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The latest 2022 census of Religion in Scotland shows that there has been an increase from 28% of non-religious people in Scotland (in 2001) to 51.1% (in 2022). The largest decrease has come mainly from Protestant denominations with the Church of Scotland having lost 1 million followers since 2001.

The census shows that 2,780,980 persons who participated self-identified as having no religious beliefs (51.1%).

The total of all the Christians in Scotland who participated in the census is 2,110,405 (38.8%).

My specific question relates to the Church of Scotland (which is Protestant) and why 1 million have left the church since 2001. Is there any documentation to explain why this has happened? General apathy and secularism cannot be the reason that the decline in membership is much steeper in the Church of Scotland than in the Catholic Church, for example.

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    @davidlol The figures stated in the census are This is a fall (in C of S responses) of 610,100 people since 2011, and over 1 million since 2001. Which is what the OP is asking about. . . . . It is one of the country's largest, having 259,200 members in 2023. While *active membership* in the church has declined significantly in recent decades (in 1982 it had nearly 920,000 members Wikipedia.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 22 at 20:38
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    Active membership is yet another concept. Once one becomes a member it is for life, but one may stop attending. Also one may attend weekly for many years without opting to be a "member". My great uncle kept tablet diaries in which on weekdays he said briefly what he had done and on Sundays he wrote the sermon text or "not at church". One week had turnips, turnips, turnips, turnips, turnips, turnips, not at church. He was shocked when we pointed out he had been not at church for over five years. Anyway, I think the government report has a certain spin not supported by the actual census.
    – davidlol
    Commented May 23 at 5:52
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    @davidlol - My question is about WHY there has been such a steep decline in people who self-identify as belonging to the Church of Scotland. Whether those people are actively engaged in that church or not, is not the issue. I will look for a non-governmental report on the state of the Church of Scotland but the question remains - WHY has membership of the Church of Scotland taken such a nose-dive?
    – Lesley
    Commented May 23 at 8:09
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    Just mentioning that this trend is not uncommon; for example, in Germany, the protestant church lost half a million net members in 2023 alone. Deaths and cancellations are about equal in numbers (~350k). Overall though, membership loss 2012-2023 is roughly 15-20% (depending whether one counts relative to a growing population or absolute numbers). Commented May 23 at 12:10
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    I agree this is a trend that affects Protestants in many other countries. Here, in Scotland, I know that many ministers and members of the Church of Scotland have left and joined other Protestant denominations. They have not lost their Christian faith, but have become disillusioned with the C-o-S. Why?
    – Lesley
    Commented May 23 at 12:15

5 Answers 5

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There is indeed a general tendency in Scotland as in the rest of Western Europe, that many people's lifestyles, values and self-identity changed as society around them changed, which lead to spending less time with friends and family, a reduction of the length of marriages, and falling church attendance (just to show some other examples that it's not only church attendance alone which changed). Just as other answers provided, the population has become slightly more secular in recent decades, in the entire Western world. However, this is not all of the reason, and the sharp reduction in membership of the "mainline" or "national" churches can not be explained away in its entirety by this, as that reduction is much bigger than the overall change in religiousness. For example, some other Christian denominations increased in membership. This must mean that many who left the Church of Scotland did not leave Christianity, they just switched over to a different denomination.

This is part of the general tendency when churches become theologically more liberal. Conservative members leave to join other, more conservative denominations, which makes the church on average more theologically liberal. Leadership then makes the church even more "progressive", to make it more palatable to liberals, but instead of new liberals joining, conservatives start to leave because the church has become too liberal for them. This fuels a feedback loop, in which (from the viewpoint of theologically conservative members) the leadership takes Christ out of the church to make it more worldly and more palatable for lukewarm members, then the leadership sees the dropping numbers, and takes Christ even more out of the church to be less "offensive", they even adopt doctrines completely contrary to the Bible, in order to be less "offensive", but all this results in is more and more of the serious believers leaving, until the church becomes merely a social activist and self-help group. But as such groups can be found everywhere else, now the less serious believers who only came for the community and the nice self-help messages, also leave for other secular groups offering nearly the same services. There is a quote attributed to David F. Wells: "If the Church becomes like the world, why would the world need the Church?"

Some examples of this "liberalization" go as far as some churches in Canada where the pastor is openly atheist. The Church of Scotland is not such an extreme example, but they have become significantly more theologically liberal in recent years, for example they now accept openly gay (while non-celibate) people as clergy, and perform gay marriages. This (among other "modernizations") is seen by theologically conservative members as unbiblical, who then leave for more conservative denominations. This also explains why the decline in membership in the Catholic Church is much less severe.

(Under liberal and conservative I mean theologically liberal or conservative, not necessarily politically, although they overlap to some extent.)

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    The same is happening all over the western world indeed. I put my kid in the least liberal school available, as there is nothing much to salvage from the more liberal ones.
    – Shautieh
    Commented May 25 at 13:51
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    For what it's worth, the theological liberalism that has been embraced by the Church of England (and the Anglican Communion) appears to have back-fired.
    – Lesley
    Commented May 31 at 8:59
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I left the Church of Scotland in 1966 at the age of fifteen because I was receiving no teaching about Jesus Christ and the Gospel.

My father was the minister. And both his father and grandfather had been ministers before him. My brother also followed suit and became a C of S minister.

My father, his father and my brother were all Freemasons. (All are now deceased.)

The gathering had more of a social basis and outlook than a religious one. I was later baptised as an adult into the Baptist Assembly but found it to be not that much better and, in some ways, I have to confess, less outwardly decent and moral than the C of S's staid, social respectability.

However, convicted of my sins, by influences outside of the C of S, I had no alternative but to seek elsewhere for spiritual guidance and Gospel Truth.

Which I later found, in abundance, when John Metcalfe came to Glasgow, in 1967, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.


Edit after Comment :

I have been aware. over the past decades, of many people leaving the C of S for evangelical reasons. Many have gone to the Free Church or to the Free Church (Continuing) or to the Free Presbyterians.

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    anecdotal but rings very authentic as a sample of a broader problem +1
    – Mike
    Commented May 22 at 23:34
  • This is very interesting. I have long admired @NigelJ posts and it is good to know some background about you, Sir. Yet I suspect the proportion of teenage boys who left the Kirk in the sixties who did so because they found it insufficiently Christian may have been very small. In any case it has little apparent relevance to the increase in people changing their census response from CoS to none in the twenty-first century. Or might it?
    – davidlol
    Commented May 23 at 6:01
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    @davidlol I have been aware. over the past decades, of many people leaving the C of S for evangelical reasons. Many have gone to the Free Church or to the Free Church (Continuing) or to the Free Presbyterians.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 23 at 8:33
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    @Neil - "Lightning bolts from the pulpit?" Once upon a time, perhaps, but certainly not these days. The last C-o-S service I attended was a hymn-prayer-hymn sandwich with a 10 minute homily from the lady minister. Anyway, I'm looking for verifiable published information that sheds light on why the membership of the C-o-S has been so drastically reduced.
    – Lesley
    Commented May 23 at 10:49
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    Apparently (according to the data quoted in the question), much of the membership decline is related to the number of non-religious people growing. (That may be individuals becoming or acknowledging to be non-religious, and/or it may be a generational shift, in that fewer young people are religious and the religious old ones die.) Either way, people like you who change denominations would be a minority of cases. Commented May 23 at 11:49
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The Church of Scotland has been losing members since its peak in 1957 with 63%.1

It's probably general apathy/secularism. This article states

A tide has to be turned because a generation of people out there are being invited to live a life of disbelief – if not unbelief

1 Wikipedia: Church of Scotland

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It would be good if the Church of Scotland stated itself what it understood the reasons to be. As the 2024 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has just finished, I looked at their web-site. See https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/news-and-events as an example.

After scrolling through lots of pages and articles, the decline was lamented, though I found nothing specific about the latest statistics. (I'm sure that will be there, somewhere, on that website, but I haven't got all day to search.) I could not find anything specific about why numbers of members and adherents continue to fall. Well, apart from this statement by the new Moderator on 19th May 2024 (on the link given below):

"People must put "more trust and faith" in God and allow themselves to be led by the Holy Spirit as Jesus's disciples were." Shaw Paterson, Moderator. For more of his address, see https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/news-and-events/news/articles/people-must-allow-themselves-to-be-led-by-the-holy-spirit

Clearly, the 'people' he referred to were members and adherents of the Church of Scotland. He did not say that those who have left the Church of Scotland don't have "enough" trust and faith, and are not "allowing" the Holy Spirit to lead them, therefore that's why they have "strayed" away. I'm just left wondering if that was his inference. But his on-line address said nothing particular, so this does not answer the question; it just gives a couple of links for people to explore. Perhaps, though, it's too soon for everything stated at this year's General Assembly to have been posted, or that a specific response to the 2022 Census of Religion in Scotland has yet to be made officially by the Church of Scotland.

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    Great idea to direct the reader to find the reason within the 2024 General Assembly. I did a quick PDF search from the combined GA reports Volume of Reports 2024 PDF which can be found here. There is only a single mention of the word "census", page 16 of the report from Faith Action Programme Leadership Team, under section 10.6 Ministries Numbers. Commented May 23 at 21:38
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    10.6.6 says: "With the challenges presented by the new shape of Presbyteries, with the full spectrum of previous weightings of island; remote rural; rural; and urban all now present in virtually every Presbytery, a more nuanced approach will be required in allocating ministries. Additional information will be available as the results of the 2022 Scottish Census are made available in a usable format for the Church to use in forward planning, and the FAPLT will report into the General Assembly 2025 on initial findings arising out of that data." Commented May 23 at 21:40
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    If this refers to the same census, then we have to wait until the 2025 General Assembly, so your theory that "it's too soon for everything stated at this year's General Assembly to have been posted" is correct. Commented May 23 at 21:41
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Separately from the government-run censuses (2001, 2011, 2022) there have been privately run church censuses in Scotland asking for figures direct from churches. The last one was 2016.

This looks at actual church attendance and may be worth looking at

The number of people who identified on the government census as Church of Scotland in 2001 was approximately ten times the number of actual worshippers. So the great majority of Church of Scotland people did not attend. Why, then, did they say they were C of S? In many cases this was seen as the default response, particularly from the older generations. Most Scottish people regarded themselves as Church of Scotland who had perhaps no real interest in Christianity. The Church of Scotland, as the national church, was regarded as the default religion to be. It was patriotic to be Church of Scotland, the Queen's Kirk, and many Scots were somewhat proud it was better than the C of E or the RCC, though most would be hard-pressed to say exactly how. To the older generation, everyone had a religion, whether or not they practiced it or believed it in any way.

As that feeling has faded, people who do not, as a matter of fact, practice a religion, no longer feel they want to claim that they are C of S (or over the border C of E) or even in the RoI that they are RCC. The sense of identity, quite apart from practice or belief, has diminished.

A major part of the difference is older, more religious people dying. As @Servaes point out up to a third of Scots living in 2001 are now dead.

The case of the Roman Catholic Church is interesting. In terms of attendance the RCC and the CofS are more or less similar and have been since 2001. But those identifying as Roman Catholic have held up better.

One reason is migration and population churning. Many immigrants from Europe are Roman Catholic and, whether they attend in Scotland or not, remember that they are Catholic. Nobody, or virtually nobody, who moves to Scotland is already a member of the Church of Scotland because, for example, there aren't CofS churches in Poland. Minority Ethnic are up from 4.5% in 2001 to 12.9% in 2022.

Perhaps there is something of a brand recognition effect which may boulster the RCC figures. If one is culturally a Catholic, in the sense that one supports Celtic, then it is easy to tick Roman Catholic on the form. If one supports Rangers, or one's father played in an Orange flute band, one does not find the word Protestant on the form so may not think to put C of S.

And of course there are also people switching denominations for religious reasons, but these are a relatively minor effect statistically since the majority of those who say they have a religion are non-practicing.

FURTHER THOUGHTS

Since the Acts of Union 1707 bound Scotland and England together, Scotland's sense of nationhood was heavily bound in with the separate status of her national church. People outwith the British Isles, and many within them, fail to understand the extent to which Scots regarded Scotland as a distinct (not separate but distinct) nation within the United Kingdom (and indeed the British Empire), long before political devolution and independence was mooted. In the 1638 Covenant the representatives of Scotland declared themselves very firmly for the Presbyterian form of governance. This was restored by King William (of Orange) in 1690 and inviolably secured in 1707. Since 1707 Scotland was dominated by England as the much larger population, but when it came to religion it had its own.

Here in Scotland, I was told as a small boy, Christ alone is Head of the Church. Not the Pope, nor even the Queen (an ordinary member and a deeply respected one nevertheless), but in Scotland Christ Himself was Head of the Kirk. Not having bishops was something to be proud of. It was democratic.

Scotland's sense of nationhood is no longer bound in, as it once was, with Presbyterianism.There has been devolution meaning Scotland now has other means of asserting nationhood.

Less than 48 hours after the death of our lately beloved Queen Elizabeth our new King swore this solemn oath, before his proclamation:

I, Charles the Third, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of My other Realms and Territories, King, Defender of the Faith, do faithfully promise and swear that I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the true Protestant Religion as established by the Laws made in Scotland in prosecution of the Claim of Right and particularly by an Act intituled “An Act for securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government” and by the Acts passed in the Parliament of both Kingdoms for Union of the two Kingdoms, together with the Government, Worship, Discipline, Rights and Privileges of the Church of Scotland.

His late Mother swore a similar oath in 1952 shortly after the death of her Father, King George VI, as have all monarchs since 1707.

Yet those Scots alive and aware in 1952 (we might say born post-War) heard in those words a solemn recognition and acceptance of Scotland as a distinct country with its own Church that could never be violated by any Earthly sovereign. Scotland's sense of nationhood, and the Church of Scotland, were tied in together in a way perhaps difficult to imagine now.

In a modern, increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan Scotland, in which Christianity of any kind is less significant to many, and which is confident of its nationhood (having considered independence and rejected it but conscious it may happen one day if that's what people want); our new King's oath has much less resonance and many saw it as not terribly relevant to the present. It did not so much defend Scotland against the world, as a particular Sctottish denomination against other Scots.

So I suggest as one reason for the decline in those identifying as CofS is the fact that it has ceased to be so inextricably bound with Scottish identity.

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  • Appreciate your input, although I need to check out the stats on how many Scots have died since 2001. The possibility that one third have died over the past 23 years is somewhat alarming - especially as I am "on borrowed time" if the average life-span is to be believed! Good job I don't eat pies and deep-fried Mars bars, eh? Wonder who will win Saturday's cup final - Celtic or Rangers?
    – Lesley
    Commented May 25 at 14:03

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