An article by Andy Hunter (Scotland Director of FIEC) in July’s Evangelicals Now seeks to explain the ‘spectacular spiritual decline’ in Scotland. The piece (an expanded piece can be found on Hunter’s blog) sets out several reasons why the decline in Christianity north of the Boarder seems to have been greater than that seen in England. Some of the reasons Hunter gives seem to make a lot of sense, such as the higher levels of immigration to England from Christian countries (particularly seen in London), or the infamous factionalism within Scottish Presbyterianism, which has undoubtedly turned many people from the Church.
Other reasons seem more tenuous, particularly Hunter’s quite striking claim that a greater proportion of Independent churches in England has slowed decline south of the Border.
One thing to be clear on from the start is that the measure that Andy Hunter is dealing with is self-declared religious affiliation (from the 2015 British Election Survey (BES)). That means that we’re not measuring faith, or church attendance, but something which is a cipher for the place of Christianity in the national consciousness or psyche. Or perhaps a measure of how many people identify, however broadly or culturally, with the label of ‘Christian’.
The BES data show that across Britain as a whole, 48% of the population self-identifies as belonging to a particular Christian tradition. Taking the major traditions, by far the largest constituency is Anglicanism (31.1% of the population), followed by Roman Catholicism (9.1%), Presbyterianism (3.7%) and Methodism (2.5%). All other Christian traditions together account for 1.4%. All other religions apart from Christianity account for 7.4%. Of course, the proportion self-identifying as having no religious affiliation is large, at 45%. All of the above, perhaps surprisingly, means that in terms of religious affiliation, the largest constituency of the British population identify itself as Christian.
When you look at the declared religious affiliations since 1963, the greatest decline across 52 years is seen in ‘Other Christian’ traditions (from 23.1% to 7.6%), rather than in Anglicanism (64.5% to 31.1%) or Roman Catholicism (an increase from 8.6% to 9.1%). The ‘Other Christian’ category is too aggregate to be useful, but includes Independents amongst other groupings. Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism stand at the other end of the spectrum to Independents in terms of their structures, being large, highly-structured denominations. This is significant for judging Hunter’s argument about Independents.
The incredibly striking and sobering statistic is the rise in those declaring no religious affiliation between 1963 and 2015 (3.2% to 44.7%). In terms of a social shift, that is truly astonishing. And I would venture that when you put that alongside statistics from other European nations you would feel, if you are a UK church leader, even more sober.
When it comes to Scotland, there is clearly a higher level of non-affiliation to any religion (50.6% compared to 43.7% in England), and this is what Andy Hunter picks up on. It’s actually worse in Wales, where 51.8% declare religious non-affiliation.
The idea that Independent churches would help to maintain Christianity in the national psyche doesn’t quite ring true to me. Independency is strong in Wales, and this is the country with the highest non-affiliation. The fact that Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism have suffered less of a decline in self-identification than other traditions proves difficult for the assertion made by Andy Hunter that ‘larger institutions (including church denominations) have a tendency to become less effective over time.’ I would argue, conversely that these denominations have a much greater cultural and political impact than do Independents.
The data suggest that it is the largest institutions that have been more effective at maintaining a societal connection. I would argue that one of the factors (amongst many) that has precipitated such a decline in Christian affiliation (remembering that it’s a cipher for the place of Christianity in the national psyche) in Wales particularly is the fragmentation of the large denominations. In Wales, many evangelical congregations left the denominations during the latter half of last century. As a consequence of this, many of these have lost their former place in the consciousness of their communities, and have struggled to build bridges with communities that no longer understand who they are, or even know that they exist. These congregations have certainly had no effective place or voice in national discourse or the nation’s cultural life. Three or four decades on, many have stagnated and declined. That, I would argue, has been a significant factor in the decline in religious affiliation in Wales.
Andy Hunter is undoubtedly right to say that the fragmentation in Presbyterianism in Scotland has damaged the church’s witness. I can’t and won’t argue with that. Plenty before me have pointed out the shame of it. However, it’s easier to point out division in large bodies. Fragmentation also happens in Independent congregations, with schisms and splits, but this goes largely unnoticed in society. I really don’t think that, in general, Independent churches contribute significantly to the place of Christianity in the national psyche – national churches can do that far more effectively. Andy Hunter works for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches – and that body undoubtedly gives a stronger voice to Independents. I’m a Presbyterian. So we’re going to see things differently. However, the data we have in the BES seem to support my point.
If we’re looking for reasons for decline, there something else I’d throw into the mix (and it undoubtedly is a mix). It’s something that has contributed to the disconnection between churches and their communities, and also between churches and cultural and political discourse. It’s an important theological aspect that goes right to the heart of Evangelicalism. British Evangelicalism was influenced from the beginning by European Pietism. This theology, which ensconced itself within Puritanism, Methodism and the thinking of the Evangelical Awakening, was dualistic and proposed a clear separation between this world and a spiritual salvation in heaven. Its outlook tended to disparage culture, denigrate humanity and the physical, including the body, the arts and large parts of human experience. It led to widespread cultural and political disengagement in the church. Pietistic Christianity, as George Caird observed, does not connect to human beings who recognise much goodness in God’s creation. More importantly, it’s not biblical.
The influence of Pietism is, I believe, a significant factor in the astonishing decline of Christianity in Scotland, and for that matter in Wales, my home country. I’m no sociologist. I’m not a church historian. But it strikes me that both Scotland and Wales, in terms of their Christian traditions, have been disproportionately affected by Pietism. It is a deficient theology, a kind of pseudo-Gnosticism. Its negative outlook on physical life and human experience has contributed to the caricatures of Highland Calvinism and of Presbyterian preachers that still do the rounds today in Scotland and in Wales. I was reminded of this kind of thing just last week. On BBC Radio Scotland there was a piece on Dumfries Academy’s 1877 hosting of then pupil JM Barry’s play ‘Bandelero the Bandit’. The reaction (in a letter to the governors) of a local minister , Rev D.L. Scott, was reported:
‘We have turned the classroom into a theatre for the exhibition of a grossly immoral play…I say that such exhibitions are a disgrace…Are they [those attending] the pious? Are they the prayerful or the godly? No, we find that theatre-goers are the irreligious, the frivolous, the giddy and, aye, even sometimes the great many were nothing better than the off-scourings and scum of society’.
Such views might be from over 100 years ago, but this kind of Pietism has been alive and kicking in the church over the last century, and is still represented in the church today. Maybe not in such stark terms, but it’s there. You see it in churches isolated from their communities and national discourse. You see it in almost-Gnostic presentations of a Gospel of escape from the world. The decline of Christianity in the national psyches of both Scotland and Wales can be, at least in part, attributed to it.
I want to, like Hunter, end with reasons to be hopeful (Andy Hunter is to be commended for that). The Reformed tradition of Calvin and especially of Dutch theologians like Bavinck, Kuyper and Rookmaaker, points us to a robust creation theology, a robust theology of life, a grand vision of living the whole of life to the glory of God, and of redeeming culture for Jesus Christ. It’s a tradition that reflects a Gospel not of escape from the world, but of redemption for the world. That’s the Gospel of the scriptures. Our Reformed tradition also has a robust theology of the church and its place in national life. Within the Free Church of Scotland, this strand of the Reformed tradition is increasingly influential and I believe that, if we embrace it, it will produce a dynamic, contemporary, missional and engaged Reformed Church. And that’s why I believe that a renewal of Presbyterianism offers the best hope for renewing the place of the Scottish Church in the national psyche. For the glory of God in Jesus Christ.