Scotland’s Closing Churches

Dr DJ Johnston-Smith

Director, Scotland’s Churches Trust

“It used to be the job of the churches to save people; now it is the job of the people to save churches…”

These prescient words were delivered almost half a century ago by the late architect and academic Professor Sir James Dunbar-Nasmith at a public meeting organised in June 1974 in Edinburgh by Scotland’s oldest conservationist organisation, the Cockburn Association. Local amenity groups, all of the major denominations, local planning officers and anyone with an interest were called together to try to find solutions for the increasing problem of “redundant churches” in Edinburgh at that time. With Scottish church buildings currently closing at a rate that we have never before witnessed, it is probably fair to say that this Professor Dunbar-Nasmith’s call to civic action resonates even more loudly and more powerfully today!

Barely a week now goes by without a story appearing in a local or national newspaper about the closure and sale of yet another Scottish church. Many of these historic buildings are centuries old or were built on the sites of special ritual and community significance that stretch back centuries more or, in the case of Midmar in Aberdeenshire, sometimes even millennia. Other churches may only have been built within living memory, but these too are rich in significance for their local communities who have gathered there to worship, to find fellowship, to celebrate moments of joy or to find comfort during times of stress, loss, crisis and pain.

Much of the more recent reportage of these closures has begun to highlight the surprisingly cheap offer price of many churches during this “firesale” of historic properties. They tend to focus on the considerable development potential available to those with a little vision and flair for converting former places of worship or just to anyone who might be interested in bagging a ‘closing down sale’ bargain.

Some writers, such as Sandra Dick writing for the Herald, have urged buyers to ca’ canny and consider the likely hidden costs that will come with buying an historic building. Purchasers of historic properties in Scotland should familiarise themselves with the planning conditions and limitations that will inevitably regulate what is ultimately permissible and what safeguards they must abide by in order to protect our nation’s built heritage. Years of poor upkeep and maintenance, lack of adequate required facilities, listed building status, location among (and often on top of) human remains and many, many other factors may mean that considerable work, financial resource and planning must be invested before any actual conversion work can actually get underway.  

With Scotland now a largely secular country, many folk might understandably shrug at the loss of religious institutions and practices for which they hold little affinity for. Some might even celebrate these closures as a sign of modernity or for the development opportunities that they believe lie ahead. But we encourage everyone commenting on this process to pause for a moment and consider the negative impacts these closures are having on the individuals, groups and communities that regularly use these buildings in every village, town and city neighbourhood up and down the country.

Much of our work this past two years has been listening to the pain and anguish (and occasional anger) of individuals and congregations from across the country currently struggling to come to terms with the enforced loss of a cherished fixture in their lives that was previously believed to be immutable and permanent. Many that we speak to display the symptoms of grieving for a dying or lost loved one because, in essence, that is exactly what they are going through during this difficult process.

Churches, like many other buildings in our lives, form part of the physical landscape with which we interact to meet our basic human needs for shelter, to gather, to rest, to find protection and sanctuary from the world outside. But in addition to keeping us safe and warm, the permanent buildings in our lives also fulfil a more intangible purpose as they contribute to a delicate ecosystem that provides us with emotional balance and equilibrium in this ever-changing, fast-paced world.

Even if you haven’t stepped inside a church for years, its very physical, permanent presence as you pass by each day and the simple knowledge that whatever happens, that calm, quiet sanctuary inside awaits you if you ever need it, has brought comfort to many generations over many centuries.

Social scientists and public health experts today categorise this dual functionality as the “envirogenic” health and wellbeing benefits of the built environment. Denial of these benefits can adversely impact on the physical and mental health of those that have become accustomed to them. Their continued presence in our lives makes them much, much more than mere baggage that can simply be disposed of without much thought or negative repercussion.

We are constantly asked by journalists, sector peers and members of the public just how many churches are we talking about? Unbelievable to many in 2024, it is incredibly hard to place an exact number on this. Almost all denominations have been affected in recent decades by declining numbers of attendees, which causes declining income and an ever-reducing number of volunteers helping to maintain these buildings. The Church of Scotland has been hardest hit in this regard. They have significantly more churches than any other Scottish denomination and, over the past half century, they have endured massively declining membership with the accompanying fall in income that would once have been spent on the maintenance of their buildings. The complexity of the governance structures within the Presbyterian Church of Scotland also makes the closure process all the harder for outside individuals and organisations to discern.  

The governance structures within the Church of Scotland dictate that the ultimate decisions on the future of church buildings are taken by the denomination’s regional presbyteries. These presbyteries were tasked by the governing body of the church, the General Assembly, to implement a rationalisation process in 2019. The vast majority of these church buildings are however owned by the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland and effectively leased (without the formality of a written rental agreement) by their congregations who own the moveable contents within and are responsible for each building’s upkeep.

Building upon the Built Environment Forum Scotland’s  “Well Equipped Spaces in the Right Places” consultation and report, published by in December 2019, each Presbytery was tasked with producing a plan that assessed each of its buildings according to the merits or faults categorised in the report and on how each building directly benefited the Church’s desired “Five Marks of Mission.” The often long histories and considerable cultural and social heritage of the buildings, the congregations and the sites were not points for consideration in this process.

In addition to asking its presbyteries to judge each of its buildings, the denomination also set about the massive reorganisation of its presbytery structures at the same time, setting an ambitious target of completing all plans by the end of December 2022. Some were submitted and agreed long before that date, other plans are still not yet fully finalised and agreed today.

Many draft versions and agreed final versions have made it into the public domain by various routes, not always with the blessing of the local or national church authorities. Due to the devolution of these closure decisions to presbytery level, it is unlikely that a definitive national list will be provided by the Church of Scotland in the near future, if at all. This has led to a deep frustration across Scotland, with many local communities finding out far too late to make realistic and sustainable plans for the future of their beloved buildings that might have seen them transfer them into local community hands, something that will always take some considerable effort and time to organise.

Consequently, we have decided to publish the data on church statuses within presbytery plans that we have either found online or that have been made available to us. Naturally, this data comes with many caveats.

The documents we have found may be early versions of plans that have since changed, also some presbytery plans have simply not been made available to us for various reasons (these are marked TBC on the map). The plans themselves categorise each church building as either “A” or “B”, not be confused with the national planning listed building status.

“A” in this context effectively means safe for now, at least until the next round of presbytery planning begins in the near future. “B” is slightly more complicated, it absolutely does NOT automatically indicate disposal of the building in the short or medium-term. It does denote this in the majority of cases, but for some of these sites it simply means a decision on the disposal of one or two buildings from within a cluster of three or four has yet to be taken. Once the congregations and particular presbyteries have decided which church(es) will close, the surviving building(s) may subsequently be recategorised as “A” before the next round of presbytery planning begins.

With this cautionary data warning in mind, here is a map of known Church of Scotland churches, each marked with their current retention statuses using most recent presbytery plans that have been made available to us (map takes a few seconds to load!):

 

Red Pins – Churches that have closed or been sold since 2020 or are currently on the market
Green Pins – Categorised as “A” on most recent available presbytery plan
Amber Pins – Categorised as “B” on most recent available presbytery plan
Black Pin – Demolished church
Purple Pin – No info available (please get in touch if you have an update on any of these churches)

In addition to the 64 Church of Scotland churches we have so far identified that have closed or sold since 2020 or are currently on the market and the one church that has already been demolished prior to sale, we have identified 708 churches that are classified as “A” and 530 churches that are classified as “B”, which leaves a further 206 churches that we could not obtain any data for.

Please do get in touch if you can help us amend, correct or update any of this information, particularly with the welcome news of any churches that have moved from the “B” to the “A” category! When informed, we will try to make any such changes just as soon as we can.

We have not taken lightly the decision to publish, but we believe it is time to give local communities the opportunity to take up Sir James’s call to action and step up and assist those local congregations that are seeking help to save their beloved churches for future generations to enjoy as previous generations have done.

Our sincere thanks to Clare Mansell for permission to share her portrait of Sir James Dunbar-Nasmith