Recently, after a busy Saturday surgery, as is often my want, I stopped by at a local church coffee morning. It was busy with many with more grey hair than me but there were also other age groups, including many children, all denominations having made remarkable efforts to welcome young people.

This was a far cry from being given a pan drop to suck whilst sitting in church years ago. Not all were active members of the congregation. Many were locals sampling the home baking, having a cup of coffee or enjoying the milk of human kindness. The churches have been undergoing reviews that are often the prelude to closure. The Church of Scotland in particular has undergone a significant cull and the Catholic Church is about to do likewise.

The loss of a church can leave an empty building that’s often difficult to convert easily for any other purpose. They can stand forlornly as testimony to the communities past, along with the headstones in the graveyard. However, they are also the loss of a community asset. My visits to church halls were more often for other groups than the church itself. Some were affiliated such as Boys Brigade groups but others simply took advantage of what was often a multi-purpose hall available to anyone at a nominal rent. Anything from mother and toddler to Amnesty International groups were users. The financial pressures are mounting on local authorities. The loss of these facilities will not be offset by expanded public ones, many of which themselves are under threat. The entire community, not just the congregation, will be the loser.

I have to confess that I neither attend church on a regular basis nor have any particular creed to which I adhere. My attendances, other than at weddings and funerals which themselves are also becoming more likely to be secular, have been in a formal capacity as a local or national representative. Scotland is a much more secular society than ever before. In many ways that’s a good thing. The stultification and suffocation brought about by undiluted Calvinism and practised, it appeared, by almost every religion is long gone but lamented by few. The stain of sectarianism is now more tribal than religious. The power of the churches has also ebbed from days when the Moderator or Cardinal were household names and their influence significant throughout the land.

Moreover, comments made more recently by a few in debates on equality have been at best unedifying if not downright uncharitable. Historic issues also require to be addressed and will be difficult for ecclesiastical authorities. The travails of the churches aren’t just in the decline in membership but also in the numbers able to officiate at them. A local priest has had to come in from aboard and a Church of Scotland minister friend has lamented his worryingly high average age and the ages of his colleagues.

However, I have always recognised the importance of faith both within the community I have represented and the wider country as a whole. I have met, fortunately only a few, politicians who have stated that they “don’t do religion”. Well, neither do I. But I do recognise the many good people who do and the good work they carry out in our communities. It’s not only disrespectful but a remarkably blinkered view. There is sometimes an aggressive secularism abroad that is disrespectful. Exactly as no one is obliged to have a faith, those who do should not be required to justify it. Congregations may be declining but even in a more secular Scotland, they have rights and should be treated respectfully.

It’s not simply the physical asset in the building or the adjacent hall that the kirk or Catholic church provides. Nor is it just the religious faith they provide to those who worship there, important though that is. I always found the clergy to have their finger on the pulse of the community. Sometimes I’d be told of issues of concern that parishioners had confided in them rather than in an elected representative or governmental institution.

However, it’s the pastoral work that churches do that remains both necessary and significant. That’s both within their buildings and in outreach work; and it’s both local and national. Those coffee mornings and other such events are often a sanctuary for those simply seeking company or warmth from an otherwise lonely or bleak existence. As the risk of social isolation grows, especially for the elderly but also for the young, these functions are important for many. The food bank in the community in which I live is run from a church hall and is led by the minister and the congregation. Moreover, those who are afflicted whether with ill health or addiction can often find comfort, if not strength, within groups operating in or as part of the church. There are secular groups that, likewise, do good work but it’s each to their own; in my father’s house there are many mansions.

Nationally, faith groups often deal with sections of the community that are not the most empathetic and from whom many turn away. The churches are often the good samaritan whether it’s to ex-offenders or drug addicts. As a former Justice Secretary I had good reason to appreciate and value their work. If good people step forward to help their fellow man, that should be welcomed, not disparaged. When secular groups do likewise they should be equally applauded.

Scottish society continues to evolve. Some changes are inevitable, even if some are regrettable. Evangelist churches have opened in former more established church buildings, reminiscent of past changes that applied whether after the Reformation or the Disruption. Immigration has seen old faiths evolve and new faiths arrive. There are now many African churches, bringing a joy and liveliness unknown to those used to more traditional Scottish services.

Moreover, the Sikh, Hindu and especially Muslim communities are growing. As with the established churches, their contribution is not simply in their faith but also in what they contribute to their community and wider society. It’s not simply in the church, temple or mosque that they contribute. The African churches are the fulcrum of work in their communities, in which many are often marginalised and poor. The Sikh community does remarkable work in providing food to the homeless on Edinburgh streets. Many in the Muslim community are doing equally outstanding work for refugees fleeing war and suffering. That work is mirrored across the entire country.

Scotland is becoming both more secular, as well as a more diverse society. Both secular and new Scots will contribute greatly to our communities in many ways as they already do. However, I still can’t help but think that the further closure of churches will be a loss in our communities in so many ways. The sanctuary offered and solace afforded will be hard to replace. Faith still does matter in our communities.