This essay appeared in Rock & Sling 14.1 (2019), pp. 83-95. It appears on this website with the permission of the editors.
We enter the parish church just before eight on a Sunday evening in June. Outside, it’s still midsummer daylight, a pearly Glasgow gray. Inside, shadows rise in the stone sanctuary. From the entrance, the nave is obscured from our view by sweeps of white cloth fastened to ten-foot wooden poles, spanning the width of the nave. A tunnel of cloth down the center aisle leads past the first twenty rows of pews and then opens out into the chancel. As we walk down the tunnel, I think of near-death experiences, the tunnel of light people say they follow, in bliss and wonder, toward the other side.
My husband, Ron, and I have come to Kelvinside Hillhead, a Church of Scotland parish church, with our friend Doug Gay, who serves this church as a volunteer minister. Doug is a professor at the University of Glasgow, a lecturer in practical theology and Principal of Trinity College. The church has no permanent minister, only part-time staff and volunteers like Doug, for whom this church is both laboratory and reality check.
A dozen people have gathered for evening prayer in the “gothic fantasy” building—as Doug calls it—with its curved chancel and slender stained-glass windows rising to delicate points, creating that sense of lift perfected by its model, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Kelvinside Hillhead was built to accommodate hundreds of worshipers during the Victorian flourishing of Glasgow, back when this city of soot-stained sandstone was the “engine of empire,” the “handmaiden of industry.” Tonight Christendom’s remnant sits scattered in the front pews, praying.
In addition to constructing the sheet tunnel, Doug’s team has adapted the space in other ways to appeal to postmodern sensibilities: a loop of ambient music, a few candles on the communion table, a projector flinging dappled rainbow lights into a stone alcove near the piano. We won’t be using the gigantic organ brooding in the balcony under its fanfare of pipes.
After several moments of silent prayer, a leader invites us to gather in a circle, right on the chancel steps. A few sit in chairs, the rest of us on cushions. The theme is light, in honor of the “long light” of the Scottish summer. Darkness does not touch down until eleven p.m. in June and barely lingers. By four a.m. the darkness lifts for daylight. We chant together: “Christ, you are light for those who follow you. / You come to bring to all the light of life.” We speak a litany, pray, read a passage from the gospel of John—the story of the woman caught in adultery. The meditation reflects on light as full of color. We are invited, as a ritual action, to make a “wee cairn” to symbolize the laying down of our stones of judgment and instead to mark that God is here. We quickly discover that if you’re going to build a cairn, you need to use rough-cut stones. The smooth ones we are using slide off one another, so our cairn is very wee indeed, more like a stone puddle. We chant and pray again, finishing with “All praise to you, my God, this night.” Afterwards, all are invited to “have another wander” through the church.
So I do. While Ron helps Doug and his team pack up the guitars and move the chairs back into place, lock doors and tidy up, I find the baptismal font in a dark alcove near the west door. The font is a substantial fuss of marble capped with baroquely carved wood, but it has been draped with blue fabric and turned into a place of prayer for refugees. It’s a craft project: the fabric represents the sea, and the little instruction papers suggest that I pin my prayers to it. I sit for a moment among the markers and pins at the base of the font and read the passages of Scripture supplied for meditation on Europe’s refugee crisis. In a few minutes, the guys are ready. The church is darkened and locked and it’s time to head for the pub.
Ron and I are in Glasgow to teach at the university, offering a short continuing education course for ministers. We’re staying with Doug’s family for the week. Doug is a tall Scot from Galloway, a man with long strides living in a city of narrow sidewalks. He feels to me coiled like a spring, passion with insufficient outlet. In his younger days, he was a fiery evangelical, intellectually ambitious, playing guitar in a band called Calvin’s Dream. They played bars, pubs, and festivals while Doug was working on his university degree in divinity in the early 90s. Now he writes academic books and worship songs. Still fiery, innovative and brilliant, but tempered by age and the reality of a church in decline.
“We’ve got a bit of a struggle over the building,” he says as we walk the few blocks to the pub. “We fight it.” The space is beautiful, but it’s difficult to worship there with a small congregation, he explains. Doug would love to remove the heavy wooden pews and make the space more flexible, but you can’t just do that. It doesn’t help that he is not the official minister, or that there are—as in every congregation—some people who refuse to countenance any changes. Besides, the building is “listed” and can’t be altered without permissions from three different oversight bodies. Meanwhile, the building is expensive to maintain. They recently spent hundreds of thousands of pounds for a necessary roof renovation, paid for by loans and a property sale.
Church buildings, as the most obvious embodiment of Christianity’s legacy in post-Christian Britain, are both treasures and burdens. They stand in every city center, every rural parish, as enduring monuments—often magnificent ones—to a Christendom now on the wane. A 2015 Pew study predicted that the percentage of the UK population identifying as Christian will drop from sixty-four percent in 2010 to forty-eight percent by 2050. A more recent survey found that only twenty-two percent of sixteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds identify as Christian. Of course, identifying as Christian is one thing, attending church is another. A British church census ten years ago found that in the UK, churchgoing people—defined as those attending services at least once a month—amount to six percent of the population. There are 37,500 churches in the UK, enough to accommodate 1,340 people each, on average. Average attendance on Sunday is eighty-four.
For the remnant, what to do with the responsibility of their architectural legacy? Maintain it, at great expense? Turn it into a museum? Sell it off? In West Glasgow, three congregations who once each occupied their own churches within blocks of each other had joined by the 1970s to form the Kelvinside Hillhead church. This allowed the unloading of two of the buildings. The original Kelvinside Church, another Victorian confection on a busy corner across from the botanic gardens, was sold to a developer in 2002 and converted into a restaurant and arts venue.
Nearby on a side street, the third church, less architecturally remarkable but still over a hundred years old, has been abandoned and awaits a buyer. We notice the for-sale sign while walking back from the university. Weeds have overtaken the yard, the door is chained shut. It was used as a girls’ school for a while, then as a church-plant site for a group of Baptists. A sign still advertises New Hope Fellowship. It will be sold and converted into flats.
There is much discussion, and some not unjustified alarm, surrounding the destiny of ‘mainstream’ or ‘mainline’ churches today which are losing their erstwhile positions of influence, dominance, and power with the religious, political, and social spheres of contemporary society. But is this ‘decline’ unambiguously to be deplored? – Alan E. Lewis
Over the next few days, as we teach our course, Ron and I meet fourteen more shepherds of the shrinking flock. Nine women and five men, most of them Doug’s former students now serving as Church of Scotland ministers. They signed up to spend three days with us working through material from a book we wrote called Worship Words. We’re struck immediately with the liveliness of the group, their need to talk to each other and compare notes. They are working in the corners, often with few resources and not much collegial support.
In the pre-course survey we sent out, one of our participants wrote that the biggest challenge he faces is knowing how to minister in a “Saturday church.” He went on to explain that he felt as if the Church of Scotland had “died following a significant ministry,” and now, “Like those mourning Jesus on that 1st Saturday, I too don’t know what the future holds. But, in the present, what words do I use to minister to those who retain a belief that there is a God, and that following in the way of Jesus Christ is a mark of holiness, or a spiritually significant way to live life?”
I’m struck by his words. Would an American pastor so readily accept what feels like defeat? Christianity in the U.S. now faces a crucial turning point, too. By one count, six thousand to ten thousand American churches die every year. Conservative evangelicalism, having flexed its political muscle in the 2016 presidential election, partly curdles to craven hypocrisy and partly to hand-wringing about its identity and future. Will the dominance of white evangelicalism finally crumble in disgrace? Will widespread disgust turn more people away from Christianity? After all, by some measures, religion in the U.S. was already experiencing a Europe-like decline before 2016. The percentage of “nones” in the U.S. is now twenty-three percent of adults, compared to sixteen percent in 2007. To be fair, these numbers are somewhat misleading. The Pew Forum reports that a good share of those “nones” have not abandoned faith entirely. Almost half are still sure or pretty sure there is a God. About twenty-eight percent of them still attend services at least once a month. They’re unaffiliated but not unspiritual. Overall, about fifty percent of Americans still attend religious services once a month or more—or at least, they claim to. By comparison, in Scotland, the “nones” are now fifty-two percent of the population, the highest in the UK. Perhaps Americans will remain more religious than our UK cousins. Perhaps we are merely a generation or two behind them in a pattern of decline.
The Scottish pastors in our class carry on, faithful to the faithful few. There is no reason to become a minister in Scotland except to be a servant. There’s little prestige or even notice, wan hope for the kind of celebrity or muscular social influence that American seminarians and pastors might still secretly—or openly—imagine for themselves. In Scotland, you have to want to serve God and care for people in hidden, ordinary places. This might explain why nine of our participants were women: when a profession loses its prestige, women take over the work.
Our participants proposed little projects for the class to practice some of the skills we worked on together. Monica, the sort of capable, middle-aged woman on which every church depends, wrote a service to take on the road to farmers who could not get to Sunday morning church. Margaret, a lively pastor in her seventies, wrote a funeral service for occasions where children who knew nothing of church would be present. Wendy, one of our youngest participants, works for Children’s Aid and focuses on refugees. She wrote a series of prayers for them. Roy is tired. He describes worship at his church as “friendly, relaxed, and broadly traditional,” but he’s been doing this a long time. He wrote some prayers, too. Dot, a free spirit who wants to be more creative, was simply grateful for the encouragement to try something new.
On the last day, we ask the group what they’ll take with them from our time together. They mention a number of things, then one person comments, “I didn’t expect to laugh so much.” They all agree. They needed to laugh.
On the other hand, a church with fewer members, but with a higher proportion of them motivated not by social pressures but by a dedication to Christ and to his mission, which might be costly and unpopular among their social peers, is arguably the stronger for being smaller. –Alan E. Lewis
This is not to say that there are no signs of vitality and innovation in UK churches. Greenbelt, an “arts, faith and justice festival” founded in 1974, is something of an annual Christian Woodstock. Every summer, people at the creative edge of the church gather for a few days on a country estate with tents and guitars in order to test the strength of their numbers and join one another in dancing, singing, or making art. Since the 1930s, the Iona Community has provided an ecumenical nexus of faithfulness and creativity, also in the peace-and-justice mode. Headquartered in Glasgow, with the isle of Iona as their spiritual center, the Iona group is now a modern religious order of sorts, complete with a Rule that entails daily devotion, mutual accountability, and commitment to Christian action. Three hundred full members are dispersed throughout Britain, with another three thousand associates and friends worldwide.
These examples suggest that a church disestablished from cultural power might flow into narrower but deeper channels. Maybe form an ecumenical movement focused on justice, peace, and environmental care. Maybe get creative. Lots of options free up when you stop scrabbling so hard to retrieve lost cultural dominance or political power.
The Iona Community since the 1980s has leveraged influence on the larger English-speaking church through its worship resources: songs and service books in a fresh, potent vernacular leaning toward social justice themes. This is not the Christianity of onward Christian soldiers marching as to cultural hegemony. Instead, it’s faithful witness through action, rehearsed in worship words. Songwriters John Bell and Graham Maule especially have turned the Scottish love for singing and folk art into hundreds of original songs. Bell has also collected folk worship songs from all over the world. Edited and compiled, printed and packed into boxes for shipment, the Iona Community’s publications have deployed folk art toward church renewal in the UK and beyond.
On Wednesday evening, Ron and Doug and I decide to attend the prayer service at the “Wee Wonder Box” at Iona HQ in Glasgow. When the cab drops us off at Carlton Court south of the Clyde, we have a hard time finding the right door. The offices are behind a gate, off an inner courtyard, in a renovated building that used to house horse stables built in the 1880s for a shipping company. Iona has a narrow, three-floor space for their Glasgow operations, including the Wild Goose Resource Group, their worship resource publishing arm.
We locate the right door and step inside a low-ceiled, multi-purpose room to find the service already begun. We’re welcomed into the small circle, maybe eighteen people. John Bell himself is there, and as we enter, the group is singing one of his compositions. The scripture passage for meditation is Naboth’s vineyard from I Kings 21. We engage in group exegesis: everyone chooses a slip of paper with a character from the story on it, and in small groups we discuss what our character would like to ask the other characters. Sermon as discussion. Back in the large group we steer quickly toward modern injustices in land use and ownership. “Naboth could not surrender the land to Ahab, because it was not his to give. It belonged to the future,” observes John. We conclude with more spoken prayers, a song called “We Will Not Take What Is Not Ours,” and a South African Amen. Then the circle breaks and everyone gathers around the snack table for a Scottish sacrament: convivial post-service eating and drinking.
On our last night in Glasgow, Ron and I share a couple pizzas with Doug’s family. I ask Doug to sum up the biggest problems facing the Scottish churches. He answers quickly: “The external challenge is decline. The internal challenge is unity.” We have a whole generation of Christians now, he says, who have known nothing but decline since “the tide” started to go out in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the Church of Scotland, like many American denominations, is torn over how to include LGBTQ people. About one-third of the churches, Doug estimates, are not ready to allow for same-sex marriage.
What happens when not only are you no longer the majority, but you have also lost the moral high ground? The remnant church cares for refugees, advocates for environmental reform, meets ordinary people where their lives brush the transcendent. But that’s not what people outside the church see.
“I ask my students to consider what happens when people stop thinking of Christians as ‘good,’” says Doug. Secularized people these days, in Scotland as in America, are quite likely to assume that Christians are moralistic bigots. This is an especially sharp judgment when the critics understand that modern secular values are derived in large part from the Christian legacy.
“When people’s ethical sensibilities were formed by what we Christians say we believe in—mercy, inclusion, grace,” Doug continues, “and then people say ‘Sure, we agree with all that, so that means LGBTQ people should be fully included’—then what happens when Christians say, ‘No, that’s where we draw the line’?”
Perhaps the publicly weakened church may understand afresh that its first task is not to change the world but to be present in it, quietly, hiddenly, making its dwelling place with its sinners and its outcasts, as the crucified Word itself dwelt among us in the flesh, full of grace and truth to be sure, yet incognito and invisible to those who lacked the eyes of faith. — Alan E. Lewis
A few days later, we’re in England’s Lake District to visit our friends Alison and Martyn. They live on Morecambe Bay in a town called Grange-over-Sands, a well-kept town built into a hillside sloping down to the tidal estuary. Martyn is a pastor in the United Reformed Church, a small denomination that formed in the 1970s from a group of Presbyterians and Congregationalists. About 1500 URC churches in England, Scotland, and Wales operate alongside the larger established churches. While it’s a younger and arguably more vital denomination than the Church of England, they too face the practical challenges of decline. Martyn was called from his church in Greenwich to serve in the Lake District on a pastoral team that cares for four congregations at once: one in Grange-over-Sands, one in Windermere, and two others in Kendal and Sedbergh. Martyn is a good-humored, sensible person with a pinch of cynicism just large enough to keep him sane and allow him to appreciate the absurd in ordinary church life. These days, he spends a lot of time commuting between churches, tooling along the winding, frightfully narrow roadways of the Lake District.
Over dinner one evening—Martyn’s impeccably prepared beef Wellington—he explains that his congregation in town, small and aging, is talking with the Methodist church, also small and aging, about merging. This would solve some problems and raise numerous others. Whose building would they keep and whose would get sold? Could they remove pews? (Always with the pews.) Would the new congregation be answerable to both denominational bodies? How would they manage the URC’s mixed congregational vs. the Methodists’ episcopal church government system? And what would happen to the other three churches in Martyn’s group? Would they become a five-church group or would the newly combined church split off? None of this has been decided.
On our second day, Alison takes Ron and me and one of their frisky spaniels on a hike around Rydal Water. On the way back, we visit Martyn’s Windermere church, the Carver Uniting Church. “Uniting” because here the URC and Methodists have already joined up. It’s a newer, attractive stone building with a spacious, welcoming entrance area and—guess what—no pews. The sanctuary has moveable seats. The daily challenges of congregational life here are the same as anywhere: managing decision-making processes, caring for the facility, handling conflicts and various difficult people, balancing tradition with enough freshness to keep people coming. To attract families with young children, Carver offers “messy church,” a craft-oriented, “all-age” worship experience on Saturday mornings once a month.
“Do the families who come for messy church attend the regular Sunday service?” I ask Martyn later.
“Some do, some don’t,” he explains. But they’ve had to make a rule that parents must stay with children the whole time at messy church. This is not a baby-sitting service.
The Gift Store
We end our UK sojourn in London, where we stay with a friend of Alison’s in Streatham Common. On Sunday morning, Ron and I head out early to catch the train and then the tube in order to make the parish Eucharist service at St-Martin-in-the-Fields. A church on this site goes back to the thirteenth century, but the current building is a grand, neo-classical edifice completed in 1726, directly across the street from what is now Trafalgar Square, one of London’s busiest people crossroads. The National Gallery presides over the north side of the square, while Lord Nelson gazes over London from his preposterously tall pedestal 150 feet above the center. The huge plaza swarms day and night with tourists.
We arrive at the church with enough time to visit the loo, so we smile at the friendly ushers and try to look more like worshipers than merely loo-using tourists. We head down to the crypt, where café tables and chairs sit right on top of the grave markers, rainbow flags drape from the ceiling for Pride Parade weekend, and menu placards display the lunch special. The restrooms are large and clean and carry a sign explaining that they are, yes, open to the public. This is part of the church’s ministry. It costs £32,000 pounds a year to maintain them, so if you would care to make a contribution they would appreciate it.
The service is high Anglican and excellent, attended by about two hundred, including the choir and clergy. Numerous older folks, but young adults as well. On the first page of the bulletin is a gracious reflection on pride—pride can be sin but also a virtue—to honor Pride Weekend. Several of the eloquent prayers are composed by the staff pastors. The Rev. Dr. Sam Wells preaches a fine sermon on II Kings 2, the story of Elisha receiving Elijah’s mantle. Daylight infuses the sanctuary through its austere windows. The remarkable east window, designed by an Iranian-British artist, features an undulating, dynamic cross.
After the service, Ron and I find our way out and around into the modern glass gateway to the rest of the operation. Art, social justice, tourism: St. Martin’s has simultaneously mastered all of these strategies for ecclesiastical survival. “St Martin-in-the-Fields is a unique configuration of commercial, cultural and charitable initiatives rooted in a vibrant congregational life,” reads the opening page of their “What’s Happening” booklet for summer. It’s a dizzying, thirty-page catalog of concerts, exhibitions, talks, and community events.
St. Martin’s has active ministries to youth and people who are homeless. They run a café in the crypt and also outdoors in the summer. They have a gift shop, of course. They run twenty services every week; all are welcome. And their concert series would be the envy of any venue anywhere: jazz, classical, pop, choral, with sustained attention to the sacred choral tradition and an emphasis on young artists at the top of their game. Many of their concerts are free. Others cost £25-30 for the best seats. You can rent their venue for your events, too.
How do they do all this? Staff. Three full-time and three part-time reverends; a total staff of eighty; and an executive director who must be a genius. She runs all the programs other than the worship services and brings in annual revenues of £4 million. The profits all go to ministry.
Ron and I wander about the gift store, stunned. Somehow this church managed to jujitsu every aspect of Christendom’s decline—smaller numbers of worshipers, a gigantic old building, an indifferent public—into vibrancy. “Our church at home could do all this!” I tell Ron. “We have a refugee ministry! We have artists! We have musicians! We already have a little art gallery. We could have a concert series, and a gift store!”
What we don’t have, he calmly points out, is a central location in a city of nearly nine million through which an additional sixty-five million pass every year. Well, fair point.
Grass and Sky
During a few days in Yorkshire earlier in the trip, Ron and I had made a pilgrimage to the abbey ruins at Rievaulx. We walked a good five miles along the Cleveland Way from Helmsley to get there, crossing sheep pastures and rye fields in the summer heat. Rievaulx was built in the twelfth century to house a dozen Cistercians sent from France to start a monastic community. It prospered and grew, suffered setbacks, and grew again. At its high point in the thirteenth century, 140 monks lived there, plus many lay brothers. In 1538, Henry VIII removed the monks and sold the property to a favored courtier, who plundered it and left it to ruin. Today it’s a National Heritage Site with a shiny new café and gift shop, a fine little museum, and an excellent, free audio guide.
And yet: a palpable holiness remains. The foundation stones and a few walls trace a jagged outline of daily monastic life. The arches of the abbey church reach up, roofless, their windows empty. You can see the clouds through them. The great pillars from the oldest part of the church are nothing but stubs. The stone floor is gone; what’s left of the altar rises from a grassy carpet, kept neat by workers with hedge trimmers. Swallows swoop and wheel in the nave.
It’s tempting to wonder if this place is more beautiful now than it ever was when the monks kept their vigils here. I suppose it was beautiful then, too, with men of earnest austerity offering their prayers, tending the sick, farming the land, falling asleep in the afternoon over their books.
Now, all that is long swept away, and the place is so quiet. We stand in silence in this sacred ruin, the grass under our feet, nothing but sky above.
What will happen to the Christian legacy in England and Scotland? How does one steward decline?
For that matter, what does “decline” even mean? We can calculate diminishing numbers of worshipers and members, but it’s more difficult to measure loss of cultural influence. Or grief. People in the UK who remember “the old days” are watching the centering institution of their lives fade before their eyes.
For UK Christian leaders, the challenges are fraught and puzzling: how to steward property, how to do church in a changing cultural context. The heavy questions of how many will remain faithful, and what faithfulness now means. It’s possible to imagine, even in the UK, that the long Christian legacy could just disappear—the souls vanish into the crowds, the books melt into library stacks and digital archives, the less remarkable buildings transform into hip restaurants and flats. The art—sculptures, paintings, poetry, music, and the grander architecture—all that is more enduring. It will continue to say: something was here.
Is something still here? Yes, though it is transforming into something different, less visible on the surface, less grand, perhaps less entangled with secular power structures. If the true church is not merely a human social institution, but Christ’s presence animating a messy and ever-failing endeavor, then the power of the Gospel will remain. Somehow.
Doug Gay is working on a book, the first chapter of which is called “What Just Happened?” In it, Doug wonders whether “[t]hose of us living in the most secularized societies in the world may find that beyond the post-Christendom period we are currently living through, we may be about to experience a post-secular and post-atheist phase in our culture.” This might, Doug suggests, bring a new openness to Christian faith. Hostility gives way to indifference gives way to questions which leads to renewed discovery. It’s possible.
Maybe it’s too easy for me as an American to regard the church’s decline in the UK with equanimity. America is different, younger, more brash and strident. I return to my thriving congregation, five hundred strong on a Sunday, and I remember that there are advantages to numbers and prosperity. And disadvantages.
Nevertheless, I’ve seen articles recently about churches here selling their buildings to condo developers or repurposing them into money-making community ventures, finding new ways to be church. And all the demographics say: the future of the church is shifting to the global south. The tide is ebbing in the north.
Maybe Alan Lewis, that prophetic transatlantic scholar from the last generation, is right: the ebb, too, is part of the Gospel story. Maybe a time of decline is good for our northern churches, purifying. Forcing us to stop fighting and work together across divides, to live in solidarity with those Jesus always meant us to serve. After all, we’ve had a long summer day. Maybe it’s twilight now, and we should gather more quietly for prayer, a random toss of souls in the shadows.
Caroline Wyatt. “Is the UK Still a Christian Country?” BBC News. 25 May 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-32722155
Harriet Sherwood. “’Christianity as default is gone’: the rise of a non-Christian Europe.” The Guardian. 20 March 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/21/christianity-non-christian-europe-young-people-survey-religion?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Facebook
Pew Research Center. “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious.” 3 Nov. 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/
“Most People in Scotland ‘Not Religious.’” BBC News. 3 April 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-35953639
Pew Research Center. “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050.” 2 April 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/files/2015/03/PF_15.04.02_ProjectionsFullReport.pdf
Alan E. Lewis. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.
Hillary Frances, “A Church That Doesn’t Need Your Money.” Sojourners Dec. 2018.
Jonathan Merritt, “America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches.” The Atlantic. 25 Nov., 2018.