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“In ten years we might be meeting in my lounge” – the Church of Scotland in a new decade

A historic Scottish institution has big challenges ahead.

On the icy morning of Remembrance Sunday, a congregation half-fills St. Nicholas Kirk in Uphall, West Lothian. A mile north, in the village of Ecclesmachan, a church lies empty and cold.

The Reverend Graham Smith, 73, takes to the pulpit to lead the service. He retired three years ago but is locum minister at Strathbrock Parish Church.

Strathbrock used to hold two services every week – one at St. Nicholas in Uphall and one at St. Machan in nearby Ecclesmachan. With attendances low, it was decided to switch to only one Sunday service with the two buildings taking turns to host.

In summer 2019 Strathbrock’s minister, Marc Kenton, left his charge. The church is looking for a new minister but has received little interest in the vacancy.

The challenges to Strathbrock Parish are the same as those, on a smaller scale, faced by the Church of Scotland entering 2020. Nationally it had 325,000 members at the end of last year – down almost 150,000 in a decade.

In November 2019, there were over a hundred vacant ministries advertised in Scotland, but these are only the parishes given permission by the Church of Scotland to call a new minister. Some churches have been closed or merged with others following a vacancy.

Disused church buildings have subsequently been put up for sale, with proceeds divided among congregations. A ‘Radical Action Plan’ agreed on at the Church of Scotland’s last General Assembly included £25 million to be spent on ‘church growth.’

Strathbrock was given permission to seek a minister and is in relative health next to some parishes. It is in the unusual position of having two church buildings, however, plus a large multi-purpose hall.

Myra Macpherson, 77, is Depute Session Clerk at Strathbrock. She says their search for a minister is not the only consideration being made about the future, and that one of the church buildings may have to be dropped even if not immediately sold.

“It is our understanding that even if you’re not using a building, you’re still responsible for [keeping it] wind and water-tight,” she says.

“So the question is: how much more is it going to cost us if we close a building? Is there going to be any saving?”

The two medieval buildings have belonged to Strathbrock since the congregations of Uphall North and Ecclesmachan merged in 1976. Most members live in Uphall with St. Nicholas more convenient to them than St. Machan.

Peter Hagenbuch, 64, has been a member of Strathbrock for 27 years. He says the obvious solution is to close St. Machan, but that it will not be an easy decision for the congregation.

“Most people would probably feel a sadness in St. Machan being closed down or sold off but maybe there is an inevitability about it,” he says.

“In 20 or 30 years’ time all the people who held onto that history will be gone and it won’t mean anything to the next generation.

The Reverend Marc Kenton, 51, was Strathbrock minister for ten years. He says the parish’s relationship with that next generation mirrors the wider issue.

“It’s got big challenges in the sense that it’s got no young families, no young children,” he says.

At the Remembrance Sunday service there are about a dozen children from Strathbrock’s Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades. These groups attend certain services throughout the year, but on an average Sunday there are seldom more than one or two people under the age of 40 in the pews.

Of the members the Church of Scotland lost in 2018, over half were due to deaths, and there were three times as many deaths as new members.

“I think you have to get younger people in, otherwise everyone gets older and dies, and that’s it, end of story,” Peter says simply.

“It’s a very difficult balancing act for a minister to try and keep the older folk happy and attract the younger people.

“I don’t envy anyone trying to do that.”

Strathbrock’s St. Machan church in Ecclesmachan. Credit: David Gray

A 22-year-old man gets up to sing the second Remembrance service hymn: Behold, the Mountain of the Lord. His name is Ben Cameron, and he is one of Strathbrock’s youngest members.

Marc says that although Ben joined while he was minister, the way young people come to the Church of Scotland is not as simple as it sounds.

“I think about guys like Ben – how did Ben become a member of the church?

“Well, because he had caring, supporting leaders in the Boys’ Brigade,” he explains.

“The only way people become disciples – and that’s different to becoming a member of the church – is through family faith passed on, or through the slow process of relationship.

“In my ten years at Strathbrock, did I bring anyone into the church? No young people.”

Myra says that even if no one person can bring in young people, Strathbrock want a new minister with “vision.” But what about the Church of Scotland’s vision? How does it stay viable?

“I have a wish,” says Myra.

“That we sell 121 George Street [the Church of Scotland’s Edinburgh headquarters].”

All the challenges come back to money in one way or another. Marc agrees that new sources of funding must be found as the church is forced to downsize.

“In ten years’ time, we might be meeting here in my lounge with five people,” he says.

“Now, five people can’t pay a Church of Scotland stipend – because remember, we, as a Church of Scotland ministry, are the best-paid clergy in the United Kingdom.

“What gets me frustrated is the constant pressure coming from George Street, asking people for more and more money so we can keep the show on the road.”

At Strathbrock, the show on the road is maintaining three large buildings and finding a new minister. For its parishioners, like for the Church of Scotland, big changes are coming.

The congregation in St. Nicholas stands to sing the benediction. Next week, they will return to their other church building, St. Machan. How many more Sundays they will worship there remains to be seen.

Featured image credit: Church of Scotland

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