Chapter 2: History and Use of Religious Statistics in Scotland

Church historians are privileged by the volume of statistics they have at their disposal.  There is no other area of popular culture for which such data are so profuse (Callum G. Brown, 2001, p. 145).


The Church of Scotland has a long tradition in the collection and analysis of Scottish religious statistics.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, surveys of the Scottish religious geography by prominent churchmen became a mechanism to confirm the protestant church’s pre-eminent place in society.  The changes in urban society, brought about by the industrial revolution and with the growth and the intensification of denominational politics in the 19th century, encouraged church leaders to again utilise data of various kinds, this time in the furtherance of their cause or dispute (C. G. Brown, 1997, p. 42).  In entering the 20th century, the focus for the use of statistics by the churches centred initially around aspects of mission, before changing focus to be used for measuring, mapping and managing decline.   As the Church of Scotland entered into the 21st century, attitudes to data began to change; in some parts of the church there is scepticism around the real value of any numerical measures and in others, a new confidence and determination to collect and use information in fresh and creative ways, for the benefit of the church. 

This chapter charts the history and extensive engagement with quantitative data by the Church of Scotland in its quest to fulfil the role outlined in its constitutional declaration:

As a national Church representative of the Christian Faith of the Scottish people, it acknowledges its distinctive call and duty to bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry (The Church of Scotland, 2017b).

Early Surveys

Around 1650, Sir John Scott sought permissions to conduct a survey of Scottish parishes.  The necessary approvals were given for this to take place but local ministers were reluctant to participate and so little useful information was returned (Kyd, 1947, p. 310).  In 1755, the earliest successful Scotland-wide demographic survey was undertaken by Rev. Alexander Webster.  (Kyd, 1952).  Webster was moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and therefore a person of significant influence amongst Church of Scotland clergy; this, combined with support gained from the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), meant that Webster was able to succeed in gathering detailed statistical returns from ministers in every part of Scotland.  Webster was interested to find out, among other things, both the number and the religious affiliation of the population.  In his resulting summary tables, Webster highlights the number of ‘Protestants’ and those who were Roman Catholic, whom he refers to as ‘Papists’ in each place.[1]  

The religious landscape, as presented by Webster, indicated that from a total Scottish population of 1,265,380 the vast majority, 1,248,890 (98.7%) were considered ‘Protestant’ with only 16,490 ‘Papists’ (1.3%), the greater part of the Roman Catholic population being located in some of the Scottish islands or in small sections of the northern mainland.  He indicates, for example, that in Barra, Inverness-shire, there were 1100 ‘Papists’ and only 50 ‘Protestants’ (Kyd, 1947, p. 59).  This group of Roman Catholics, like others, were rare, thus demonstrating both the effect of the Scottish reformation along with the largely successful efforts toward the religious suppression of the Roman Catholic faith (Pacione, 2005).  Active suppression will mean, of course, that there will be a level of hidden religious adherence, which will explain why so many areas registered a nil return for Roman Catholics.

In this first attempt of a comprehensive survey of the country, there are fundamental questions around the issue of accuracy.  How true are the figures given?  What is the level or scale of error?  These questions arise, to some degree, with every survey, census or set of statistics presented.   It is a common error and misconception that numerical data of this kind has absolute precision when, in reality, it provides an estimate.

Statistical Accounts of Scotland

The next great 18th century gathering of information was the First Statistical Account of Scotland organised by Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster.  It was in the reporting of this information that the terms ‘Statistics’ and ‘Statistical’, derived from the German language, were first used.  Sinclair gave it a new emphasis, explaining that it meant, 

An enquiry into the state of a country for the purpose of ascertaining the quantum of happiness enjoyed by its inhabitants and the means of its future improvement (Kyd, 1947, p. 312).

Sinclair, being a product of his time, attempts to utilise statistics as a tool for ‘social progress’ (Plackett, 1986, p. 249). It was indeed this same social development which lay behind the formation of the Statistical Society in 1834 with the similar aim to deal with

 facts calculated to illustrate the condition and prospects of society (Mouat, 1885, p. 16).

In the First Statistical Account, sometimes referred to as the ‘Old’ Statistical Account of Scotland, Sinclair approached parish ministers for information concerning their district.  The method used to gather information was to pose one hundred and sixty questions covering everything from geography to local social customs.

 The 60 questions regarding population deal not only with the trend of population in the past, but with its present distribution, the annual vital statistics in regard to births, marriages and deaths, and the number of centenarians, with the social classes of the people and their occupations, also with migration to and from the parish. Several of the clergy, from the data which they had gathered, constructed tables which I believe are the earliest attempts, in Scotland, to use scientific methods for measuring mortality and morbidity (Kyd, 1947, p. 311).

Sinclair published the results between 1791 and 1799 in twenty-one volumes; in so doing he paints a picture of Scottish society which is rich with detailed local information.  After a period, an updated version was thought desirable and this proposal was subsequently approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. This work came to be known as the ‘New’ or ‘Second’ Statistical Account of Scotland with the efforts of this labour published between 1834 and 1845.

In the time between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Statistical Accounts, society in Scotland had undergone dramatic changes due to the industrial revolution.  In presenting the information for publication, the committee noted that this was ‘in great measure, the Statistical Account of a new country’.  As before, the information was mainly collected by parish ministers, responding to a set list of questions.  There was, however, the opportunity in this edition, for additional contributions from other trusted local figures such as schoolmasters and doctors.

The Third Statistical Account was undertaken in the mid-20th century and published over the period 1951 to 1999. [2]  This time, the survey was not commissioned by the Church of Scotland but the work of four Scottish Universities.  Previously the parish reports were composed most commonly by one individual, usually the parish minister, but this time a more diverse body of local people engaged in the task.

Once again, the questions posed looked towards information regarding the local environment and history. Additionally, the survey asked for details concerning population, housing and public life.  This third survey is primarily a work of social history with less interest in population ‘vital statistics’, which from 1855 were gathered and collated by statutory governmental agencies.  

Church Extension and Denomination Rivalry

The Industrial Revolution brought with it not only a growing urban population but also one of greater mobility.  New population centres were created and often grew quickly. In this changing social landscape, questions began to be asked about the number and location of churches serving the people of Scotland.  Thomas Chalmers, a prominent churchman, was a passionate advocate and activist for mission and church extension work.  Chalmers had skills in mathematics, having previously lectured on the subject, and had a keen interest in the intersection of science and its methodologies with religion (Roxborogh, 1999, p. 82).   On becoming aware of the social landscape in the large industrial centres, Chalmers saw a desperate need to provide an appropriate number of churches for the rising population.[3]  Chalmers’ motivation led him to survey ministers and to ask for details about available ecclesiastical accommodation (T. Chalmers, 1835)

Chalmers gathered information on the extent to which church seating was available to the general public, what he terms ‘the really effective and serviceable church room’ (T. Chalmers, 1835, p. 6).   Chalmers understood that some churches were too distant from parts of the parish to be useful for those sections of the parish community; he also knew that in the countryside and various towns some churches engaged in restrictive practices in the allocation of seating, making them effectively unavailable to the general public.  It was not unknown, for example, in some places for pews to be paid for and effectively reserved, though hardly ever used, as a mechanism for excluding some groups or classes of people viewed as ‘undesirable’.  

This survey by Chalmers was to map the full extent of ‘ecclesiastical destitution’ by which was meant the ability of individuals to be in church on a Sunday (it was assumed that the population was almost entirely Christian).   The Church Extension Committee, by this method, attempted to provide positive statistical evidence of a need for the provision of additional churches and ministers.   Although Chalmers saw merit in conducting a full population survey, to ascertain the true and exact scale of the need, given the logistical and financial implications of this particular methodology, he was forced to concede that a sample of the population was the most practical way to proceed.  Chalmers is also well aware that his case for additional resources for church extension would be strengthened if the number of available ‘seatings’ took into consideration other denominations (the voluntary churches) in the same parish. 

In Chalmers’ survey, a number of pieces of statistical information were requested:

1.                  What is the population of your parish?

2.                  How many places for public worship are there in your parish, and to what denomination of worshippers do they respectively belong?

3.                  How many persons can be accommodated with sittings in the parish church, and in any chapel or chapels connected with it?

4.                  If the deficiency of the church accommodation be considerable, in what part of the parish would it be most desirable to have an additional church erected?

5.                  In what way is the required increase of church accommodation most likely to be supplied?

6.                  Any additional information. (T. Chalmers, 1835)

Supplementary questions were asked which related to the distance of people from the church – for example, how many lived further than two miles away and if so, where would be a good place within a reasonable distance for around 300 worshippers?  There was interest also in the level of pew rent and the proportion of various rates in local use (T. Chalmers, 1835).  The evidence gathered and the work carried out by Chalmers made a case for new parishes around Edinburgh, Leith and Glasgow, leading to the construction of many new churches.

The patronage of the State in providing financial backing for new churches would, after the disruption, became a very contentious issue particularly with those associated with the Free Churches who raged against the privileged position of the Church of Scotland, by disputing and critiquing the statistics advanced by the Church of Scotland.

Rev. James Johnstone of St. James’ Free Church in Glasgow and then later Robert Howie, minister of St. Mary’s Free Church in Govan, both produced significant compilations of Scottish church statistics  (Howie, 1893; Johnston, 1874). The stated reason behind both projects was evangelical in nature and motivated to highlight the extent of spiritual need.  However, there was another agenda at work, even though it was strongly denied.  In his introductory statement, Howie contends that, 

When he criticises the returns of any denomination he does it not as an ecclesiastic showing animus towards those who differ from him on church questions, but solely as a statistician desirous of getting at the facts (Howie, 1893, p. ix)

Given that Howie’s statistics often present the established Church of Scotland in a negative light, it is not therefore surprising that, following publication, there was controversy, particularly by sections of the established church who took issue with the meaning and inference of the various numbers presented (Simpson, 1895).  The Rev. William Simpson, minister of Bonhill in Glasgow, for example, conveys his discontent with the paper by Robert Howie arguing that so suspect are the statistics presented that 

his ‘facts’ are fictions and his ‘figures’ figments (Simpson, 1895, p. 10). 

Howie is further vilified and accused of using 

absurd and fallacious methods of computation, followed by baseless inferences (Simpson, 1895, p. 24).  

It is evident from the comments made that the key issue at play during this period is denominational conflict, statistics now being one of the main weapons deployed.

Statistics may, at face value, appear as simple objective facts, yet in the hands of a particular pressure group or lobby, they can aid the presentation of a compelling case to further a cause.  In Scotland, the gathered religious statistics became such a powerful lever.  Numbers were produced to strengthen calls for the separation of church and state and the discontinuation of the important financial support given by the State, in support of the Church of Scotland  (Scottish Central Board of Dissenters, 1835; The Church of Scotland, 1882)

The mid-19th century was a time of intense debate both between and within denominations and so, a point of discussion, which newspapers highlighted and to some extent promoted through the gathering and publishing of church attendance details.[4]  In general, newspapers and periodicals took a keen interest in the intersection of religion and society and often gathered data through readers’ polls highlighting the attitudinal position of the general population to the religious debates of the day (C. D. Field, 2010, p. 48).   Local news titles were also keen to report on ecclesiastical data arising from local congregations or local presbytery reports.[5]

Government Censuses

While it is useful to have local ministers or other civic leaders gather information about the population, to obtain the greatest possible accuracy, a full population census is required.  In the UK, the government began a ten-year cycle of population census in 1801; however, it was almost 50 years before information was sought specifically on religious adherence or practice.  When agreement was finally reached on the form of gathering religious information, it was non-compulsory and, rather than request information on the beliefs or church affiliation of individuals, it was decided that church attendance data would be collected instead (Bruce, 1995).  

The stated purpose was 

to collect statistics as to the accommodation afforded by the various Churches and other Places of Public Religious Worship and the number of persons frequenting them  (Graham, 1854, p. vii).

The voluntary nature of the exercise and the allegedly relaxed, even carefree, attitude of the enumerators, suggested that the resulting data was less reliable than hoped (C. G. Brown, 1997, p. 43).  The data collected indicated 3395 places of worship, 1,834,805 sittings which represented 63.5% of the population.  The total number of people attending on census Sunday (March 30, 1851) within all denominations was 943,951 in the morning, 619,863 in the afternoon and the evening, 188,874, representing 32.75%, 21.55% and 6.55% of the population, respectively. 

These results of the 1851 census for Scotland were published in 1854.  Analysis of the UK data provoked heated debate and, south of the border, the English data, fuelled arguments for the disestablishment of the Church of England.  The result of this was, that in the years which followed, each time a religious question was mooted for inclusion in the decennial census, its particular form and focus was contested, such that no agreement could be reached and the possibility was each time abandoned.   

The inclusion of the next question on religion in the general population census came in 2001. [6]  The reason for the change was that there was now an increased appreciation of societal change where the population was becoming more multi-faith and multicultural (Aspinall, 2000).  In light of the new situation, it was decided to include another voluntary question on religion, this time directed towards asking about an individual’s religious profession.  In Scotland, the question was modified to gather denominational affiliation both past and present. The wording used continues to provoke much debate about how the question was understood and whether it properly ascertains religious practice beyond notions of national identity or cultural norms (C. D. Field, 2001; Voas, 2006).

Church of Scotland Committees

In 1868 the Committee on Statistics, under the convenorship of Rev. J. Elder, sent out a statistical questionnaire to all 1254 ministers requesting information on the number of communicant members of the church; the number that had taken communion at least once in the year; the number of baptisms, elders, and details of financial contributions.  What becomes clear in the early attempts to collect such statistics is that that there is a reluctance by many ministers to comply with the request for information.  In 1869, 510 ministers made no return (The Church of Scotland, 1869, p. 1).

In 1873 the work carried out previously by the Committee on Statistics was taken over by the newly formed Committee on Christian Life and Work.  This committee, under the convenorship of Rev. Professor Charteris, sent out an expanded questionnaire, which asked:

1.         Total number of souls in your parish and number connected with

a.             Church of Scotland

b.             Other Presbyterian Churches

c.             Other churches (Not Presbyterian)

d.             No church

2.        Number of

a.             Communicants at each of the last two occasions of dispensation of Lord’s Supper

b.             Average number of congregation in Church

c.             Number of baptisms in past year

d.             Number of marriages in past year 

(The Church of Scotland, 1874).

Tables and reports were compiled from the responses received, but once again there was difficulty in gaining responses from parishes.  After a few years attempting to obtain the missing statistics, the Committee on Christian Life and Work departed from the matter and instead passed the collection and compilation of statistics to another committee, the ‘Committee on Statistics of Church Connection’ (The Church of Scotland, 1875)

The Committee on Christian Life and Work itself went on to produce other compilations of statistics, publishing them in its report of 1876 with details of ‘lay workers’, ‘Sabbath-school teacher’, ‘district visitors’ and those who ‘take part in conducting meetings’ (The Church of Scotland, 1876, p. 448).

Each year, the committee examined additional aspects of the life and work of the Church of Scotland, part of their process being to send out questionnaires to collect information on that particular subject matter and giving a statistical ‘snapshot’ for that area of work.

The Committee on Statistics of Church Connection, in light of the difficulties previously experienced, suggested that a decennium collection of church membership, in line with the government’s population census, might be sufficient (The Church of Scotland, 1876, p. 489f).  However, by 1881 the principle of the collection of regular statistics became established, and in the following years this was acknowledged by the creation of the ‘Committee on Statistics of the Church’.  The result of this development was that in 1886 the Church of Scotland began publication of a yearbook containing a digest of key statistical information (C. D. Field, 2010, p. 15).  Reports to the annual General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, likewise, would highlight, on a regular basis, the results of surveys undertaken or commissioned by various committees.   

As the Church of Scotland entered into the 20th century, the convention of gathering regular and comprehensive statistical information became universally accepted.  The resulting information now, not only allowed for a clearer picture of what was happening in congregations across Scotland but also gave an appreciation of developing trends and patterns which the Church, nationally, could use strategically to steward its resources and focus its energies (Wolfe & Pickford, 1980).

Mission and The Churchless Million

‘The Churchless Million’ began as a rallying cry arising from reports presented to General Assemblies of the United Free Church of Scotland.[7]  The phrase, which referred to the 36% of the Scottish population who were not in attendance at any church on a Sunday, became a powerful ‘banner’ to motivate evangelistic activity both of that denomination and in this time of pre-union discussions, also the Church of Scotland.

Newspaper reporting on a speech delivered at the Assembly of 1927 conveyed the passion attached to the headline figure,

Did they know that there were one million men and women of this description – 36 per cent of the adult population of the country?  There were 140,000 children believed to be of Presbyterian parentage outside their Sunday schools.  There were 250,000 adolescents of the same class with no connection with their Bible classes or other young people’s societies.  Did they know that 30 per cent of the children born in Scotland were unbaptised?  That was a distressing situation.[8]

‘The Churchless Million’ quickly became a powerful motivational catchphrase or slogan for the mission work of the churches, capturing within a single headline number, both the scale and urgency of the evangelistic need, as well as calls for mission and reform (Macleod, 1936).  It was used extensively in published sermon titles, in public comment and for publicity around organised evangelistic events.[9]  Almost twenty years later the phrase still contained significant power and meaning so that, at the General Assembly of 1945, the Very Rev. Dr John White was still using it to illustrate the issue of large scale non-attendance at church.  Whether the assessment was correct, given the time gap since it was first suggested, is a moot point, since no survey was conducted to confirm it.  

One major initiative arising from ‘The Missing Million’ situation was the proposal put forward in 1926 for a ‘Forward Movement’ in home mission.[10]  Following the union of the United Free Church of Scotland and the Church of Scotland in 1929, the purpose of the ‘Forward Movement’ was to encourage, inspire and enable congregations and church people to engage in the work of mission.[11]  The practical outcome of this initiative was that a large number of conferences, events and missions were organised and the committee in charge reported to the General Assembly in 1933,

The desire for, and expectation of, religious revival have been greatly quickened and in many places there are heartening signs of movement.[12] 

From such a statement, it might have been expected that in addition to the number of missions, there might also be further hard data on the extent of the ‘revival’ looked for and anticipated.  Though there seems to have been a greater sense of unity engendered throughout the recently reunited denomination, the result was much more qualitative than quantitative or as stated in the report of the following year,

the things of the spirit cannot be tabulated or measured.[13] 

One might initially wonder whether this marked a change in attitude towards numerical information or whether it is, in fact, an example of the spiritual type of statement found when the hoped or anticipated results of efforts are not immediately obvious or forthcoming.  Later in this thesis, when examining the church in the midst of decline and difficulty, statements of this kind are found to be more prevalent.

In 1933, the Church of Scotland held a positive outlook to the outcome of its efforts and the Home Mission committee proposed a major new church buildings’ initiative under the heading ‘Churching the People’.[14]   The aim of the scheme was to raise the sum of £180,000 to erect 30 new church buildings.   

There were, however, some worrying signs that, as the years progressed, the ‘Missing Million’ might, in fact, be increasing.[15]  John Highet, lecturer in the Department of Social and Economic Research at the University of Glasgow and a Church of Scotland elder, undertook studies on the Scottish Churches, based on ‘the most recent facts and statistics available’ (Highet, 1950, p. 4).  He is, in this period, according to Field, ‘the sole representative of the academic sociology of religion in Scotland’  (C. D. Field, 2010, p. 87).

Highet commented extensively, examining both ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ church statistics, subsequently publishing his findings in a number of books and articles (Highet, 1950, 1953; Highet, 1960, 1964).  In addition to his work mapping out the major denominations in Scotland, Highet also examined in detail, the empirical impact of the ‘Tell Scotland Campaign’, the mission visit of the evangelist Billy Graham to Scotland and the evangelistic work of Rev. Tom Allan on the Scottish churches.

The work of John Highet provided the churches with both data and insight at a time when patterns of churchgoing and church affiliation were beginning to change.  He was, for example, able to provide expert assessment of the limited value of ‘campaign evangelism’ in bringing the ‘churchless’ into regular church fellowship (Highet, 1960).

The value of gathering wide-ranging data by the Church of Scotland to aid the development of its own mission activities was highlighted when the ‘Committee of Forty’, under the convenorship of Professor Robin Barbour, set out on the task 

to interpret for the Church the purpose towards which God is calling his people in Scotland, to investigate and assess the resources of the Church in persons and property for the fulfilment of this purpose, and to make recommendations for the re-shaping of the life and structure of the Church.[16]  

The final report focused on a range of statistical information including projections for the number of ministers, the number and nature of declining membership and baptisms.  It also looked at the economic situation, present and future of the Church of Scotland, in order to inform its range of recommendations for change.[17]

Strategic decision making in every aspect of the Church’s life, ministry and mission, has required reliable data and in the modern era, there has been an increasing awareness of that reality.  Data gathered has not been limited to that found in the standard annual returns from congregations but has also been generated through targeted surveys and information gathering.  For example, The Lifestyle Survey from the Board of Social Responsibility was designed 

as a means to learning something of the involvement and influence of Church of Scotland members in the life of the whole community…a comparison of the attitudes, beliefs and habits of members of the Church of Scotland with those of members of other Churches and of the general public may not only reveal how distinctive Presbyterians and other Christians are in facing contemporary issues in the light of their faith and beliefs, but also provide strategic information to assist with future policy and planning (Church of Scotland, 1987, p. 1).

The Church of Scotland recognised the usefulness of empirical information and many of its initiatives have been proposed, and many of its schemes designed, around an appreciation of the truth held within the analysed numbers.

Scottish Churches Censuses

I previously highlighted that national information, directly related to church attendance, had been largely unavailable, that part of the census having been discontinued in 1851. However, it has long been recognised that official church membership figures, whilst indicating some historical measure of affiliation, do not properly reflect the active participation of individuals in Sunday morning worship.  The clearest and most direct measure of religious participation is obtained by means of a church attendance survey.  The absence of this crucial information, important for strategic decisions, has, in part, been remedied through the efforts of Peter Brierley, who helped design, organise and interpret a number of Scottish Church censuses.[18]   

Brierley is a statistician having worked for the civil service within the Central Statistical Office where, among other tasks, he compiled information on religious statistics (Peter William  Brierley, 1976).  In 1978, he took a position within the Bible Society and was involved in the first English Church Census and the publication of the results.

In 1984, a census of the Scottish Churches was undertaken under the auspices of the National Bible Society of Scotland with Peter Brierley taking the leading role.  The census achieved a response rate of almost 75% (82% for the Church of Scotland), giving the results statistical credibility.  In addition to the facts and figures listed, a number of prominent church leaders and relevant experts of the time were asked to provide commentary on various aspects of the results.  Among the articles included is one by Dr John Highet, whose earlier pioneering work on Scottish Church statistics and particularly information relating to 1959, providing a useful discussion on trends in church-going over that period (Highet, 1950, 1953; Highet, 1960).

Ten years later, a second census was organised by Christian Research, (the successor to MARC Europe), where once more Peter Brierley played a vital role; again an earlier English church census in 1989 provided a useful template and learning tool (P. W. Brierley, 1991).  The response rate in 1994 was over 80% (91% for Church of Scotland) (P. W. Brierley & Macdonald, 1995, p. 102).  A wealth of information on the situation in the Scottish Churches was now becoming available along with some general trend information and insights into geographic and denominational variations.

It would have been logical for another census to take place in 2004 but in 2001 the Board of National Mission of the Church of Scotland, conscious of continuing church decline and concerned to have accurate information for its strategic mission planning, arranged to conduct one earlier.  An interdenominational steering group was again established and in 2002 another census was undertaken in partnership with Christian Research, Peter Brierley being commissioned to collect, collate and analyse the data.  The published report (P. W. Brierley, 2003) highlights that, although participation in the survey process fell to 52% (64% for Church of Scotland), the results were still considered statistically valid and so from a planning point of view, extremely valuable. 

In 2016 the fourth Scottish church census was undertaken with Brierley Consultancy taking the lead in collecting, analysing and distributing the data.  The initial results were released at Easter 2017 (P. Brierley, 2017a), followed by a full report published in the book Growth Amidst Decline in August 2017 (P. Brierley, 2017b). The results of the 2016 census, like those before them, provoked a media storm of negative stories concerning the decline of religious observance in Scotland.  

I will examine the 2016 census in more detail in chapter six.  In particular, I will look at the response of the Church of Scotland to the negative news stories and the reaction of Church of Scotland ministers, both to the results themselves as well as the efforts of the denomination to manage the story by employing a counter narrative to deflect from the challenging statistical truths.

Understanding the Statistics of Decline

The delay in supporting another Church census gave the impression of reluctance on the part of the Church of Scotland towards looking at the numerical situation it faced.  The downward statistical trends of church membership and church attendance, had, of course, been uncomfortable reading for the national church.[19]  Many commentators have analysed the statistical information and have concluded that the Church of Scotland is in a dire situation (Brierley, Bruce, Brown, Gill, et al.).  Analysts such as Calum Brown attribute the noted decline to the effects of increasing secularisation (Callum G. Brown, 2001).  Currie, reflecting on trends in the UK Churches wrote,

One of the problems considered is the extent to which a church is able to generate its own growth, for example, by recruitment and church-building programmes; and we conclude, from the available data, that church policy is on the whole of less significance than external influences such as secularization, industrialization, urbanization, trade fluctuations, political changes and war (Currie, Gilbert, & Horsley, 1977).

Professor Callum Brown, likewise, concludes that all the data underscores a social process, which, post Second World War, has led to a continuous ‘haemorrhage of faith’, which is leading inexorably, he believes, to the demise of the Church.  His assessment, he suggests, is borne out simply from the evidence.

Statistics provide a stark guide to Scottish secularisation (C. G. Brown, 1997, p. 158).

There are those whose investigations do not reach the same conclusion concerning the eventual loss of the Church (Robin Gill, Hadaway, & Marler, 1998). The contention of Gill is that faith itself is not simply dying but rather, is changing.  Aisthorpe’srecent research has also indicated a significant group which he terms ‘the invisible church’, who do not exhibit Sunday attendance characteristics and who will not then feature in data gathering of this nature (Aisthorpe, 2016). Goodhew, in his work examining growing churches, notes that whilst there is decline being experienced in the mainline denominations, there are areas where the Church is on the increase (Goodhew, 2012).   The 2016 Scottish Churches Census has also identified growth within Scottish Pentecostal churches (P. Brierley, 2017).  There are some signs that the secularisation thesis may not be the last word to understand church trends.  John Hayward, a mathematician from the University of South Wales, for example, suggests that if there arose a group of passionate ‘enthusiasts’, then church growth would take place (Hayward, 2005).

At present, it is undeniable that the landscape of religious observance and formal affiliation is changing.  The most recent data collected by the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey has indicated that the Church of Scotland has seen the percentage stating they belong to the Church of Scotland almost halve from 1999 to 2017 (35% to 18%) (ScotCen Social Research, 2017).

Data and the Church Today

The Committee on Mission of the British Council of Churches in the early 1970s looked afresh at the nature type of information being gathered by the various UK church bodies and groups 

in the conviction that a fresh approach to the collection and use of statistical information is the basic prerequisite of any realistic planning for mission in the United Kingdom (Department of Mission and Unity, 1972, p. 1).  

In the production of their report, Stand up and be Counted, the Council set out a rationale for data collection at ‘national’, ‘regional’, ‘local authority’ and ‘local’ levels, highlighting the importance of  an agreed set of data standards to facilitate efficient future planning in and between denominations.  This work identifies some discrepancies of meaning.  For example, how different denominations understand and record ‘membership’ figures.  It also helpfully tabulates what kind of data different denominations gather, along with a digest of the actual numbers of members, clergy and church buildings. 

The initial survey of national data concluded that,

the data base is poor, and that attention needs to be paid to the actual collection of data before anything sound can be achieved by way of further analysis, projections or research in depth (Department of Mission and Unity, 1972, p. 11).

The Church of England took up this challenge and has been leading the way in the development of extensive databases of statistical information both for its own purposes and for assisting the Methodist Church in the collection and collation of its statistics.  The work was built on principles outlined by a Statistics Review Group.  The principles are succinctly summarised in their report in the following terms,

Any data-gathering exercise should only be commissioned against a clearly defined objective, and should always lead to the recommendation of specific action steps.

Statistics are of the appropriate quality and produced to the highest professional standards.

All work is conducted with transparency.

All statistical exercises should be validated against the following criteria

·         That the information has been appropriately collected;

·         That appropriate sampling methods have been used;

·         That appropriate methods of calculation have been used to derive any statistics from the raw data;

·         That the inferences drawn are based on sound statistical techniques;

·         That the presentation of the information minimizes the risk of misrepresentation;

·         That all the above work has been conducted in accordance with the best statistical practice.(Church of England, 2000, p. 26f)

The Church of England, seeing the value of statistical information both for the renewing of present structures and systems and as tool to help understand and develop new initiatives towards Church Growth, has invested significantly in a Statistics and Research Unit (Archbishops' Council, 2017d) and in a Church Growth Research Programme (Archbishops' Council, 2017a), which commissions research to be presented annually, through its Faith in Research Conferences (Archbishops' Council, 2017c).

In Scotland, religious research, using both quantitative and qualitative methodologies has been undertaken by a variety of agencies, charities and churches.[20]   However, an issue which has again become prominent is that the work undertaken often has had an agenda or was designed to appeal to a particular constituency or group.  One recent piece of work was conducted by the American Christian research company Barna.  The Barna survey had the bold target of an analysis of the current state of Christianity, faith and the Church in Scotland. Their work resulted in the Transforming Scotland report.  This report presents a number of detailed recommendations which, it claims, will lead towards church renewal.  The validity of their claims is questionable, since the methodology used, providing advice on what will work for churches, was based on the views of a relatively small number of carefully chosen participants (Barna Group, 2015).[21]

This plethora of available information highlights an important point - we have entered an era of ‘Big Data’.[22] UK Data Service(University of Essex & University of Manchester, 2017) now holds a significant number of searchable databases referencing many aspects of human beliefs and activities drawn from a wide range of sources.  The ability to ‘mine’ and cross-reference this data opens up new avenues for the analysis of religious activity in Scotland and beyond. 

Concluding Comment

The availability of data on religion in Scotland, with particular reference to the Church of Scotland, is extensive and is growing.  It is not, however, without issues.  Early efforts in data collection and interpretation were variable in extent, reliability and trustworthiness.  The motivation for statistics gathering and analysis was often linked to contemporary political or social issues, and those engaged in the task were not likely to be as objective or detached as might be desired to satisfy modern data gathering standards.  That said, the fact remains there does exist an illuminating compendium of statistical information which can be mined and examined to aid our understanding of the historical religious landscape and geography of Scotland, particularly as it has existed over the last 300 years.

In the examination presented above, I have highlighted that the Church of Scotland has, historically, greatly valued data for its essential function as a driving force within the planning processes and strategic mission of the national church.  Indeed, much has been built on the foundation of the insights afforded by the various strands of information gathered and interpreted.  

As I have also noted, statistics and church or denominational politics have often gone hand in hand since data can provide a powerful and potentially effective tool, often used to good effect, for the benefit of those who wield it wisely.   Sadly, the side effect of statistics being employed within areas of ecclesiastical conflict is that, understandably, some suspicion now often accompanies the collection, collation, interpretation and publication of quantitative data.  If there was one phrase heard more often than others throughout this study, it was a variation of the well-known expression 

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.[23] 

This political dimension of data, especially in an age where such information is much more extensive and readily available, is one which presents both a practical and a psychological barrier to statistics being considered as an appropriate tool for use by the Church.  

In this era of sustained church decline, particularly in the Church of Scotland, this common wariness of statistics bolstered by active attempts to subvert the true extent of institutional demise can too easily lead to vital information often carried within quantitative data, to be hidden or even discarded.   To disregard the gathered data would be to make critical mistakes both for the damage it would do to the necessary activities of proper theological praxis and the need of church leaders for information necessary for ongoing presbytery and congregational mission planning.

I believe there is a desperate need, in this time, to recapture the earlier dynamic, writ large in the missional fervour of Thomas Chalmers and others, to engage with and to utilise every useful tool at the disposal of the Church of Scotland towards its continuing reformation.  Chalmers, for example, demonstrated the power of numerical and statistical evidence to address issues as diverse as poverty and church extension.  This pastoral and managerial epistemology complemented and informed his theological understanding to give rise to renewed praxis and it can, in my view, similarly serve the Church of Scotland well, in this time.  

In the next chapter, I will examine further some important theological justification for using data in this way in the service of the Church; in particular, I will outline the role of empirical information as a vital tool within practical theology and the development of praxis. 

Chapter 3

[1] Additionally, Webster attempts to compute the number of men of ‘fighting age’.   This statistic is a derived number, based on the returned age profiles of a large number of parishes and estimating those men between eighteen and fifty-six not being disabled.  Age profile information collected was not originally requested by Webster but having obtained it he was able to go and to construct an approximate population profile for Scotland.


[2] Access to a digital version of the Statistical Accounts of Scotland is available at the National academic data centre webpages (University of Edinburgh).

[3] In arriving at St. John’s Church in Glasgow Chalmers became aware of only 2930 places available for 10,304 parishioners.  In the Barony parish in Glasgow, there was one church and three chapels meant to serve a parish population of 51,861 (Drummond & Bulloch, 1973, p. 171).

[4] The Daily Mail in the West of Scotland, the Northern Daily News in Aberdeen and the Dundee Advertiser were prominent in this area of work

[5] For example, the Falkirk Herald of 9th of April 1904 gave an extensive and detailed report on the Linlithgow and Falkirk United Free Presbytery which provided a range of data covering the number of congregations; the number of communicant members; the change from the previous year’s statistics along with detail of the numbers joining and leaving by various mechanisms.  The data covered the number of elders, managers and deacons along with the number of baptisms, Sabbath schools, scholars, numbers in the bible classes, societies for youth and the number in temperance groups both adult and juvenile.  Further to this data there is a range of financial information given together with comments.  This type of local report would be relatively common until recent times when regular reporting of presbytery business became less common in line with diminishing public interest.

[6] The arguments and counter-arguments see  (Drake, 1972, pp. 17-19) and (Snell & Ell, 2000, pp. 449-452)

[7] Reports to the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland 1927 VI p3

[8] Dundee Courier, Tuesday 31st May 1927

[9] Examples include Motherwell Times Newspaper of 19th August 1927, 9th September 1927 and 25th September 1931

[10] Reports to General Assembly of the United Free Church of Scotland 1926 VI p32

[12] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1933 p1150

[13] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1934 p1191

[14] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1933 p324

[15] Highet reports 1,200,000 ‘with not even a tenuous Church connection’(Highet, 1960)

[16] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1972 p773

[17] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1975 p509

[18] Dr John Highet had arranged for an attendance census in Glasgow churches in 1954 and follow us censuses in 1955 and 1956 to quantify the effect on church attendance of the Billy Graham/Tell Scotland campaign.  In 1959 information on church attendance was gathered from around Scotland.  Highet explains that ‘though lack of resources at that time made this investigation less extensive in its scope than I would have liked’ (P. Brierley & Macdonald, 1985).

[19] Decline meant not only a loss of members but also a resultant impact on necessary financial resources (I. Smith, 1993).

[20] A detailed compendium of research continues to be gathered by the British Religion in Numbers Project (BRIN) (C. Field & Voas) Field has also published key sources for the statistics of religion in Review Of United Kingdom Statistical Sources Volume XX  (Maunder W.F. (Ed), 1980)

[21] The analysis involved 29 in depth interviews with unidentified Christian leaders 11 of whom were church leaders, the other 18 being ‘strategic thinkers’.  The leaders chosen reportedly represent a range of theological and denominational backgrounds, an array of geographies and widely varying churches, ministries, businesses and political affiliations.  This wide diversity with such a small sample having a unity of thought casts some doubt on whether the sample chosen is in any sense representative even of growing churches.  It might be noted that the 29 leaders also do not represent 29 different churches. (Barna Group, 2015, p. 169)

[22] ‘Big data’ does not simply reference the increasing volume of information but is linked to the technological ability to link and analyse a wide variety of discrete data sets to identify patterns and trends in the pursuit of a greater degree of insight. (Press, 2013)

[23] Often attributed to Mark Twain who himself attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli, although its actual origin may have been earlier.