Some kind readers have said these words to me at times, indicating that while they liked what I had written well enough, they weren’t sure I could cope with anything that demanded more stamina. I could argue that in my other blog, emmock.com, I have commented on several complete books of the Bible, sometimes translating them as well, but that doesn’t prove I could carry a sustained argument on a big subject. All of which is just a preface to announcing my decision to tackle the question of why, over the course of my lifetime, institutional Christianity in Scotland has declined continuously so that on any Sunday, less than 10% of the population will actually be in church. A slightly larger percentage will state their intention of going to church, but some of them won’t make it. This is the sort of statistic which leads my own denomination to ask how it can survive, and Secularist Society to demand that all religious faiths are separated from the state and its institutions.
Where has the church gone wrong?
One response is to argue that such decline is evident at other times in history, and that the church may be blameless and helpless in the face of cultural movements it cannot control. If I describe those movements as typical of liberal democracies with advanced capitalist economies, you may think it unlikely that any church could do much to control or even influence them. But churches are part of the changing society, and 60 years back, when I was a teenager, a much larger part than now. It is reasonable therefore to consider whether they have, by their own action or inaction, contributed to their own decline.
I am going to confine my analysis to the Church of Scotland of which I have been a member since childhood, and to the years since I left school, namely from 1960 to the present day. I do not think I need to write a chapter reminding you of all the societal changes in Britain in that period; they are many and profound. But in any review of these changes, I cannot find any in which churches were leaders or more than a very few in which they were a major influence. You might think that such a significant section of society might have at least one or two beneficial changes to its credit, but I can find none. Not one of the main moral, political, economic, artistic, technological or scientific or even spiritual changes in British society over these years has been led by the churches.
That seems to me an important judgement that deserves analysis, but given the huge number of changes and their complexity any extensive analysis across the board would be well beyond my capacity. On the other hand, an examination of just one area of significant change might be possible and illuminating. I’m going to focus on the changes in sexual attitudes and behaviour in Scotland since 1960. I’ll list those I consider most important:
1. Effective contraception and the availability of abortion have made it possible for heterosexual people to have sex without making babies.
2. It is accepted that teenagers are sexual beings and will probably have sex during their achool years.
3. It is accepted that a large proportion of young people will form significant but temporary sexual partnerships outside of marriage.
4. The sexualisation of large areas of social life – music, fashion, news, social media- some of it extreme by any standards is taken for granted.
5. All forms of consensual sex are legal for people over sixteen, and most sexual orientations are recognised as of equal worth, in spite of lingering prejudice.
6. The revolution in the status of women can be overstated, but the degree of equality achieved would astonish my parents’ generation.
7. In 1960 about 5% of births were outside marriage, at present almost 50%.
8. Over the period, the divorce rate first increased, peaked, and has been falling for the past few years, due to cohabitation making marriage more of a personal choice than a required status
With regard to most of these, my church has played a reactive rather than a fully participative or leading role. It has rightly seen that some of these changes are far from beneficial, but even its opposition has been largely ineffective. The one exception to this criticism is instructive. In 1968 The Church of Scotland agreed to the ordination of women as ministers in full equality with their male counterparts. Although many professions had for years admitted women to positions of authority, and one or two churches, notably the Methodists, had already accepted women ministers, this was a bold decision by my church, placing it alongside progressive groups in Scottish society which were promoting the equality of women. The results have been overwhelmingly beneficial, transforming parishes with new practices and the fellowship of clergy from a smelly male club into something much healthier. Three women have been elected as Moderators of our General Assembly, representing the Church for their year of office. The public face of the church has been a rebuke to all who want to deny the equality of women, especially those Christian denominations who offer spurious biblical arguments in favour of male superiority.
Contrast that example of leadership with the church’s attitude to the revolution in the sexual attitudes and behaviour of teenagers and young adults. Affluence, pop culture, contraception, along with the far from altruistic encouragement of market forces, accompanied a gradual but very definite rejection by young people of the conventional morality about pre-marital sex. This had frequently been two-faced: boys and young men might sow their wild oats, but girls and young women should remain virgins until marriage, because that’s what men wanted. Nobody asked which females were to be the receptacles of the wild oats, or how, in the face of such sowing, a sufficient supply of virgins could be maintained.
The church generally avoided the topic – never in all my years in the (Christian) Boys Brigade was the topic discussed, unless the shinyness of one’s leather belt and the blancoing of one’s haversack were some kind of symbolic indicators. Public teaching by the church always pointed to marriage as the right context for sex, and recommended chastity outside it. Homosexual activity was condemned as unnatural and harmful. God had designed the sexual apparatus of male and female for use in marriage alone and any other use was not in his plan. Except…. it was kind of admitted…..somewhat shamefully…. that “occasional masturbation” might take place. Occasional! Millions of acts of masturbation helped the males through years of restraint, into the sexual license of marriage. What the girls did is unknown to me.
Of course, young men and women did get together. My working class friends seemed to find enthusiastic young women without much trouble, and because they were wage- earners from age 14, were able to marry in their late teens, whereas middle class young people were not expected to marry until their mid-twenties or later leading to a variety of sexual strategies which fell short of “going the full way.”
The economics of liberal capitalism demanded the postponement of marriage until mature adulthood; the church demanded chastity outside marriage, and the young people caught in this trap rebelled. Pop music and so-called youth culture, along with the gurus of liberation, advocated sex as a pleasurable experience without any moral strings attached. From year to year the church deplored the evidence of “increased promiscuity”, the sexual content of books, magazines and films, the easy availability of contraception, not to mention the “animalistic posturing”of pop idols, all to little avail. Meanwhile it left at least one generation of young people to find its own way towards better sexual attitudes and relationships. Small wonder if in that endeavour many young people made serious mistakes which hurt themselves and others, were frequently led into unwise behaviour by the idiot pronouncements of their favourite entertainers, and, hampered by persisting inequalites, women were disadvantaged and abused; but great credit to them all that out of this chaos there emerged the new form of cohabitation called partnership, in which men and women, men and men, women and women, committed themselves for longer or shorter periods of time to share dwellings, love, sex and the fortunes of life. There are no formal rules for partnerships, but rather a broad expectation that partners are equal, and will treat each other with respect, honesty and affection. There are of course exploitative partnerships as there are marriages, but the social usefulness of this new relationship cannot be denied. It was invented by young people, while the institutions of society which might have helped them, parents, educators and churches stood on the sidelines and carped.
It’s not surprising that younger people deserted a church which had deserted them, while standing in judgement on their creativity.
(more to follow)