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Not the end, just new challenges, for churches

At first sight, it is yet more evidence of the secularisation of the nation.

The number of regular Catholic church-goers in the Galloway diocese has dropped by half since 1990 while the number of priests has fallen from 55 to 23. With such a huge geographical area to be covered, between Dumfries, Galloway and all the Ayrshires, some priests are ministering to four sparsely attended parishes at once. Some must feel as if they spend more time in their cars than they do seeing the faithful.

Is this part of a wider trend of a decline in faith among Scots? It is undoubtedly the case both the Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland have seen congregations fall since the 1950s while, at the same time, agnosticism and atheism have been on the rise.

The 2011 census showed the number of people in Scotland with no religion now outstrips those in the biggest denomination - the Church of Scotland - for the first time on record. Predictions that hard-pressed Scots might turn to the church in the midst of the recent recession seem to have been overstated.

Yet it would be premature to assume faith adherence in Scotland is in terminal decline. The same census of 2011 also showed the number of Scots classing themselves as Catholic has actually increased over recent years, from 804,000 in 2001 to 841,000 in 2011.

It was a different story for the Kirk - a total of 1.7 million people said they were part of the Kirk family in 2011, down from more than 2.1 million a decade earlier - but the Church of Scotland had more attendees to start with. It is possible the decline in its membership will also plateau.

Other faiths groups are much smaller in Scotland, but it is notable those classing themselves as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh have also greatly increased in number since 2001, from 61,523 in 2001 to 114,966 in 2011.

There are sometimes complicated reasons for church closures. To take the Catholic Church as an example, there are differences in the experience of different dioceses. The archdiocese of Glasgow has begun a consultation over the size of congregations and numbers of parishes and this is partly because of the long-term trend of declining congregations, but there are also other reasons. Church attendances have actually increased in the city in the last year - liking for the new Pope, Francis, may be partly responsible - but the location of Catholic churches no longer reflects the distribution of the Catholic population. The Church must respond to such changes and, as one Catholic source has put it, act "like supermarkets" by siting churches in the most well-populated areas. None of this will comfort any congregations that see their church close but such changes are necessary to help the Church serve communities better in the long term.

In the north of Scotland, meanwhile, Catholic populations are said to have grown in some areas, with churches being saved from closure due to an influx of new parishioners from Poland.

So secularisation is continuing, no question, but religious adherence should not be written off quite yet.

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