THE small country church in Spott, where my parents are buried, has a history stretching back before the Reformation.

In the 16th century, one of its ministers was murdered, another murdered his wife, and a third was executed for his part in the assassination of the Regent Moray. Later, it witnessed the ferocious persecution of witches.

Spott Kirk, which sits at the foot of the Lammermuir hills near the site of both battles of Dunbar, looks over the North Sea towards the Bass Rock. It is an intensely peaceful location, with only the bleating of sheep and cawing of rooks to disturb it. Yet things are not as tranquil as they appear. As part of a radical reorganisation of the Church of Scotland, Spott is scheduled to close in 2027. At that point centuries of community gathering and worship will cease. It is a melancholy thought.

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Spott’s plight is in no way unusual, except perhaps in being given a five-year reprieve. Several nearby rural churches are in a worse position, having been told their time will be up by the end of 2023. Such harsh decisions are being mirrored all across the country. Last year, for instance, a list was published of Edinburgh churches affected by a reallocation of clergy and support staff. So sweeping are the reforms that every congregation in the capital will be affected.

In many cases, two, three or even four churches will be merged into a single congregation, under the care of a group of ministers. Soon, having a full-time minister dedicated to a church’s original congregation will be a luxury only a few can afford. As a result, while some ministers’ workload will increase, others are fearful about what the future holds.

In Edinburgh alone, it was recently announced that six church buildings are scheduled to shut in the next few years. If living in a former manse or kirk appeals to you, then go to the church’s property listings. From Inverness to the Isle of Islay, from Glasgow to Gretna Green, one of Scotland’s oldest institutions is realising its assets and selling up.

At the same time, in a downsizing of its administration, its original 43 presbyteries are in the process of being amalgamated to around 12. Suddenly – one might say finally – the Kirk’s dire financial predicament has caught up with it. If it is to survive, with any hope of a future, such drastic steps are essential.

You could argue that its panjandrums have woken up far too late; that for years it has been in denial about the extent of its difficulties. To point the finger, however, is to miss the point. Far more important is the rapid decline in the Church of Scotland’s status and what it says about contemporary society.

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In light of the dwindling numbers of ministers and congregations, a friend, who has been a stalwart member all his life, says it is no longer our national church. Technically, of course, it retains that position; yet if by national one means central to the way the country thinks and works, then he is right. The Kirk lost its authoritative standing a long time ago.

You can blame its administrators, labyrinthine bureaucracy, or reluctance to adapt. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this particular expression of the Christian faith is no longer attracting followers – and money – in the way it once did.

In religious and cultural terms, this is like the shrinking of the polar ice cap. Its diminishment represents one of the biggest societal shifts in our lifetime. Not so many decades ago, the church was a pivot around which many people organised their lives.

To be a regular member, or hold an office of responsibility such as elder or session clerk, was a matter of pride. As well as the obligatory Sunday morning services, there were prayer groups, Sunday school, Bible class, Boys’ Brigade, Woman’s Guild, and a plethora of fund-raising coffee mornings and fetes.

These were the physical manifestations of a confident institution that knew its place, and wanted no one to forget it. Ministers were important members of the community, more respected, even, than doctors and teachers. While the C of S no longer exerted the authority of the old-school Kirk, where penitents like Robert Burns were made to face the congregation and atone, echoes of its stern moral code lingered. Those who no longer attended often maintained a residual connection, attending services on Christmas Eve, or getting married and having their children baptised, even if they would rarely be seen in the pews between times.

For all its faults, the problems the Kirk is facing today are not solely its own doing. Point the finger instead at the death of belief. In a multi-cultural society, where other religions flourish, as do atheism and agnosticism, Christianity seems to have lost its place. In the search for meaning, this famously broad church, for many, no longer offers answers.


Despite all this, it is hard to envisage a Scotland where the Kirk is no longer one of the fundamental bricks in the wall. Love it or loathe it, it has for centuries been a key component of the national image, not to mention a cornerstone of our democracy. Before the advent of Holyrood in 1999, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland acted as our de facto parliament. These days, only its most divisive debates are reported in the media.

For those disillusioned with religious institutions, none of this will matter. For others, particularly older generations, it will be a source of sorrow. For them, the church is a lifeline: a spiritual support, but also a social network. It’s notable that, for all the talk of ageing congregations, which has been an annual refrain for decades, somehow this cohort always replenishes itself with fresh waves of older believers. Perhaps the message is that age and faith go hand in hand.

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As the Kirk goes into retreat, I can’t help wondering if the nature of Scotland will inevitably change. More likely, the change has already taken place, with few of us paying attention. This explains why the church is in a parlous state. Now, what lies ahead remains uncertain. Judging by the members of Spott, however, those for whom the church is an essential part of their lives will be doing whatever they can to keep it going.