Peter's Blog

Prior Agendas

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Press and Journal

Today's Press and Journal is running with an exclusive (above are pictures of the Moray edition - thank you, Shuna Dicks!) from their correspondent Cameron Brooks under the headlines "Thousands quit Kirk as gay clergy row rages" and "People walk away from Kirk in droves". Brooks is basing his report on the annual publication of membership statistics for the Kirk as it appears in the Blue Book (the General Assembly Reports book). His article states, "Nearly 50,000 people have abandoned Scotland's national church in just three years."

Reading between the lines, the purpose of this reporting seems to be to gin up "the fight" ahead of the General Assembly and the ongoing debate relating to allowing congregations to call a minister living in a civil partnership should they wish to do so - this report is contained in the Legal Questions Committee, and there is theological support for a mixed economy approach to this issue in a report from the new Theological Commission (a very good report, I thought). The tenor of the P&J's reporting is that the church's deliberations on this are the cause of people walking away in droves from the Kirk. This is a highly distorted view of the reality, and certainly not how I would interpret the data. But then numbers are so easily recruited to one's own prior agenda. What was it that Twain/Disraeli said about "lies, damned lies and statistics"? 

What does the data actually tell us?

I had a look at the statistics and tested Cameron Brooks's thesis that the debates over recent years with regard to ministers in same-sex relationships is affecting church membership. This is what I found when I compared the statistics over the past five years (2009-2013) with those from a decade ago prior to the current discussions (2002-2006).

Over those two periods the percentage of church members removed (by death, transfer certificate or other) was 21.9% (for 2009-2013) in comparison with 24% (for 2002-2006). Now, first of all, let us be under no illusions that this is a positive story for the membership of the Kirk is reducing rapidly, but neither is this a new story despite the Press and Journal's headlines. Indeed, the rate of loss would appear to have declined in the past decade. If I was a headline writer perhaps I would be tempted by "Kirk's big fight over gay clergy slows loss of members!" But that would not be a responsible use of the data.

Of those members who were removed from church rolls, far from walking out in droves or "abandoning" the church, more than half of them were sadly driven away in a hearse. For both the periods I had a quick look at, there was a reduction of 11.8% by death alone. These, as my good friend Shuna has pointed out in a letter she has written to the editor of the P&J today, were folks whose families no doubt benefited from the pastoral support of the Kirk in their difficult times of loss. 

Where there is a notable difference is in the number of people being admitted into membership of the church. In the earlier five year period from 2002-2006 51,353 people were added to the church's membership (an additional 9% to the total figure from 2002), whereas in 2009-2013 only 29,905 were added to church rolls (representing an additional 6.4% onto the 2009 total). Fewer folks are joining the Kirk. 

What these statistics do not cover are people who are connected to the church but have not formally joined the church. This is increasingly more the case, particularly with new forms of church community growing across the country - often labelled today as "fresh expressions" of church. We happen, at Ferryhill, to be admitting a number of folks into church membership over the next week or so, but this will be the first time in five years that new members have been admitted by profession of faith. We are in a shifting culture where membership of bodies like the Kirk (and here you can switch in almost any other organisation) is decreasing as people (particularly younger generations) avoid longer-term fixed commitments in favour of more fluid and flexible networks of people. 

These are big changes that the church, as a body, is struggling to adapt to. This was a part of our thoughts in our Kirk Session and Congregational Board conference in February. It is something we must think about. However, this is not the same as what the Press and Journal or the Scottish Secular Society whom Brooks quotes are saying. The reality is much more complex and nuanced.

As far as my experience is concerned, for most congregations, for most ministers and members, the "big fight" that the newspapers would like us to be having over whether congregations can call a minister in a same-sex relationship is not that big an issue. It is important, don't get me wrong, and for particular individuals it is exceedingly important (and I support them today as strongly as I ever have), but I would question whether it is the single defining moment for the future of the Kirk that it is often portrayed to be by the press. I think the Theological Commission's report on living together in a mixed economy (as we already do with regard to practices relating to baptism, communion, or remarriage of divorcees) makes this point clearly. This is part of an ongoing development within the life of the Kirk. In truth, for most of us the particular question of whether ministers in civil partnerships can be called to a congregation does not play a part in day to day ministry, which is full (yes, even for those ministers I know who are in civil partnerships) of the regular pastoral concerns of caring for a parish, leading worship, playing our part in meetings about holiday clubs or social events, prayer gatherings, and a hundred and one other tasks in which we serve God and our communities. 

I suspect that Mr Brooks would argue that the rapidly declining readership of print forms of publication which the Press and Journal and most other newspapers and magazines are struggling to adapt to in a changing and much more flexible marketplace for news consumption is also a complex and nuanced issue that should not and cannot be helpfully oversimplified. Would that the same understanding be granted to the Kirk.