Historic Signature Churches A little bit of hope on the horizon?

Dr DJ Johnston-Smith

Director, Scotland’s Churches Trust

Living, as we are, through a period of upheaval in Scotland’s ecclesiastical built heritage, the likes of which was last seen in the mid-19th century, this week began looking like any other this year. More heart-breaking phone calls and emails about closing churches, Zooms with hard-working volunteers attempting to make a record of their soon-to-close nearby church buildings, meetings with sector colleagues and stakeholder trying to navigate a way through this crisis. Then on Thursday afternoon a little bit of very welcome news appeared in a paper published by the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland ahead of next month’s General Assembly in Edinburgh.

On Wednesday, The Alloa Advertiser, like so many other local papers have done in recent months and will do again in the months ahead, published on its front page the story of yet another church closure. The congregation of Moncrieff United Free Church of Scotland in Alloa have taken the difficult decision to close the building, forcing their last few regular Sunday attendees to find other nearby services to join.

The congregation at Moncrieff, like some other congregations across the country, know that they have sufficient funds in hand, from the sale of other property, to keep going for the foreseeable future if they wished. They even appear to have groups. such as a thriving Boys Brigade troop, using their building’s facilities. But, with no minister and no likelihood of increasing those Sunday numbers any time soon, they have reluctantly decided instead “that there is not a lot of point continuing.”

Now that the United Free Church is closing and disposing of some of its property, joining the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Free Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic church in Scotland, there are whispered fears in the built heritage sector that this trickle could become a stream, adding to the ongoing torrent of closures we are unfortunately seeing at the Church of Scotland.

The latter is rumoured to have earmarked around 400 churches for closure in the next two years and perhaps as many as a further 400 by the end of the decade. We might have a better idea of the full scale once the ongoing and delayed Presbytery Planning process comes to an end, but the raw, aching, emotion felt and expressed by congregations and communities across Scotland, as they confront the likely closure of church buildings in their locality that have been open to the public for generations, is palpable.

This sorrow and anguish was eloquently expressed yesterday in a letter in The Herald from Prof John R. Hume, one of our honorary vice-presidents and one of the most noted and well-respected scholars of Scotland’s ecclesiastical and industrial built heritage of the past half a century. Prof Hume made an impassioned appeal to the General Assembly Trustees to use any influence they can to change the direction of travel on church closures within the Church of Scotland, a body the retired academic once provided regular advice to.

On the same day Prof Hume’s letter was published the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland also published their annual report ahead of the General Assembly. In it they acknowledged that they “recognise the pain that has been felt throughout the Church with the re-categorisation and impending loss of churches across the country” as they reduce their “estate to a size that can be well managed and resourced for the future mission of the church.”

No one, including myself, envies or underestimates the enormous challenges faced by this national church organisation as it attempts to resource and sustain a collection of over 1300 aging church buildings, especially when its income and attendance are declining and its costs are soaring. But last year’s annual report from the General Trustees, which boldly proclaimed to readers that “They are not a heritage body” and that “the considerable historical significance” of some church buildings would not sway their decision to close or “divest”, provided a final word to far too many national and local discussions about the future of churches during the past difficult year before these conversations really got started.

 This year’s report happily offers a slightly more nuanced message and shares the General Trustees’ refreshed thinking on what they call their collection of “Historic Signature Churches.” Described as churches, which “due to their history and place in public life over many centuries, hold a special place in national life and in their ecclesial history”, the reports calls them “cultural assets” that “have great potential for mission, particularly in the public and wider cultural life of our communities and the nation.”

The General Trustees go on to share their admirable aspiration to partner “with the congregations who are the faithful and committed stewards of these buildings” and to collaborate with “other civic bodies and organisations” in a determined effort to seek sustainable futures for these special buildings.

Although this “small number” of significant churches has yet to be publicly identified, we certainly welcome this small glimmer of hope. We look forward to working with the Church of Scotland in the challenging months and years ahead and to supporting their efforts, in any way we can, to retain and sustain as many of these unique historic religious buildings as possible.