Harry Reid

The strength of the Kirk is not as a national institution. Revival lies within its congregations

IN 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.

The 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.

At 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.

By 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.

I should have seen that the general assembly, in its magnificent hall at the top of the Mound in Edinburgh – and also the Church’s grandiose administrative headquarters, in a very splendid building in George Street, Edinburgh – that both these parts of the national Kirk were built on sand.

Indeed, I’d 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.

The 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. 

Some 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.

The 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 congregational effort.

I’m sure that there are many other congregations doing similar things. I’m sure that Cairns is a thriving congregation, and I’m not saying that just because I’m 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.

This 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.

Already, 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.

This 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.

But 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 I’m assured that hardly anybody misses them).

What I’m 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?

A 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.

This 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.

To sum up: I believe the shedding of 'national church' status implies the shedding of an incubus.

This would lead to steady revival.