Last night, BBC Scotland aired a short documentary, A Church in Crisis?, about the Church of Scotland and its current circumstances. The broadcast date marks the anniversary of the Kirk’s creation following the Scottish Reformation. Peter has already blogged about the programme and notes that it offered a balanced view of the Kirk’s present state.
There was the “What’s the Kirk ever done for us?” bit; a reminder of the legacy of that early push for education and literacy which established Scotland as a leader in educational achievement. The Kirk’s social conscience was highlighted and its impact on today’s social care noted. Although that place is now filled more and more by local authority groups, the Kirk still has a significant presence in this area. It begs the question though, as a friend recently discussed with me, that perhaps the Kirk has achieved what it set out to do in this area – show how social care ought to be done – and now it is time to invest the resources in other work of social inclusion and justice.
However, the outlining of the current state of the Kirk jangled a few nerves. It rightly highlighted falling membership, financial pressures and ministerial resources as areas causing concern. But it phrased them in a slightly disingenuous way I thought. Falling mambership cannot be disputed, but little was made of the changing social culture where ‘membership’, of anything, is increasingly becoming out-of-date. Loose affiliations and fluid loyalties are the characteristics of our present society. Any sort of ‘commitment’ has people running a mile. I’m not suggesting that the numbers attending church are in any way much rosier than they are, but membership numbers alone do not tell the whole story.
The financial situation was also misrepresented. A running deficit of just over £5m is not the same as being “nearly £6m in the red” as was reported. Again, I’m not suggesting this is an acceptable situation, but it ought tohave been reported accurately. Furthermore, little was made of the proposals to address that deficit.
Associated with that was the throwaway comment of “only four trainees have entered Scotland’s leading divinity school.” Now, while I would happily agree with that assessment of New College’s place in the ordering of things, to ignore the intake at the other institutions is irresponsible and misleading. New College has fallen foul of entrance quota restrictions in its associated University College. Those who have been unable to gain a place have deferred or have gone to one of the other institutions. A fairer report would have been to cite overall numbers in training.
But I want to highlight one final thing in the programme which went entirely unchallenged and has an insidious effect on how we, the Church, approach things. Peter fell into the same trap in his assessment as well. It is stated, without any qualification or justification, that we live in a secular society. I’m not convinced that this is true. I would, perhaps, have agreed ten or twenty years ago, but not today. Secularism is also fighting a losing battle as many more people begin to see the society of ten, twenty, thirty years ago as heading towards moral bankruptcy. In a similar way to post-war theologians, there is a reaction against the ‘me-centred’ doctrines of, in today’s case, the consumerist state. More people are now looking for ‘something else’ to help order their life. There has been, in recent years, an increase in ‘spirituality’ in our cultural mindset. The unfortunate thing is that the years of secularism have left many without the vocabulary or grounding of a Christian spirituality. Pic’n’mix religion has become the order of the day. This, I would suggest, is a very different challenge to the church. It’s one thing dealing with a society which is entirely indifferent to religion, quite another to deal with people who see all religions as their personal spiritual supermarket to pick and choose from as it suits them.
Without a doubt the Kirk has some hard times ahead but I would tend to agree with Ron Ferguson’s thoughts towards the end of the programme that a beleaguered church is not necessarily a bad thing.