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Community / A ‘bygone era’ or a ‘shelter from the storm’? Althing finds churches no longer relevant

A photo an Althing debate from last January. Photo: Sarah Cooper

AROUND 35 people listened to a lively debate discussing the Church of Scotland’s relevance in Shetland in the Lerwick Town Hall on Saturday night.

Donald Murray and Barbara Dinnage spoke against the Althing motion that ‘da Kirk’ is no longer relevant, while Cameron MacKenzie and Chris Horrix were in favour of it.

There was some confusion in the audience in the speakers’ different interpretations of ‘da Kirk’ and whether this referred specifically to the Church of Scotland, religion and spirituality, or to the church buildings no longer being relevant for the community. Each speaker focused on different areas.

Mackenzie kicked off the debate, stating: “Scotland is no longer a Christian country.” This, he said, was a move that has been “several hundred years in the making” thanks to advances in science, technology, and philosophy, and added that due to a cultural shift in the 1960s which saw “Christianity pushed to the side”.

He focused on the Church of Scotland specifically, adding: “My argument is not that the Church of Jesus Christ is not relevant, but rather that ‘da Kirk’, the Church of Scotland, is not relevant.”

The shift, he added, had been the Church’s own fault. “The Church has made itself irrelevant by trying to stay relevant,” he said and predicted that the Church of Scotland could cease to exist in the 2040s.

Murray followed and speaking in favour of the Church, he drew on his own experiences growing up in the Western Isles. He said reading the bible offered opportunities for a more “enriched vocabulary” and added that social gatherings held after church services are just as important as the service itself.

He finished by urging people to consider how churches could be adapted before they are lost, stating: “Many existing churches on the island can play an important role. It’s up to us to take advantage before they go forever.”

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Horrix rebuttal highlighted how Sunday has developed over the years, from a day of rest to a day of socialising, as we now have the option of going to the cinema, eat out at restaurants, and go shopping.

She also added that there are plenty of community halls available in Shetland for social gatherings, open every day of the week, and the invention of the internet as allowed us to socialise with people all over the world.

She said: “It’s not economical to maintain these old, cold, uninsulated buildings,” and stated that the church was no longer relevant to the teachings of religion or most of the community.

While asking the audience to vote in favour of the motion, Horrix added that the church was no longer relevant to around 66 per cent of the population.

Dinnage, meanwhile, took a broader view, considering ‘da Kirk’ as all churches and religion instead of focusing on the Church of Scotland alone.

She reminisced over her own experiences growing up in the church and attending Sunday School, either at the church or the Salvation Army, which featured a spot of tambourine playing.

She showcased how churches continue to be popular spots for celebrating births and weddings and holding funerals.

Finishing up, Dinnage said: “Is it short-sightedness to sell off the churches? They are still places of great sanctuary, a shelter from the storm in times of great trouble, and places you can dream and meditate.”

During statements and questions from the audience, one contributor said her viewpoint had not been articulated during the discussion, and added: “What I find difficult, is that we focus on what we know, rather than what we don’t know.”

She said her church is open seven days a week for people to attend and receive holy communion, rather than just a Sunday, and added: “My spirituality matters to me; faith to me is a gift.” This pro-religion view had not been discussed during the debate, she said.

The discussion comes during a period the Church of Scotland is selling much of its estate in Shetland.

During the final statements section of the evening, Mackenzie highlighted that Church of Scotland membership, had dropped from 1.3 million in the 1950s, to 300,000.

He added they have seen a fall of 34 per cent in the last ten years, adding: “There has been lots of eulogising for a bygone era, but that’s not the Scotland we live in. We live in a post-Christian Scotland.”

It certainly represented the majority view during Saturday’s debate, as by the end of the night, 19 people voted in favour of the motion that “da Kirk was no longer relevant”, with only five votes against it and 11 remaining undecided.

Another two debates have been scheduled for this winter: On Saturday 18 February the Althing will tackle the motion ‘Shetland’s dependency on the private car has to end’ while four weeks later the topic for debate will be ‘The 1970s – we never had it so good’. Both events will be in the Lerwick Town Hall.

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