SCOTLAND’S CHURCHES IN CRISIS

Pushed to ‘go digital’ after financial losses due to Covid-19

By Bill Heaney

A former Moderator and Principal Clerk of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has warned the coronavirus pandemic has shown that it has too many churches and needs to embrace a more digital future.

The Very Rev John Chalmers, one time minister at Trinity Parish Church in Renton, West Dunbartonshire, has revealed that Christian denominations throughout Scotland are making urgent cash appeals after Covid-19 left them millions of pounds out of pocket from closed churches.

The Scottish Government has announced that churches can reopen for worship with guidance covering such issues as limitations on numbers and social distancing. Singing hymns remains banned.

But Church of Scotland congregations were warned in May that they could lose around one-third of their income in 2020, totalling about £30 million, due to the shutdown.

The Kirk has since said it has now managed to reduce the massive projected loss through measures including persuading parishioners to switch their giving to standing orders and furloughing large numbers of staff.

However, it is still facing a significant fall in income. The Catholic Church in Scotland also admitted it was expecting “substantial losses”.

It has 600 priests in 500 parishes across eight dioceses while the Kirk has nearly 800 ministers covering 1,280 congregations.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church said: “The Church in Scotland is financially independent and does not receive any income from the Holy See.

“Financial appeals are being made and parishioners are encouraged to give directly – by bank payments – and to join a Gift Aid scheme.

“The Church is likely to face substantial losses.”

As well as a fall in cash collections, other income-earners such as weddings and hall hire have hit places of worship hard.

A report issued by the Kirk’s Assembly Trustees in May anticipated that the central Church may not receive £20 million of the contributions budgeted for from parishes this year.

They also warned that the Church is facing reduced income from investments, its CrossReach social care activities and trading.

Crossreach is that part of the Church of Scotland which has applied for a change of use of a large house in Kirktonhill, Dumbarton, to accommodate young people in care who are being educated in Erskine.

Half of the Church of Scotland’s administrative staff are at home on furlough. The effect has helped reduce the earlier loss projections of tens of millions of pounds.

“Since then we have taken steps to encourage congregations to make use of reserves, encouraged members and adherents to give by standing order or bank transfer, and we have developed other online methods of giving, such as donate buttons on congregational websites as well as on the main Church of Scotland website,”  said a spokeswoman for the Church of Scotland.

“We are monitoring the situation and will adjust our estimates when the impact becomes clearer.”

“The Covid-19 health crisis has affected income streams for all charities and the Church of Scotland is no exception.

“To respond to the financial challenge facing us a range of mitigating actions is being taken to maintain the income levels as far as possible, reduce our costs and accelerate our plans for structural reform.”

The annual cash from congregations to the Kirk’s central funds is £46.5m – almost half its total yearly income of £105m.

None of the Kirk’s 780 ministers has been stood down.

But a chaplain to the Queen says the Kirk has discovered that “so much of what we do is rooted in tradition and convention rather than relevance and necessity and that has to change”.

Writing in this month’s Church house magazine, Life And Work, The Very Rev Dr John Chalmers, former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, warns: “The church too has to learn lessons from our life in lockdown.

“Across the whole Church of Scotland, from the most rural parish to the most ancient cathedral, from our presbyteries to our central offices, we have been offered a tantalising glimpse of a very different kind of church.

“One in which we have discovered that we are not as reliant on buildings as we thought we were and it is one in which we are able, online, to reach a constituency that has been missing from our pews for generations.

“So, as we emerge slowly from this great difficulty we need to make it a prayer that across the church we build on the lessons we have learned and do not slip back into old ways.”

Writing before the Scottish Government’s announcement on reopening places of worship, he added: “Right now there is great uncertainty about when we may be able to return to our church buildings, but there is no doubt about the need to expand our online presence. 

While we long for the day when we can once again worship in our sacred spaces, we know that there are too many of them.

In Dumbarton, there are a much reduced number of Church of Scotland charges since the 1960s when there were three CoS churches in the High Street, one at Knoxland Square, one in Bellsmyre, and two at West Bridgend. Renton has Trinity, and Alexandria and Balloch has Jamestown Parish Church, the White Church in Balloch, Bonhill Parish Church and Luss and Arrochar parish churches.

Mr Chalmers said: “Memories of what we once were are no use to a Church that must dream of what we can be in the future.”

Sunday church services are now taking place for the first time since the lockdown began in March.

Places of worship were allowed to open for communal prayer and services on Wednesday last week as the Scottish government eased more lockdown restrictions.

However, numbers are limited to 50, singing and chanting is restricted and those attending are being asked for their contact details.

Separate rules are still in place for marriage ceremonies and funerals.

Many places of worship have been live streaming services for the last few months.

The Scottish government said its new guidance was not an “instruction” to reopen places of worship, adding: “Each place of worship should make its own decision about when it is ready to do this and should only reopen if this can be done safely.”

The Church of Scotland said it would be “some time” before all its buildings were open for worship. The church is also encouraging all congregation members to wear face masks.

Mr Chalmers says the Church has lessons to learn from “life in lockdown”.

Writing in the church’s magazine, Life And Work, he said: “Across the whole Church of Scotland from the most rural parish to the most ancient cathedral, from our presbyteries to our central offices, we have been offered a tantalising glimpse of a very different kind of church.

“One in which we have discovered that we are not as reliant on buildings as we thought we were and it is one in which we are able, online, to reach a constituency that has been missing from our pews for generations.

“So, as we emerge slowly from this great difficulty, we need to make it a prayer that across the church we build on the lessons we have learned and do not slip back into old ways.”

‘Real sadness’

The President of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, Bishop Hugh Gilbert said Catholic parishes would be resuming the celebration of Mass with “infection control protocols” in place.

Catholics currently worship at St Patrick’s, St Michael’s and St Peter’s in Dumbarton, St Mahew’s in Cardross, St Joseph’s in Helensburgh, St Gilda’s, Rosneath, St Martin’s, Renton, Our Lady and St Mark’s, Alexandria and St Kessog’s in Balloch.

“Over the past month, our parishes have been preparing for the safe resumption of communal prayer and the celebration of Mass, which is at the centre of the life of the Church,” he said.

To have been unable to attend Mass for many months has been a source of real sadness for Scotland’s Catholics and I am sure there will be great joy at the prospect of returning.”

The Scottish Episcopal Church, which has St Augustine’s in Dumbarton High Street, St Mungo’s in Vale of Leven and St Michael and All the Angels in Helensburgh, has also been opening its buildings for communal worship after the restrictions were eased.

In a video address to worshipers, the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Right Reverend Mark Strange, said he wanted to address the concerns and anxieties of those coming to church.

“Some things will be different but ultimately we’re there for the same reason we always have been – to give worship and praise to God,” he said.


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