The Church of Scotland has disclosed that it will close hundreds of churches in the coming years.
The Kirk’s trustees of the church gave the warning as it prepares for its annual General Assembly.
The Kirk’s trustees have warned as it prepares for its annual General Assembly.
Gathering of Kirk leaders begins on Saturday in Edinburgh, Scotland, against a continuing backdrop of falling membership and dwindling income.
A report going before the Assembly this week states that about 60,000 people worship in person on a Sunday, compared to 88,000 pre-pandemic, with a growing number of people choosing to worship online or in “other ways.”
The Kirk said having more than 1,000 churches to cater for the number of people attending was “simply untenable and unsustainable.”
Reverend David Cameron, a parish minister and the convener of the Assembly Trustees, will the present the report.
He said closing churches was a painful but necessary exercise.
“We feel first hand what it means to people when they’ve gone to their local church, they’ve got married there, they’ve had their children baptised there, and they’ve buried their loved ones from there.
“We recognise the real sorrow but we do have to rationalise our buildings in an appropriate way,” Cameron said.
The Church of Scotland in numbers
According to 2021 numbers, the church has 283,600 members – down from a peak of 1.3 million members in the late 1950s.
About 60,000 worship in person on a Sunday – down from 88,000 pre-COVID.
About 45,000 people now worship online and 8,275 in “other ways”.
Each church averages just one wedding and one baptism per year – about 1,200 in total.There were 50,000 per year in the late 1950s.
There were 430 professions of faith in 2021 (sometimes referred to as confirmation), compared with 40,000 at the peak of new members in the 1930s.
The average age of those attending church is 62.
Reverend Cameron added that the Church of Scotland wanted its members to look with hope to the future.
He said: “Some churches will close but that will release a burden on many people, where there are only maybe 30 people there and of a generation that’s now maybe finding it more difficult to manage.
“Uniting congregations brings a new lease of life and a new energy, and looking to the future in a way that’s much more hopeful than trying to maintain the portfolio of property that we currently do.”
The trustees said another problem is a lack of ministers, with more vacancies than ever before.
The vast majority of ministers are over the age of 50 and could retire in the next 10 years.
The church said this was putting lots of pressure on existing ministers to cover vacant parishes in addition to their own.
St Kentigern’s in Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire, has been without a full-time minister for more than seven years.
As in other parishes, members of the congregation have taken on some of the roles of the minister.
Reverend Grant Barclay,who was the last minister at St Kentigern’s, said more lay people being need to be involved.
“Perhaps the job of ministry now is to encourage very many more people who thought their role was to sit in the pew to be up and take an active part in the whole work of the church, in worship-leading and preaching and in visiting people pastorally.
“The main difficulty we have is that people aren’t coming forward and offering themselves for ministry, and even if they did the church might find it difficult in years to come to pay for them.
“So there’s that double bind – a lack of people now and the potential lack of finances to pay for them in the future,” Barclay said.
But as churches close, the Kirk is looking for alternative places and ways to reach out into communities.
At the Gyle shopping centre in Edinburgh, the Church of Scotland now has a space where people can hold meetings and come for advice or company.
The local Church of Scotland is the Old Parish at Corstorphine, where the minister is Reverend Moira McDonald.
She said having this space recognised the changes in society.
“It’s about the church understanding what our role is.
“It says ‘we’re here to serve the community,'” she said.
But McDonald said: “Our church is at one end of the parish and this is at the other end of the parish where people do different things.
“And the days of coming to church at half past ten or eleven o’clock in the morning one day a week, and the one-size fits all, that’s well in the past so we’re just kind of catching up with how life is.”
Chaplain Esther Elliott said it might not be the type of church we are used to but if fulfils a similar role.
“It gives a physical presence in a space where there are already relationships.
“People come here to share their concerns, to share the good things in life and or share the quite horrible things of life as well.
“They come here to get support and information and to learn as well, which is really the task of the local church building,” she said.
There will be some difficult conversations here at the General Assembly in the coming days about the future of the Church of Scotland.
Presbyteries have until 2025 to decide which churches will close, as the Kirk continues to look for new places and ways to work.