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Where’s the Scottish Church?

Andy Hunter investigates the causes of spectacular spiritual decline north of the border

Andy Hunter

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photo: iStock

Christian identification in Scotland has now fallen below that in England.

From being one of the great bastions of evangelical Christianity (‘the land of the Bible’), Scotland has now overtaken England in seeing a decline in people calling themselves Christians.

According to recent figures 50.6% of the Scottish population now have no religious affiliation whatsoever, in England the figure is 43.7%. Correspondingly levels of Christian identification are now lower in Scotland than in England – 44.6% as opposed to 48.5%.

Some estimates currently put the number of conservative evangelicals in Scotland as low as 50,000 – a tiny minority of around 1% of the total population. Its white indigenous population, who in the past were the recipients of unparalleled gospel witness and blessing, are now among the most unreached and gospel resistant people groups in the world.

As one church pastor who had worked in England in the 1990s and then in Scotland in the 2000s put it, ‘When I was in England, Scotland was 10 years behind England’s decline, but now it’s 10 years behind England’s growth’.

Rapid change

Culturally Scotland has changed rapidly in recent decades. Its once white and Presbyterian dominated culture has given way to an increasingly multi-ethnic, politically liberal and secularised society. That, however, doesn’t explain why the decline in Christian identification, which for some time lagged behind England, has so significantly overtaken it. After all most of the wider cultural changes experienced in Scotland are ubiquitous in the UK. There are, however, a number of factors that may explain why the Scottish church was particularly vulnerable to experiencing such a contraction.


Scotland has an enviable record of absorbing immigrants with goodwill and generosity. People from around the world have settled in Scotland and found a home without many of the tensions and indeed conflicts that have arisen in other parts of the UK. Interestingly, however, most of Scotland’s post-war immigration has been from Asia and in particular from Muslim communities.

By contrast England, along with similar Asian immigration, also received large numbers of people from Christian (often evangel-ically Christian) cultures, especially in its Afro-Caribbean communities. So that while Scotland has an Afro-Caribbean population of under 1%, the equivalent population in England is 3.5%.

This meant that the Scottish church did not receive the same spiritual ‘shot in the arm’ from immigration in the way the English church did, nor has it benefitted from the evangelical energy and convictions often brought by such Christian ‘newcomers’.

None of this is to be negative about the immigration Scotland has had. It has largely been a great civic success. But it is a significant way by which evangelical Christianity has been boosted and its decline offset in England in contrast to Scotland.


‘Too many Protestants, too many Catholics, and not enough Christians’, was the rueful observation of one commentator on the West of Scotland. The deep sectarian division, exemplified by the worst of the Celtic and Rangers rivalry, undoubtedly had the effect of ‘poisoning the well’ of Christianity for many Scots.

Sectarianism meant that in a rapidly secularising culture ‘Christianity’ could be presented as not just irrelevant but as a real social menace – the cause of hatreds and division. The bigotry of many on both sides was ‘grist to the secular mill’ in that it could be claimed that the sooner all Christian affiliations were jettisoned the better Scottish society would be. The tragedy, however, was that few of its Saturday afternoon activists ever actually set foot in a church or chapel.

Sectarianism has been a blight on Scottish society. Its demise is something to be celebrated. The cost, however, was for the church to be regarded by many as part of a past that Scotland was all the better to leave behind.

Presbyterian fragmentation

As with divided political parties, the general public have little time for fractious churches. Schism (even when unavoidable) is always damaging to the reputation of the church and drains huge amounts of time and energy away from its ability to focus on mission.

Sadly the history of Scottish Presbyterianism has involved a succession of such splits – with each offshoot claiming to be the true ongoing ‘custodian of the truth’. While other church groupings have also been guilty of such factionalism, the difference for Presbyterianism is that it prided itself in being the ‘national face’ of the church in Scotland.

Scotland consequently has had a ‘national church system’ marked by successive divisions for over a century. The physical expression of this is the multiplicity of Presbyterian

churches vying against each other in even the smallest Scottish towns. Contrastingly its national counterpart in England has shown, for better or worse, a remarkable capacity to hold itself together.

Even if England should see the ‘national face’ of its church breaking-up, it will have the advantage of Christianity being less tainted by such ‘national level’ church schism than in Scotland.

Lack of independent churches

The dominance of Reformed Presbyterianism and a more theologically conservative culture across Scottish denominations meant there was historically less cause for large numbers of autonomous evangelical churches in Scotland. Whereas some Independent chapels in England can trace their origins back to the 17th century, the first notable Congregationalist (Independent) churches didn’t register in Scotland until the 18th century. Indeed it wasn’t until the early 19th century before such churches became established in any noticeable numbers in Scotland .

The significance of this for church growth is that larger institutions (including church denominations) have a tendency to become less effective over time. The pull in such bodies, religious or otherwise, is often to become inward looking, self-protective and attractive to people looking for security rather than challenge. Within Scottish denominations there have been many praiseworthy exceptions – men and women who have been shining examples of gospel passion and vision. However, the sociological fact remains that large organisational structures as a whole tend towards atrophy.

Thus the historian Rodney Stark, in examining the high level of Christian identification in the USA, argues the lack of such establishment Christianity in the ‘New World’ instilled a need for churches there to be much more driven in seeking growth. In such an environment each local church (and its pastor) ‘stands or falls’ on the basis of the people reached and gathered. Thus the spiritual impetus across all churches to evangelise is augmented in Independent churches with a pressing pragmatic edge.

Consequently Scotland has not had England’s historical advantage in having the same level of self-starting, culturally flexible and missionally-urgent churches that a larger Independent constituency provides.

Reasons to be hopeful

There are however, signs that many of these weaknesses are being addressed and thus reasons for renewed hope.

Immigration patterns into Scotland are changing with increasing numbers now coming from ‘Christian backgrounds’. The sharp rise in the numbers of ethnically diverse churches is a clear sign of that.

Sectarianism is slowly being squeezed out. This change is good for civic society but is also freeing the church from many of its past toxic associations.

The second largest Presbyterian denomination the ‘Free Church of Scotland’ is growing and giving Presbyterianism a clear national voice again in Scotland for the gospel.

Finally, the number of Independent churches is growing – some coming out of denominations, some new church plants, others being founded by the Scotland’s new immigrant communities. Each one, along with existing Independent churches, having the grassroots flexibility, impetus and necessity to adapt itself to the task of engaging the great unreached mission field that Scotland has now become.

Andy Hunter is the Scotland Director for FIEC. You can read an extended version of this article on Andy Hunter’s blog at http://andyatgreenview.blogspot.co.uk/