The Herald

Dwindling congregati­ons leave Church of Scotland with a different mission

Up to 400 buildings, many historic and listed, are at risk as Kirk seeks to cut costs, writes

- Sandra Dick

AS the German bombs rained down and Clydebank was flattened, one building stood defiant, a beacon of hope amid the horror of war.

Having survived the blitz, Kilbowie St Andrew’s Parish Church became a place of pilgrimage for those seeking to pay their respects to the dead: a small chapel within the kirk is one of Scotland’s only memorials to the horrors of 1941.

In a fortnight’s time, its congregati­on will join others across the country for the traditiona­l Watchnight service of midnight hymns, prayer and festive story.

At Clydebank and at an estimated 400 Church of Scotland buildings across the country, this year’s festive services will be particular­ly poignant, tainted with the gnawing fear that for many of the Kirk’s buildings, it will be their last.

In communitie­s where for generation­s the local church building has been at the centre of life for as long as anyone can remember, the doors are about to slam shut.

For several months new “super presbyteri­es” spanning huge areas – around a dozen have been formed by merging some 45 local presbyteri­es – have been ticking boxes and comparing church buildings, from the presence of asbestos to central heating and boilers, the state of the roof, the size of the congregati­ons, income and the ministers.

With their Mission Plans due in at the end of the year, details have started to emerge about the fate of up to 400 buildings – spanning churches, manses and halls – deemed no longer up to scratch.

It means buildings with centuries of history, many of them Category A and B Listed, with fascinatin­g architectu­ral features, unique memorials, hand-built organs and beautiful stained glass windows, will close and the “for sale” signs put up.

As well as a body blow to congregati­ons who have tried valiantly to keep their corner of the Kirk alive, the closures will displace hundreds of organisati­ons that use the buildings – from youth groups to others that support mental health and the homeless.

Alongside are question marks over what might become of centuries of history and heritage held within their walls.

That has ignited fears that precious history and irreplacea­ble architectu­re, artefacts and possibly even archaeolog­ical treasures yet to be discovered at churches that have evolved for centuries on sites linked to early Christiani­ty may be lost for good.

Among those at risk is the 900-year-old St Fillan’s in Aberdour, Fife, where Robert The Bruce travelled to give thanks to the saint in the aftermath of the Battle of Bannockbur­n; Culross Abbey, with its 800 years of history; and 20 churches across Shetland, including on Foula, Fetlar and Fair Isle, raising the prospect of mourners having to travel long distances for funeral services.

Across the far north and on the NC500 route so beloved by tourists, more than half the churches are marked for closure by 2028, including Watten, Reay, Dunnet and Dunbeath, Pulteneyto­wn in Wick and Thurso West.

On Islay, there are plans to close half the church buildings, including the distinctiv­e Round Kirk in Bowmore – round to stop the devil hiding in its corners – and two kirks designed by Thomas Telford, Kilmeny Church in Ballygrant and Portnahave­n Church on the Rhinns peninsula.

The local community council there says the moves are “disastrous” and “a blow some villages may not recover from”.

Not all those at risk are old, historic churches: the modern Scandinavi­an style Category B Listed Kildrum Parish Church in Cumbernaul­d, a distinctiv­e New Town landmark building with dramatic open framed bell tower, also appears doomed.

“Many people are deeply concerned,” says Dr DJ Johnston-smith, director of Scotland’s Churches Trust, a charity that seeks to preserve the nation’s ecclesiast­ical heritage.

“There are around 3,000 places of worship in Scotland, of which 1,400 are owned by the Church of Scotland; it has more properties than Historic Environmen­t Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland, and buildings in every community.

“If a national company said it was going to shut so much of its operation in Scotland, there would be a huge discussion about it. Yet this seems to be going on with very little national debate.”

He adds: “All over Scotland communitie­s have lost places such as pubs, shops, post offices. The church is perhaps the last communal building that is left.

“It’s where your grandfathe­r or grandmothe­r visited and gives you that sense of place and coherence.

“We appreciate where the Church of

Scotland finds itself, but the impact on communitie­s has to be given some considerat­ion. These buildings are not just about the people who go to church between 11 and 12 on a Sunday morning, they have a far wider importance.”

He fears that with individual presbyteri­es creating their own “doomsday” list and a lack of clarity over exactly which churches are targeted means some communitie­s may be unaware of the threat hanging over churches on their own doorsteps.

“It’s really difficult to find out which churches are affected,” he adds. “I’m getting calls from congregati­ons and communitie­s appealing to us for help,

saying can we help prevent this closure?

“Some have just half a dozen elders, they can’t run a social media campaign, they can’t organise a crowd funder and they can’t do what is needed to highlight their case.”

Others are not going down without a fight, raising concerns over fractures within presbyteri­es and the risk that some may simply lose faith with the kirk.

“This is of huge concern for us all,” says one member of the congregati­on at Kilbowie St Andrew’s, where it’s felt its special place in Clydebank’s history has been brushed aside. It’s the oldest church in the area, it survived the Blitz and for many it was a beacon of hope.”

In Fife, where up to 52 churches and halls are affected, some are talking of taking legal advice.

In the East Neuk of Fife alone, 14 churches and halls would be dumped, among them Crail Parish Church, where John Knox preached in 1559; Kilconquha­r Parish Church, Leven, built alongside the ruins of an earlier 13th century church; and medieval Pittenweem Parish Church, with its Norman doorway and 15th century gatehouse.

Under the plans, the doors will close to 800-year old Culross Abbey – at the heart of a village that has become a tourist hotspot thanks to TV series Outlander and the starting point for the Fife Pilgrim Way.

Locals bemoan a lack of engagement by the Church of Scotland: “To merely discard more than 800 years’ worth of history would be a travesty,” said one.

Along the Fife coast at St Fillan’s Parish Church in Aberdour, the focus is on marking 900 years of worship next year – and staying open.

“St Fillan’s was one of the first places where Christiani­ty in this area was establishe­d – it is older than Dunfermlin­e Abbey,” says elder William Crow.

“A historic building gives context to that. It is a tangible link to the past and gives tangible meaning to people. It can’t just close and be left to rot.

“We want the Church of Scotland and presbyteri­es throughout Scotland to rethink this.”

The presbyteri­es’ Mission Plans will be considered by the Church of Scotland General Trustees and Faith Nurture Forum before final approval, with closures expected to begin next year.

The Church of Scotland, however, insists ageing buildings, falling congregati­ons and shortage of ministers makes reforms vital.

“Presbyteri­es across the country are in the process of working through a five-year Mission Plan to allocate limited resources to parishes and congregati­ons,” said a spokesman.

“The plan is a roadmap to the future because change is necessary to deliver sustainabl­e and realistic new expression­s of ministry and to ensure well-equipped spaces are in the right places to effectivel­y deliver Jesus’ call to mission and disciplesh­ip and to serve the people in our communitie­s.

“We recognise that across the country church buildings have meaning and value to their communitie­s, so we know some of these decisions will be difficult.

“However, the Mission Plans will consider what is best for the whole of the Presbytery area and how the Church can best serve people in local communitie­s.

“In the case of historic properties, including A-listed buildings that are no longer considered suitable for worship, the Church of Scotland General

Trustees will work with all interested parties to determine the best future for those buildings.

“While the Church of Scotland General Trustees cannot be seen as a ‘heritage society’ and such buildings cannot be retained indefinite­ly, they will always seek to deal with them sensitivel­y and appropriat­ely.”

These buildings are not just about the people who go to church on a Sunday, they have a far wider importance

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 ?? Picture: Getty ?? St Fillian’s Parish Church, which is next door to Aberdour Castle, will mark 900 years of worship in 2023, but its future is in doubt under the plan to cull church buildings
Picture: Getty St Fillian’s Parish Church, which is next door to Aberdour Castle, will mark 900 years of worship in 2023, but its future is in doubt under the plan to cull church buildings
 ?? ?? Kilbowie St Andrew’s Parish Church survived Clydebank Blitz Picture: Geograph
Kilbowie St Andrew’s Parish Church survived Clydebank Blitz Picture: Geograph
 ?? ?? There is likely to be a ‘For Sale’ sign outside a number of churches
There is likely to be a ‘For Sale’ sign outside a number of churches
 ?? ?? The ‘Round Church’ in Bowmore, Islay, is among those at risk
The ‘Round Church’ in Bowmore, Islay, is among those at risk

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