Kirk dilemma: two million believers, 240,000 worshippers

A new report yesterday highlighted the membership difficulties facing the Church of Scotland, now at its lowest point at 571,000.

Although nearly two million people claim their "current religion" as Church of Scotland, only about 240,000 of the membership worship regularly.

The report, by the Church's panel of doctrine for the general assembly next month, maintains some people fear the Kirk is too much like "an exclusive club" and want to remain free of it but, at the same time, keep allegiance to the Christian faith. Others, says the committee, fear membership would typecast them as "a religious person without a mind of their own".

The report adds: "People know what they want from the Church: a good funeral, a happy wedding, a celebration of a birth, but resist when the Church tries to take this further and seems to want to take over their lives."

However, the Rev Dr John L McPake, convener of the panel on doctrine, struck a positive note, saying the fact that two million people were "on the fringes" claiming allegiance to the Kirk was striking and it contradicted suggestions that Scotland was becoming less of a religious nation.

According to the report, religion in Britain is characterised by some as "believing rather than belonging". It adds: "When faced with declining communion rolls, some see this minus as a plus, with a leaner membership to be a more committed one following 'pruning' of paper members."

It warns, however, that any policy of purging the communion roll should be approached with great care.

Dr McPake said: "Like others, we would like to see our membership figures be maintained rather than decline. The Church clearly does have many more people who want to identify with it in some way and we ought to be in the business of communicating with them."

The latest membership figure compares with just under 591,000 the previous year. It represents almost half the membership of 50 years ago.

The general assembly will also hear of improvement plans on Iona. The Iona Community's Growing Hope Appeal is raising finance to enhance facilities at Iona Abbey and the Camas Adventure Centre on the Ross of Mull. It is planned to convert the abbey shop into a shop cum coffee house and a building into accommodation.

Scots and beliefs

Of the current Church of Scotland membership of about 570,000, statistics suggest that only 240,000 attend services every week. About two million people claim the Church of Scotland as the foundation of their religious beliefs.

The Catholic Church in Scotland has 750,000 baptised Catholics, of whom about 220,000 attend every week. Remainder said to be "lapsed".

The Scottish Episcopal Church has total membership of about 44,000. The number of communicants – active members – is about 30,000.

Of the 40,000 to 50,000 Muslims in Scotland, at least 20,000 are actively involved in their religion.