In yesterday's Sunday Times and on BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme today the Most Rev David Chillingworth, Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church spoke of his support.

Church can survive and thrive

August 4, 2013

Writing in The Sunday Times yesterday the Most Rev David Chillingworth, Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church says:

I serve as bishop in the Diocese of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane and as the Primus, the ‘first among equals’ of our seven bishops.

I have been a full time priest or minister now for 36 years in Northern Ireland and in Scotland. I am more positive and hopeful now than I have ever been about the church and its future. Our society may be secular – but people are looking for the answers to deep questions about life and they want to experience spirituality.

In the Scottish Episcopal Church we are fortunate. We are able to be flexible and innovative. So right across Scotland we are developing patterns of church life which provide a ‘way in’ for people who have lost their traditional church membership and want to explore faith in a new way,

Last week’s article on falling patterns of membership and church attendance in Scotland’s churches gave the other side of other story. Secularisation is merciless in its effect on churches. It will erode to vanishing point churches which operate in traditional ways and cannot adapt. It challenges the mindset of ‘as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be.’

But I believe that secularisation also presents a positive challenge for churches. It encourages us to develop church communities of new quality – disciples who are deeply engaged with their faith and not just of members who belong. It will be good for churches and good for faith.

Let me surprise you first by saying that I am a supporter of secular society. My family roots are in the beginnings of what has become the Irish Republic. In the early years of the last century, Ireland was what some have called a confessional or theocratic state.

The Catholic Church exercised an undue influence on the way in which government approached matters of social and moral legislation. The modern secular state is a safer place – it allows space for a proper separation of legislature, judiciary and church. In my view, there is then room for a proper relationship between church and state. The state should be the guardian and protector of religious freedom but it should not defer to religion.

Last week’s article treated secularisation as if it was a single phenomenon. But it’s much more subtle and complex than that. It is actually a sort of ‘double whammy’ – let me explain what I mean.

First it isn’t just about churches. Secularisation – or factors akin to it – affects all organisations which depend on voluntary commitment. Political parties find it hard to build membership. Voluntary organisations find it harder to attract committed volunteers. We are becoming more individualistic, less communitarian, less committed to dreams, visions and ideas.

People are no less good, kind or caring. But we seem to have a weaker sense of being part of one community and ‘all in this together’. The society which is emerging is not a good place to be. I find aspects of our present political discourse appalling. Social policy seems to be designed to harass those whom government chooses to view as the undeserving poor. Our view of political choices sees things through the lens of ‘how does this affect me’. This is not just secular. It is arid. It needs the contribution of churches to bring vision, hope, care and compassion.

But secularisation is of course also about a collapse of faith – certainly a collapse of traditional and conventional church-going faith. The common language of faith has gone – people are sometimes said to have ‘lost the habit of God’. They have more choices – so faith becomes one option among many. There is the insidious suggestion that, ‘there is nothing more than what you can see and touch.’ Mystery and transcendence – other dimensions of hope, possibility and experience are relentlessly squeezed out.

There is one more important aspect of understanding secularisation in Scotland. Scotland’s secular society has its roots in the Scottish Enlightenment which implanted in the Scottish psyche patterns of thought based on rationalism and individualism.

To that is added the impact of the Scottish Reformation. The fiery gospel which John Knox preached at St John’s Kirk in Perth was also individualistic and rational. Put the two together and you have a breeding ground for what we know as the secular society today.

My impression of Ireland is that the decline of the Irish Catholic Church – characterised more by community than individualism and by experience more than by rationalism – leaves behind a deposit of values and community cohesion. The decline of churches in Scotland – particularly the Church of Scotland – leaves behind it simply an empty space.

The effect of all this on churches is dramatic. What worked in the previous generation suddenly no longer works. There is frustration and blaming. Churches lose their sense of where they are going. In the middle of the last century, some of the leadership of the Scottish Episcopal Church began to believe that our church would not survive their time. They began to dispose of the buildings of our church. Churches and rectories were sold. Where we are now expanding, we desperately need those buildings.

So is there a future for churches today? I believe that there is and that churches can survive and even thrive in this challenging environment.

In the new diversity of our society, we are engaging with other faiths – and being enriched. We are challenged by changing patterns and values. We are guardians of a historic tradition of faith. But we also need to respond to change with openness and compassion. That’s the root of the dilemma which faces all faith traditions as they address issues like same sex marriage.

In the Scottish Episcopal Church we have been experimenting with new models of church life and membership. Essentially we are recognising that we need to move from a model based on membership to one which is based on discipleship. We are having some success in doing that. In my own diocesan area of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane, we reported a slight increase in numbers in 2012 and a slight decrease in 2013.

Our Casting the Net initiative is transforming and encouraging congregations. Some are growing while others are shrinking. Across the Scottish Episcopal Church, our bishops see themselves as ‘leaders of mission’ rather than as managers of an institution. We are creating a narrative of growth and possibility for a changing church – rather than being obsessed and troubled by a narrative of institutional decline.

The last couple of weeks have seen the arrival of both Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby. Both seem poised to offer their churches robust and creative leadership. Both seem to understand that today’s society is unimpressed by churches – but that people are searching for spirituality. It’s about people and not institutions. It’s not about membership – it’s about living a transformative faith.