Bold reforms are Kirk's baptism of fire

The Church of Scotland’s historic decision to reform its policy on baptism is a reminder, if any were needed, of the momentous decisions facing the Kirk in all areas of its work.

For the past decade, the Kirk has been beset by problems, from falling membership and the spiralling cost of its repair bills to the dwindling value of its assets.

Only last week, the Scottish Church Census reported that the number of regular Sunday worshippers in the Kirk had fallen by 22 per cent since 1994 to 228,500.

Earlier this month, The Scotsman revealed that the Church’s three pension funds were £50 million in deficit after a prolonged downturn in the stock market. And in its report to this year’s General Assembly, the Board of Stewardship and Finance called for cuts of £2.3 million to be made by 2008 in order for the Kirk to meet its financial commitments.

The Church of Scotland’s statistics on baptism make for equally grim reading. Currently, only 17 per cent of children born in Scotland are baptised by the Kirk, compared with 50 per cent in 1961.

In that year, the Kirk baptised more than 50,000 infants out of 100,000 births, but by 1971, the figure had dropped to 34,000 baptisms from 86,000 recorded births.

By 1991, the number of baptisms had fallen even further to just 16,000 from a birth rate of 66,000 and in 2001, the Kirk baptised just 9,170 children in a year when 57,537 children were born.

One reason for the decline is the growing trend towards baptism later in life, as parents allow children to decide issues of faith for themselves as they grow up.

However, the report to the General Assembly by the Kirk’s Panel on Doctrine also identified the need for the Church to move with the times.

The old rules on baptism specified that at least one parent should be a member of the Church in order for a child to be baptised, but the new proposals open the way for other family members to act in place of a mother or father.

The move is an attempt to make baptism more relevant at a time when the traditional family unit has been increasingly eroded. It is also hoped that, by opening up baptism to more people, stronger links between the Kirk and an increasingly secular society can be forged.

As one Kirk member put it: "If the first point of contact with the Kirk is baptism and a family is turned away because the parents cannot commit in the way that is expected, then we may well lose that family for ever. That cannot be the right way of doing things."

The Rev Dr John McPake, the convener of the Kirk’s Panel on Doctrine, told the General Assembly that the new provisions better reflected Scottish society. "Here we must acknowledge that, for increasing numbers, baptism is not how the celebration of life is marked and that confronts us with the reality that the Scotland within which we live is a changed Scotland," he said.

"We are attempting to communicate with a whole generation for whom ‘having the wean or the bairn done’ has no meaning whatsoever."

While the effect of this decision cannot yet be calculated, the fact that, on the issue of baptism at least, the General Assembly has grasped the nettle of reform is perhaps a sign of hope for the many people within the Church for whom further modernisation cannot come soon enough.

At grassroots level, there is a real appetite for change, with a growing call to turn the Kirk’s unwieldy hierarchy on its head by allowing local presbyteries to set their own priorities. Only then, runs the argument, can local churches be seen to be relevant within their wider communities, winning back friends and, eventually, bringing more people back into pews.

It is clear that all levels of the Kirk are aware of the need for change. The Rt Rev Professor Iain Torrance, the moderator of the General Assembly, has already accepted that reform is inevitable if the Kirk is to take control of its destiny.

"There are difficult decisions which have to be made, but if we shirk from these decisions, then we will impede the work of the Church," he said.

Prof Torrance said reform would inevitably lead to a streamlining of the Kirk’s administrative structure, which has been criticised for being unwieldy and resistant to change.

He went on to insist that the Church also had to change to adapt to "modern spirituality", typified by the fact that going to church was no longer seen as the only valid means of expressing Christian belief.

"For several centuries, this church has locked itself into the idea of membership. By operating a spatial metaphor like that, then you are thinking of people who are either inside or out.

"People still have a spirituality - over 75 per cent of the population admit to having had a spiritual experience - but that is not always expressed by going to church every week. We have to be there for people in a much more flexible way."

Prof Torrance’s comments tally with the message of a new book, set to be published at the General Assembly, which looks at the way forward for the Kirk.

Inside Verdict calls on the Church to put the needs of their communities at the heart of their work and calls for the management structures of the Church to be less "top down", allowing congregations to set their own priorities.

Iain Whyte, the general secretary of the Board of Parish Education, said the current downturn in the Church’s fortunes could only be reversed by changing the Kirk’s priorities.

He said: "The big problem with the Church at the moment is the lack of confidence. We need to restore confidence by restoring the Church’s sense of identity within local communities."