A church which has served as a place of worship for almost 900 years has held its last regular weekly Sunday service.

Birnie Kirk near Elgin faces closure as the Church of Scotland grapples with a decline in membership, falling minister numbers and a reduction in income. 

The church dates back to the 12th century and is said to have been an early seat of the Bishop of Moray before the foundation of Elgin cathedral in 1224.

It is thought to be the oldest church in continuous use in Scotland, with a local historian noting it is “older than any of Scotland’s great abbey churches, except perhaps the nave of Dunfermline”. 

The Rev. Dr. Gordon, who served as minister of the church from 1832 until 1889, was of the opinion that it must have been built not later than 1140. 

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Its grounds are also scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 for its archaeological importance.

However, Church of Scotland confirmed that this past Sunday's service at Birnie Kirk - attended by more than 100 parishioners - was the last regular weekly service that will take place at the church.

It comes after Church of Scotland previously revealed that the church is “on schedule” to be released from its ownership by the end of August 2027. 

Dr DJ Johnston-Smith, Director of Scotland’s Churches Trust, said the trust was "saddened" to learn that Birnie Kirk has hosted its final Sunday service. 

Dr Johnston-Smith told The Herald: “There are not many buildings in Scotland that can make a claim to have been in continuous use for the purpose for which they were intended, albeit in a slightly evolved form, for the better part of a millennium.

The Herald: Last Sunday’s service was the last regular weekly service at Birnie KirkLast Sunday’s service was the last regular weekly service at Birnie Kirk (Image: Peter Jolly)

"Throughout these long centuries, this ancient and venerated kirk will undoubtedly have withstood tougher storms than this one and we hope that the Church of Scotland will now give the local community the time it will need to come together and develop a robust plan for a more sustainable future for their very special gathering place of the past thirty and more generations.

"Like the residents around Birnie Kirk, across Scotland hundreds of communities have recently heard about or are about to learn of the closure of their local church buildings. These cherished historic buildings are fixed anchor sites in every neighbourhood that they are found, offering a sense of permanence, identity and resilience to every community, no matter what else is going on in the world around.

"Time and again the reaction to news of closure, whether the individual is religious or not, is very akin to what can only be described as grief. As congregations come to terms with this collective emotional blow we have been helping some to record their churches before they close. This has been an act of commemoration as much as it has been to make a permanent record of the church itself.

"We have also been working with colleagues across the heritage sector in assisting many emerging community groups to identify new and innovative ways that might yet keep some of these beloved buildings in community use and ownership for generations yet to come.”

A Church of Scotland spokesman said: “While Sunday’s service was the last regular weekly service which will take place at Birnie Church, the building will continue to be maintained by the kirk session pending its release. This will allow for the possibility of occasional use, such as for funerals or weddings. There is also an opportunity to organise worship in the Birnie Kirk hall as part of the agreed basis of union.

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“However, Birnie Church is still on schedule to be released from Church of Scotland ownership by the end of August 2027. Birnie and the joint charge of Plus Carden will unite with Elgin High, Elgin St. Giles’ and St. Columba’s South as single parish to allow us to continue to serve the people of the community in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and offering practical support, while making the best use of our resources in increasingly challenging times.

“The union was voted for overwhelmingly by each of the congregations and will be formerly established on 1st December 2023. We are aware of the close emotional ties which people and their communities have with their local church, and we share in the sadness felt when a church is released. Closure of much-loved places of worship is a grief Church of Scotland ministers, elders, members and staff all bear.

“However we do believe radical reform is necessary if we are to address the challenges of falling minister numbers, a decline in membership and a reduction in income both nationally and locally and as part of that process we recognise the need to reduce the number of buildings we own which has become unsustainable for our needs.”