Dear Scotland

Archbishop Stephen Cottrell’s ‘Dear England’ book has nudged me to think about ‘Dear Scotland’. There are many things which I could write about – with great affection. But the one which interests me most is the nature of secular society in Scotland.

Almost everywhere, society has been becoming more secular. It’s a sort of inexorable attrition of the life of faith and the practice of religion. To turn the tide tends to be a Canute-like endeavour. But strangely, as our societies become more multi-faith, religion paradoxically becomes more important,

It took me a long time to realise that what drives the secularising movement is not the same in every society.

In England, it’s been a steady ‘movement away’ and I’m often surprised by how much is left. In Ireland, the prosperous ‘Celtic Tiger’ years and the abuse scandals reduced the Catholic Church to a shadow of itself in a single generation. In Northern Ireland, the all-pervasive sectarianism artificially sustained religious affiliation – and the peace process has tended to weaken it. But there is a long way to go.

The Brierley Consultancy has been surveying religious practice in Scotland for many years. The figures are startling:

The 1984 Scottish Census recorded total church attendance as 854,000, and between 1984 and 2002 it reduced by 33% to 570,000 in 2002. That 2002 attendance figure has reduced over 14 years to 390,000 in 2016, a reduction of 32%.

No doubt there are many causes behind those figures – but the one which seems to me to be ‘special to Scotland’ is the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th Century. The Enlightenment implanted in the Scottish DNA strands of rationalism and empiricism. So the roots of Scottish secular society lie in an intellectual movement not in a gradual ‘falling away’. It is obvious that this will make efforts to grow religious movements challenging to say the least.

Faith communities say, quite rightly, that a decline in religious practice is not the same as the absence of appetite for exploration of the spiritual. But, as applies everywhere, it helps to understand the context.

So my experience has been that it is possible to stir interest in spirituality and prayer. Many people have a radical and faith-driven attitude to issues of social justice. Celtic spirituality remains deeply attractive to many and is increasingly being expressed in the growing pilgrimage movement.

But in a society like this, it is tempting for faith communities to live inside their own world. It takes energy – but it is absolutely necessary that they should try and engage with the whole of society and take their place in the ‘public square’

More another day