Church of Scotland

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The Church of Scotland (or Kirk, which is Scots for Church) is Scotland's national Protestant church. It is organisationally Presbyterian and doctrinally Calvinist, though it allows a wide latitude of belief, so full-on predestination nonsense is not required.

Tracing its history back to the Scottish Reformation in 1560 and such Bible-thumping theologians as John Knox, it has, in various forms, remained the national Church of Scotland ever since. This means it ministers to all Scots (who want it), though its independence from the government is guaranteed by law. It has a similarly broad, vague approach as the Church of England, but without the quasi-Roman Anglo-Catholic side.

Its clergy are called ministers, with individual churches administered by councils of elders elected by the congregation, regional courts called presbyteries, and an annual national General Assembly deciding on major issues. Worship normally involves accompanied hymns (some other denominations prefer psalms sung without musical accompaniment), prayer, and a sermon of excruciating dullness, although recently, there has been more tolerance of Christian rock and other terrors. Younger kids go to Sunday School.

It is fairly liberal as Christian denominations go since the nutters left for the Free Church or Free Presbyterian Church or similar groups. It is consistently pro-life, being generally opposed to abortion[1] (though without campaigning for legal bans and allowing it to protect the mother's health), anti-euthanasia[2], and anti-death penalty. It is also not keen on gambling. It's not really made its mind up on homosexuality despite increasing tolerance,[3] though on gender equality, it lets women hold all church positions, and isn't opposed to divorce.


Timeline of the evolution of the Christian churches of Scotland since the Reformation.

The history is basically understood as a series of fights over a few issues.

  • Popery. The Reformation started in opposition to Roman Catholic rulers and has generally been hostile to popery or even Church of England-style things like bishopry. Kings impose bishops who tell people what to do; this doesn't go down well with Scottish congregations. Curiously, although the church no longer has bishops, it still has cathedrals, which are the old Catholic seats of power, but which now just function as ordinary churches except in name.
  • Choosing ministers. In strict Calvinism, a congregation chooses its elders, who choose their minister. But for a long time, landowners or whoever built or owned the church building got to pick the minister. Moderates liked this arrangement because landowners didn't tend to pick anyone too strict. Evangelicals disliked it for the same reason.
  • Fun. Basically, large parts of the church were anti-fun. Especially on Sunday, but they weren't keen on drinking, cards, dancing, carousing, etc. This crops up in Robert Burns a lot. Scotland's equivalent of Piss ChristWikipedia or the Mohammed cartoons was a painting of a minister ice-skating, possibly on a Sunday. Because cheap thrills.
  • Homosexuality. Tricky.

It all started in the 16th century, when merchants, landowners, etc., wanted to take power from the state and the church, which was then Roman Catholic. Calvinism offered a convenient excuse: as well as attacking the corruption and greed of the Catholic church; it promised that the people, not the king, should have control over religion. This resulted in a bunch of wars: Protestant England helped with a few invasions, pleasantly known as the "rough wooing", while Catholic France hindered. So the Church was Reformed in 1560, the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded, and everyone was happy. The End.

Then in the 17th century, you had James VI (and I), of Bible fame, who was far too much of a control freak and very pro-bishop, and Charles I, who was controlling and a little bit Catholic. A lot of the English Civil War actually happened in Scotland. With typical Scottish talent for supporting the underdog, the Scots sided with Cromwell's Puritans, who were to Scottish religious tastes, until Cromwell actually won and killed Charles I, which for some reason, the Scots took badly. Cromwell invaded.

There were a series of wars between the puritan Covenanters and the more moderate (but still Protestant) authorities, as well as riots, Jenny Geddes throwing a stool at her minister, and a lot of fuss over hymnals. More impressively, the Church established a universal education system in the 17th century: even if this was mainly so people could read the Bible, it is considered as contributing to Scotland's lasting interest in education and learning.

The kicking out of James VII (known as James II of England) and his replacement with the much more Protestant William III (and his wife Mary) helped Scotland get a proper Presbyterian church free of bishops. The Catholic Jacobites were as persistent as Wile E. Coyote but equally unsuccessful. Contrary to what Scottish Nationalists or Walter Scott will tell you, most Scots really wanted to stay with the sensible Protestant rulers, not the romantic but useless Catholic rebels.

So once the not being Catholic thing was sorted, the Scots turned to arguing among each other about how to appoint ministers and what to do with their Sundays after church. Unfortunately, in the early 19th century, Scotland's intellectual energy seemed to shift from the great humanist intellectual flowering of the Scottish Enlightenment into a series of theological arguments from the likes of Thomas Chalmers.

The Church suffered several splits, most notably the Disruption in 1843 when about a third of ministers marched out over the issue of ministers not being imposed on congregations, forming the Free Church and indirectly leading to the birth of art photography in Scotland.[4] The Free Church was radical and sent lots of missionaries to Africa, but it wasn't too long before most of them made up and returned to the fold.

Then it was all pretty sensible, with disestablishment in 1921, gender equality in 1968, and a slow decline ever after.

Current controversies[edit]

The Church has long had an important position in Scottish civil life, from its central role in setting up a national education system after the Reformation, to taking part in the 1990s Constitutional Convention, which preceded devolution. Today, it's neck-and-neck with the Roman Catholic church for who has the most members, but it still sees itself as the national kirk. It gets in a bate about many topics, including:

  • Israel, particularly an awkward incident in 2013 when they told the Israeli government that the Bible might not be legally binding as a title to land in the Middle East and they should be a lot nicer to Palestinians. This went down about as well as you'd expect.[5]
  • Homosexuality, although they're coming around to it, with only a few congregations leaving.
  • Whether to take money from the National Lottery for church repairs.[6][7]

External links[edit]