“The Pews Are Empty Now”: The Evolution of Scottish Religion from Driving Force to Struggling Tradit

Updated: Dec 21, 2019


A sermon in Edinburgh (c. 17th century)

Kathryn Fuselier


The Church of Scotland is exactly as it sounds: a church that has shaped Scottish culture since its creation in 1560. Despite some discontent, the Church of Scotland has survived to this day, and it has remained the largest and most prominent religious institution in Scotland for almost all of those 450 years. Yet, in the past century, there has been a large decline in Church attendance in both the Church of Scotland and other denominations. As Ian Jack wrote in The Guardian, “Sunday’s church bells called most of us once in Scotland, but the pews are empty now.” Such a trend sparks the question of why, after so many years of resilience, the Church now seems to be declining. To understand the evolution and significance of religion in Scotland, scholars often look as far back in history as the Roman Era, when Christianity was brought to the British Isles. The simple longevity of the Christian faith is not as important to understanding its effect on Scottish culture, though, as are the changes that it has undergone over the centuries. There are a number of factors, from Church structure to government reform, that have led to the decline in religious affiliation in Scotland in past decades.

Majority Religion

To understand the Church of Scotland, one must acknowledge its history and its important social influence. The first milestone in the development of Scottish Christianity after its arrival in the Isles was the Protestant Reformation, which swept not only Scotland but also all of Europe during the sixteenth century. The first widespread example of the Reformation’s presence in the British Isles was in England in 1534, when King Henry VIII created the Church of England. Of course, the King broke with Rome not out of religious motivation or godly inspiration, but as a means of obtaining a divorce from his wife Queen Catherine and marrying again to produce a male heir. Twenty-five years after the new Anglican Church was born, in 1560, though, Scotland saw the creation of its own Church of Scotland for very different reasons.


John Knox (c. 1513 –1572), a Scottish clergyman and the founder of the Presbyterian denomination in Scotland.

Central to the creation of the Church of Scotland was John Knox, a Scottish minister heavily influenced by the Calvinist movement in Switzerland. Fuelled by a vision of a godlier, idyllic faith than the corrupt Catholic Church embodied at the time, Knox broke from the Vatican and created the Church of Scotland as a Presbyterian Church. The new church was fundamentally committed to egalitarianism; it was founded upon and still upholds a high standard of democracy amongst all of its members. Church members of all ranks, whether weekly congregants, ministers, or bishops, are allowed influence in Church practice. Especially after the Scottish Parliament sanctioned it in the early eighteenth century, the new Church of Scotland grew to become the most populous religion in the country.

In an effort to uphold its democratic values, the Church sustains an extensive system of committees and courts, similar to a secular government. Those committees meet and discuss any issue relevant to the Church or the lives of its congregants. In this way, the Church became a substantial political force as well as a moral one; it earned a reputation as a conservative and staunchly unionist political force. Until the twentieth century, too, the Church controlled much of local government in Scotland, including the education system. Though originally fuelled by a desire to encourage the reading of the Bible among young parishioners, the Church maintained a philosophy that all children have the right to an education. The resulting education system was incredibly strong and remains to this day one of the prides of Scottish society.

While the Church of Scotland may advocate a democratic faith closely connected to the words of Bible, it is not without its flaws. Some argue that the strict, doctrinaire spirit of the Church has created a distinct “lack of colour” within Scottish culture. Additionally, journalist Harry Reid actually criticises the democratic structure of the Church. To date, the Church has created dozens of committees, in which various Church members are given the opportunity to contribute to everyday decisions. Topics for discussion range from “Church Art and Architecture” to “the Church’s pension schemes.” Reid argues that, by allowing this widespread participation, the Church has become bureaucratized to the point of inefficiency. He writes that “the behemoth of boards and committees has just grown relentlessly, and nobody…has had the inclination or the guts to call a halt.” The “behemoth,” with its huge size, does not mirror the size of its congregations.

While Brown and Reid present relatively contemporary criticisms of the Church, critique of the institution dates back much farther. In the early nineteenth century, Church members frustrated with the Church’s patronage and various other practices dissented, creating the Free Kirk, the United Presbyterian Church, and, later, the “Wee Frees,” which practiced almost independently of any hierarchical structure. After almost 100 years of fractioned faith, the Union of 1929 brought most of these churches back into one, united body, from which the Church emerged a more cohesive, if not enduringly popular, force.

Religious Diversity Over Time

The rise of the Church of Scotland and its support from Parliament and the monarchy meant that Scotland became an almost entirely Presbyterian country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, Scotland saw a significant increase in its Catholic population. The rise in Catholicism can be attributed to Irish immigration to Glasgow and the west coast of Scotland in the wake of the Great Hunger. In reaction to the rise of a new population that seemed to many Scots to threaten their way of life, Presbyterian churches began a number of anti-Catholic campaigns. The remnants of that tension can still be seen in small ways, like the rivalry between the Rangers and Celtic football clubs in Glasgow. The Catholic population has withstood the discrimination against it, though, and grew to become a powerful cultural and political block in Scotland in the twentieth century. In particular, Catholics became an important voting block because they are typically staunchly Labour supporters. In a way, this placed the community even more at odds with the Protestant Church, which remained more conservative.

While the Catholic Church remains the largest minority religion in Scotland, the market for faith is becoming increasingly diverse due largely to increased immigrant populations. Polish immigration in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union has bolstered the Catholic community, but immigration from Africa and the Middle East have also increased the presence of African Pentecostal churches and Islam. In part because these immigrant population, particularly Muslims, tend to be more religious than Scottish Christians, the diversity of faiths in Scotland have, in Professor Steve Bruce’s words, created “the general impression that religion is what other people do.” In general, then, diversification of religion has created a more secular spirit.


In most of the Western World, religious commitment is declining. Scotland is no exception to this tradition and has in fact become particularly secular compared to countries like England. Many scholars point to the post-World War II era as the marker of modern religious decline. Census data shows that church adherence—the proportion of people raised in a religion who remained in that religion—has declined sharply since at least the 1960s. Additionally, where the Church of Scotland and Catholic Church are concerned, retention rates are declining while recruitment rates also remain low. For example, 95% of current Church of Scotland adherents were raised in the faith, while only 5% of adherents are converts. Therefore, as more and more people leave the Church, the institution cannot replace the lost members.

In Scotland, the decline in religious adherence has been more prevalent in the east, where Protestantism, rather than Catholicism, is stronger. The 2001 Census shows that, in Scotland, Catholicism has done a slightly better job of retaining members than the Church of Scotland, meaning that church adherence in the West remains slightly higher. Not to be disregarded, too, are the evolutions of other minority religions in Scotland. While the Protestantism and Catholicism do have some of the most dire retention rates in the country, no religion except Islam has had success in fostering continued or increased religious adherence.


Church of Scotland sign above the entrance to the Church Offices in Edinburgh

It is important to note that, at this time, it is impossible to definitively identify the exact reason or reasons for the decline in religious adherence. However, there are a number of policy changes within the Church of Scotland and in the Scottish Government that may point to a decreased focus on the Church. For example, until the early twentieth century, the Church of Scotland had controlled much of local government through its Parish Councils. In the twentieth century, however, the Scottish system of local government was continually reformed, placing local government control in the hands of secular councils, rather than under the auspices of the Church. Notably, the Church lost its control over Scottish education, which had been a fundamental part of its community involvement to date. The result of such a change is clear. While the reforms may have created a better-funded education system that mirrored the more religiously diverse population, they further removed the Church of Scotland from the everyday lives of community members. Similarly, University of St. Andrews Professor Ian Smith suggests “the church is… predicted to be more influential in complex societies without a fully developed central government.” If Smith’s theory proves true, in states with widespread government programs of redistribution and public services like Scotland, religion has less opportunity to serve public need for services and therefore will have a lesser presence in the community.

The Church’s reputation is also a considerable factor in its decline. In the past century, it has maintained a reputation of widely parodied conservatism that Graham Walker describes as “dour, ascetic, joyless [Calvinism].” This is an almost paradoxical reputation, as the Church of Scotland is a socially progressive religious institution compared to similar organisations like the Catholic Church. Unlike in many other religions, women are permitted to preach, and just this year the Church permitted gay ministers to preach if, like all other ministers, their congregations elect them. Yet, probably due to the Church’s persistent conservative, boring reputation, young people are reluctant to join the organisation, and that is arguably the crux of the Church’s recruitment problem. According to University of St. Andrews Professor Ian Smith, “individuals make their first serious religious commitments at a mean age of 16 or 17… the key to explaining church decline lies largely in understanding the disaffection of adolescents from the church.” If the Church does not appear effective, interesting, or as liberal as the young public, its membership will naturally decline.


William Henry Playfair’s New College, the center for Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh

Reid also points to the incredibly bureaucratic nature of the Church as a reason for decreased interest in membership. He proposes that bureaucracy frustrates Church members by removing the focus of the Church from faith and placing it on business and politics. Even more, the complicated bureaucracy of the church dissuades potential new ministers from entering the clergy. Without a wide selection of compelling, enthusiastic ministers, the attractiveness of Sunday services suffers, resulting in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of disinterest. With structural reforms yet unseen, it remains to been seen whether Reid’s theory is truly the case and whether a more streamlined internal structure would encourage participation.

In the relatively short period of a century, the Church of Scotland, and Scottish religion in general, have moved from a driving force in Scottish communities to a declining holdover of a more traditional time. A persistent negative image problem, bureaucratic overload, and an uncontrollable secularisation of society have gradually pushed religion to the backburner of many lives. This trend carries among all religions present in Scotland, but as the overwhelming majority religion, the changes within the Church of Scotland present the most indicative and widespread trend in the country. The pews are, in fact, empty for a variety of reasons. It remains to be seen whether or not religion will continue to inspire the Scottish people. For now, however, the institution, regardless of denomination, is in sharp decline.

#Calvinism #Protestantism #Scotland #theChurchofScotland #Scottish #Catholicism #religioushistory #Europeanhistory

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