Friday, June 19, 2015


An abridged version of this article has been published in Evangelicals Now (July 2015).

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 Christian identification.

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% opposed to 48.5%[1].  

Some estimates now 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 resistance people groups in the world today.

Scotland hasn’t just caught up with England in its rejection of Christianity but has surpassed it. Why? What happened in Scotland to cause this accelerated falling away from its historic faith? As one church pastor who had worked in England in the 1990s and then in Scotland in 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’.

Culturally Scotland has changed rapidly in recent decades. It’s 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 throughout 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.

In contrast, England along with similar Asian immigration also received large numbers of people from Christian (often evangelically 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 the Scottish church did not receive the same ‘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 ‘newcomers’. In many churches it is those from immigrant backgrounds who have acted as ‘a brake’ on the theological liberalism that has been so destructive to Gospel growth elsewhere.

None of which is to be negative about the immigration Scotland has had, which as noted 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. Another comedian described Glasgow as ‘Belfast lite’. The deep sectarian divisions in Scotland, 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 on Sunday morning.

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

Potentially dangerous ground this! It’s no secret that Scotland is a ‘left of centre’ nation when it comes to politics. That in itself need be of no great consequence when it comes to the church – after all godly men and women of all political persuasions attend churches and are equally passionate about the Gospel. However, there is perhaps a significance in some of the strands of hard left politics that have been influential in Scotland.

Scottish Socialism like its English counterpart emerged as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the development of urban Britain and the gathering together of massed labour. As a movement it contained both those who saw Socialism as an essentially Christian response to the inequalities of society (Christian Socialists), and those saw religion as part of the problem (‘the opiate of the people’).

The industrial make-up of many Scottish cities and towns resulted in Socialist politics becoming a dominant force in many parts of Scotland. A Socialism that in many instances was of the radical Marxist variety. In the 1920’s Glasgow was famously called ‘Red Clydeside’ and in commenting, on that period of near revolutionary ferment in the city, the ‘International Socialist Group’ notes: ‘Clydeside threw up a generation of working class intellectuals versed in Marxism whose impact would be felt in the British working class for years to come[2]’.

The strength of such politics can be seen in that Scotland has returned two of the only three Parliamentary seats ever won by the Communist Party in Britain. Even as recently as 2003 the Marxist ‘Scottish Socialist Party’ had six candidates elected to the Scottish Parliament.

The significance of this for the Scottish church is the proportionately greater influence that strong Marxist thinking has had north of the border. As far back as the 1890s Socialist Sunday Schools were being organised in Glasgow[3]. These classes, which spread across the country and were open to all ages, sought to provide a secular alternative to their Christian counterparts. A socialist, and pointedly divine free ‘10 Commandments’ was even produced to accompany these classes[4].

It is not that such Marxist politics have been absent in England (you only need to think of its northern industrial cities like Liverpool) – or that Scotland hasn’t had Christian Socialists. It is that anti-religious political ideas have had a proportionately greater foothold in Scottish society than in the UK as a whole.

As with political parties the general public have little time for fractious churches. Disputes and splits (even when unavoidable) are almost always damaging to the reputation of the church and drain huge amounts of time and energy away from its ability to focus on mission.

Sadly the history of Presbyterianism in Scotland has involved a succession of disputes and splits – with each offshoot claiming to be the true ongoing ‘custodian of the truth’. Of course other church groupings, such as the Brethren or Pentecostalism, have taken such factionalism to even greater extremes. The difference in this case however, is that Presbyterianism has prided itself in being ‘national face’ of the church in Scotland.

The Scottish people have consequently been onlookers to a ‘national church system’ marked by successive divisions for over a century. The physical expression of that, which is impossible to miss, 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 quite remarkable capacity to hold itself together.

In more recent times, of course, the tensions underlying that English unity have become clearer and seem increasingly stretched. However, even if England should yet see the ‘national face’ of its church breaking-up – it has had the advantage, until now, of Christianity being less tainted by such ‘national level’ church schism than has Scotland.

One further point is that for all its virtues Presbyterianism tends, by its very structure, to ‘flatten out’ the beliefs and energy of the church as whole – if not to the lowest common denominator, certainly to that which is tolerable to what might be a very theologically diverse grouping. In contrast Episcopalianism, for all its faults, does allow an evangelical bishop much more scope to lead and influence the churches he oversees in a positive and Biblically rooted direction. That is, the national church in England has had more potential, at least from time to time, to buck the trend of liberalism than has been the case in its Scottish counterpart. 

Historically Scotland has had a smaller constituency of Independent churches relative to England. The dominance of Reformed Presbyterianism, and a more theologically conservative culture across denominations in general, meant there was less space (or perhaps need) for large numbers of autonomous evangelical churches. Whereas some Independent chapels in England can trace their origins back to the 17th Century, the first tangible Congregationalist (Independent) churches don’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[5].

The significance of this is that larger institutions (including church denominations) have a tendency to become less effective over time. The pull in all such bodies, religious or otherwise, is to become inward looking, self-protective and attractive to people looking for security rather than challenge.

Now of course within Scottish denominations there are many praiseworthy exceptions to this – men and women who stand out in their passion and vision to evangelise and impact the nation for Christ. However, the sociological fact remains that large organisational structures as a whole tend towards atrophy.

For Scotland the dominance of such groupings meant smaller numbers of independent ‘entrepreneurial’ churches and leaders. The church historian Rodney Stark in examining the high level of Christian identification in the USA, argues that it was the lack of establishment Christianity in the ‘New World’ that instilled the need for churches to be much more driven in seeking growth[6]. The argument being, that in such an environment a local church will ‘stand or fall’ (and its pastor be paid or unpaid) 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.

In other words, the Scottish Church 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.

All the above are suggestions (speculations) on why Scotland’s ‘fall from faith’ has been so severe. Some are doubtless more significant than others and all of them fit into the larger context of an overall decline in Christian affiliation throughout the British Isles. Nonetheless together, they may give some insights into why a country until recently so apparently strong in its Christian identification has so quickly crumbled in the face of secular challenge. There are however, signs that many of the weaknesses are being addressed and 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 being a clear sign of that.

Sectarianism is slowly being squeezed out of Scottish life so that it no longer divides it in the way it once did. This a change that 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.

[6] Stark R, The Triumph of Christianity, (Harper One), Ch.20