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A Living Church

A Living Church

Wednesday October 11

In the first of a three-part series, the Very Rev Dr John Chalmers explains why the Church of Scotland needs to reform to meet the challenges of secularism.


Last year, for the first time, the number of weddings conducted by humanist celebrants exceeded, the number conducted by Church of Scotland ministers.

Almost forty years ago, as a young minister in the west of Scotland, I could not have imagined such a sea change in society. We conducted weddings week in and week out. Ministers today are taking stalls at wedding fairs in order to offer couples an invitation to include God in the most special event of their lives; forty years ago I could not have imagined having to go to a wedding fair to encourage people to get married in Church.

The trend in relation to funerals is no less concerning, with a huge growth in the market for services conducted by non-religious celebrants. The theory here is that the celebrant will provide a tailor-made memorial built around the character of the deceased and designed with a mind to the needs of the family and friends who will be in attendance.

This, of course, is provided at a significant cost, but it includes little or no pastoral care, bereavement counselling or follow-up. This is bread and butter work for the church and we are letting ourselves down badly if we are not letting it be known that both the memory of the deceased and the needs of the family are of the utmost importance to us and that we attend to the needs of those who, after the funeral, still have a significant journey to travel.

More disturbing still are the statistics in relation to baptism. In the year that I was born there were 45,000 children baptised in the Church of Scotland, in the year that I was ordained the number was 24,000. Last year the number was down to 3,500.

People are no longer beating a track to our door and we cannot absolve ourselves from some of the blame for the way in which the rites of passage are, bit by bit, being stolen away and replaced with secular alternatives.

I sometimes wonder why we ever became a membership organisation because, the day we did, we made the church an institution to which some people belong and some people don’t, instead of the church being a living body whose edges are porous and whose doors are open to all.

We did, of course, enjoy a membership peak in the post-war decades when the membership model fitted the organisational structure of society. Nowadays the fastest growing communities are online, people are sceptical of institutions and while women and men may still be looking for an authentic spiritual dimension to their lives, by and large they are not looking to join a membership institution which does not fit the rhythm and demands of their day to day life.

It is time to think some big thoughts about who we are and what we want to be. The old Article in our constitution which expects us to provide the ordinances of religion to the people of Scotland is still relevant, but it needs to be set in a new framework.

At a national/institutional level I think that the challenge is to reframe our understanding of what it is to belong to the Church, opening ourselves to being a more inclusive and less judgemental community that isn’t defined by the number of card-carrying members. It should be a great encouragement to us that at the last census in 2011, 53.8% of Scots still identified themselves with the Christian faith and 32.4% of them identified with the Church of Scotland. They need to know that they belong even though they may not be on our books. We need to stop talking numbers and instead we need to let the people of Scotland know that they belong to God and that the church belongs to them.

The challenge at the local level is for our parish churches to become places which belong to the whole community. Our message must be that there is no ‘us’, who belong to God, and ‘them’, who don’t. There is only ‘us’, and God does not belong to any of us – we all belong to God.

In the Chalmers Lectures this year, Doug Gay said: “People in Scotland today have embarked in increasing numbers upon an unprecedented cultural experiment – the attempt to make sense of their lives without religion. Secularisation is built on the promise that we will find other ways to celebrate, to cope with suffering and death, to confront evil and to find meaning in the daily rhythms of life; other ways, apart from religion, which will bring us greater fullness of life.”

I agree with him that it is very doubtful that secularisation can make good on that promise and that we should be worried for a generation of people who have been persuaded that they can live their lives without a spiritual dimension.

So, the additional challenge for all of us is to be there for people in the highs and lows of their life-journey. In that context, the rites of passage are more important than most people realise, so, it’s time to put ourselves out there on the frontline again.

Ministers are right to take stalls at wedding fairs, to let people know that the Church is here to bring a deeper meaning to their relationships. We need to let people know that we don’t do hit and run funerals for a fee – instead, we care about the bereaved as much as we care about the memory of the ones we have lost. And we need to let people know that we are here to bless children and baptise them into the faith of Christ. It’s time to put God’s love for people before our dogmas and time to reframe those club rules which don’t apply to a living church.


The Very Rev Dr John Chalmers was Principal Clerk to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland from 2010-17, and Moderator of the General Assembly in 2014

This is an abridged version of a feature from September's Life and Work. Subscribe here.

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