Ten (!) years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled "Concerned about the church" in which I expressed a concern that the way things were going, the church would die out simply of old age. This week, I'm now reading reports that the church has lost some 20% of attendees in the last five years, probably for exactly that reason. Those reports indicate that at the same rate of decline, the Church of Scotland will be effectively extinct in 30 years. Worryingly, I expect that rate of decline to accelerate rather than remain steady.
(Incidentally, I was recently told that Funsize's baptism was the first in about a decade or so at the centre we attend, although the same parish has had a few at their other location. Similarly, there have been no weddings at our centre in that time, and precious few at the other, but there have been plenty of funerals at both.)
Now, there are several reasons why church attendances are in decline, and plenty of reasons why the Church of Scotland is having problems attracting young people in numbers. (It should be noted that there are some denominations, even in Scotland, that are growing among young people - but they're growing from a very low base.) However, one thing that really doesn't help is that, for an organisation that is supposed to provide moral authority, the church is publicly very bad at taking a stand.
Here's the thing: the Church of Scotland makes the news approximately once a year, when the General Assembly is held. For people who don't attend, that may be the only time in the year when the church gets even the briefest thought from them.
And for as long as I can remember, the coverage of the General Assembly has been dominated by the ongoing controversy concerning homosexuality - whether it's the ordination of gay ministers, same-sex marriage, or whatever other flavour of the issue is under discussion that year. And every year, the outcome of the General Assembly is a fudge, a bad compromise... and then the issue rears its head again the year after.
In the meantime, attitudes in secular society have shifted very significantly, and the issue of same-sex marriage, at least, has been resolved pretty conclusively. And young people in particular are very comfortable with that. There are still some details to work out (such as the continued need for, and access to, civil partnerships), but basically the issue is dealt with. (I should note that here I'm referring specifically to gay marriage - I'm well aware that equality is still a way off.)
The upshot of that is that, for many young people, their only exposure to the church consists of (mostly) old men arguing over an issue that, frankly, they thought was resolved years ago.
That's not an image of an organisation that's good at things. It's not an attractive image for the church. And, for an organisation that should be providing moral leadership, that's very poor.
And since both sides in the debate base their arguments on competing verses in scripture, here's one (Rev 3:14-16, edited):
And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth."
Now, I do understand that the church is in a hard place, since there are very strong views on both sides, and since both sides back their arguments with scripture. (And I'm willing to accept that, for the most part, their arguments are based on a sincere belief in that scripture, rather than other motives.) And I therefore understand that taking a firm decision, either way, is likely to cause a split.
But here's the thing: there is a very real possibility that even the least-damaging decision will lead to the effective end of the Church of Scotland. It's probable that the more-damaging decision will lead to that end. But I'm certain that failing to take a decision at all will lead to that end. The clock is ticking; you can't take forever.
The church is called on to be salt and light. If it can't make a clear decision, whether that means going with the zeitgeist or standing against it, then what is the point of it?
(Incidentally, you'll note that I haven't at any point stated what I think that decision should be. I know where I stand on the issue, and I'm also well aware that I'm at odds with a number of people I know, and some whom I respect a great deal. But we're at the point now where I think it's critical that the General Assembly makes some decision, even if it's one I disagree with.)