Is the Kirk Losing Sight of Its Duty? as the General Assembly Meets, a Leading Writer Asks If Social Issues Are Diverting the Church from Its Religious Obligations

Article excerpt

Byline: ALLAN MASSIE

MORE than 30 years ago Dean Acheson, who had been the American Secretary of State in the post-war years, remarked that Britain had lost an Empire and had not yet found a new role. One can't avoid the thought that this judgment could be applied to the Church of Scotland today.

This week the General Assembly of the Kirk meets in Edinburgh. It will be its last meeting before the Scottish parliament comes into being. There is some significance in this, and not only because the parliament will itself meet for the first few years in the Kirk's Assembly Hall. The real significance goes deeper than that. For a long time, when there was no Scottish parliament, the General Assembly of the Kirk acted as a sort of substitute. Indeed, even when there was a parliament in the 17th century, it could be argued that the General Assembly was the more important body, representing the whole nation as the parliament never did.

Certainly, for the greater part of our post-Union history, the General Assembly could be held to represent the moral conscience of the nation; it really did speak for Scotland. We were a churchgoing, Bible-reading, sermon-discussing Presbyterian nation, and the annual meeting of the Assembly was pre-eminently and properly the time when our concerns could be fully debated.

Moreover, ministers and elders returned from the Assembly to carry on its debates within their own parish; and, since, in

every parish, the ministers and elders of the Kirk represented the elite, the Assembly's debates and the views expressed in its sessions had a wide and pervasive influence. If it was not a lawmaking parliament, it was nevertheless the true convention of the Scottish people. And this remained true, even after the Disruption of 1843 and the creation of the Free Kirk, when there were two such Assemblies.

Now things have changed.

Scotland is no longer a Presbyterian nation. It is even arguable whether we can still, in any real sense of the word, call ourselves a Christian nation. But, inasmuch as we can, or may, still describe ourselves as that, the Church of Scotland, though it is still the established national church, is in reality only one Christian sect among others.

Church attendance figures are not very reliable, and may not represent the depth of Christian commitment. But it is safe to say that as many people attend Roman Catholic services as Church of Scotland ones; and that it is people like the Baptists and various charismatic sects who appear to be most successful in winning new adherents, making converts, and calling people to Christ. The Church of Scotland is withering. Its membership is declining.

Churches are still closing and parishes being linked. It bears all the signs of a failing institution. If it was a business, it would be a target for a takeover bid, and subsequent asset-stripping.

Yet it has not abandoned any of its pretensions to represent the moral conscience of the nation; and those pretensions will find lofty expression this week. Many of its liveliest debates will be concerned with social issues. There will be denunciations of the imposition of tuition fees on university students. …