church; more to the point I joined a congregation, in central
Edinburgh. I did not realise it then, and in retrospect I think this was a major
mis-judgement in Outside Verdict, but I now understand that the Church of Scotland is the
sum of its parts.
parts, I mean in essence its congregations. I think when I wrote the book I was far too
impressed with the idea of national church, a great Scottish institution featuring a
hierarchy of courts and committees, with, at their apex, a supreme 'general assembly'
which met each year amid considerable ceremony and proceeded to legislate - yes, legislate
for this national body.
should have seen that the general assembly, in its magnificent hall at the top of the
Mound in Edinburgh and also the Churchs grandiose administrative
headquarters, in a very splendid building in George Street, Edinburgh that both
these parts of the national Kirk were built on sand.
Id now go further and suggest that the very idea of the Church of Scotland being the
national Church of Scotland has become wholly unrealistic. The real strength of our church
lies in its parishes - or, to be more accurate, its congregations. The parish has always
been important in our church but now many rural parishes are 'linked' or amalgamated
sometimes as many as four of them are fused into a curious and unlikely amalgam.
And yet many of these 'super parishes' still cannot find a minister.
position is often different in our towns and cities, in our urban conurbations and our
suburbs. Here, in many instances, the Church of Scotland is thriving. But it is thriving
locally. It is now, I believe, more than anything a network of congregations.
of these congregations achieve truly great things. For example, the congregation I joined
in 2002 organises each year a book sale for Christian Aid Week.
aim is to raise at least £100,000 each year, and for the past dozen years this ambitious
target has been met. Of course, this involves an effort that harnesses the skills and
commitment of many people beyond the congregation, but it remains, essentially, a
sure that there are many other congregations doing similar things. Im sure that
Cairns is a thriving congregation, and Im not saying that just because Im
writing this for its magazine. Indeed, my belief is that urban and suburban congregations
which are failing are exceptional, and ones that are just bumping along are in a minority.
I think there is much strength, and much success, at local level.
reality, as I see it, is particularly pertinent at the present time, when the national
church, such as it is, threatens to tear itself apart over the linked issues of gay
ministers and gay marriage. To me the solution to this is sublimely simple: Let each
congregation go its own way.
in our cities, we have 'gathered' congregations which thrive for the simple reason that
they have nothing to do with parish boundaries. A significant minority of the worshipers
are attracted to a particular church not because they live in the immediate area but
because of the minister, and/or because of the theology that is preached there, or just
because there are many like-minded and friendly folk in the congregation.
concept of a 'gathered' church is, of course, more difficult to sustain in rural areas,
where people might have to travel very considerable distances to find a minister, and a
congregation, that suited them. There must be a solution to this problem, though I have
not quite worked out what it is.
meanwhile I think the Church of Scotland should have the courage to reform and reinvent
itself as a loose federation of congregations. Where would this leave the presbyteries?
Well, are they really needed? (The synods were abolished a generation or so ago and
Im assured that hardly anybody misses them).
Im proposing would mean the Church of Scotland would find it difficult to speak to
the people of Scotland, and would find it difficult to influence policy makers and
politicians. But does anyone really think that the 'national' Kirk is managing to do this
as things stand?
final, and delicate point: If the Church of Scotland no longer sought to be a national
body, a lot of money that is raised at local level would stay at local level, to be spent
and given as the congregations themselves decided, instead of disappearing into the maw of
121 George Street.
need not imply excessive parochialism; if, for example, a congregation wanted to raise
money to send its own volunteer worker or missionary to somewhere abroad, it could of
course do so. And wealthier congregations could, if they wished, assist poorer
congregations in the vicinity.
sum up: I believe the shedding of 'national church' status implies the shedding of an
would lead to steady revival.
Reid is a former Editor of The Herald and author of several books about The Church of