Empty Churches

When we first moved to the beautiful city of Edinburgh, one of the first churches we encountered was St. John’s “Tollbooth” Highland Kirk. Except, actually, we didn’t. Instead, we met the Hub, a cafe, art space, event venue, and headquarters for the Edinburgh Festival.

The Hub's doors

Since then, we have seen many “empty” churches. Some are actually empty, such as the Tron Kirk:

The Tron Kirk: Empty

or that church on Lauriston Place:

The Paint-peeling Door of an Empty Church

Others have found second lives as nightclubs such as Sin:

Note: Not my photo of Sin Nightclub

or as theatres, such as the Bedlam Theatre:

Note: Not my photo of the Bedlam Theatre

or as street-health clinics:

Church reborn as hospice

or as the brass-rubbing centre:

Me at the Brass Rubbing Centre, formerly Trinity College Chapel

or as beautiful venues, such as the Mansfield Traquair Centre:

The Mansfield Traquair Centre, Chancel

St. John’s Highland Kirk is probably the highest spire in the city, in part due to its location on the same hill as the Castle — it’s the spire to the left of Edinburgh Castle if a friend ever sends you a postcard. Yet it and the Tron Church are not churches anymore, and they are two out of the three notable spires in this view:

The Royal Mile

The explanation for the abandonment of two of the Royal Mile’s churches is the fact that the Old Town of Edinburgh, which boasted 52 400 people in the late 1800’s has but 4000 residents today. Most of its space is shops, restaurants/bars, and offices with the odd tourist attraction thrown in for good measure.

Thus, St. Giles’ (the “crown spire” visible between St. John’s and the Tron Kirk) together with Carubber’s Church, Old St. Paul’s Scottish Episcopal, and Canongate Kirk along the Royal Mile are able to serve the Old Town, along with St. Columba’s Free Church and St. Columba’s by the Castle Scottish Episcopal on Johnson Terrace, St. Augustine’s United on George IV Bridge, and Greyfriars Kirk. There is also St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church down on Cowgate.

That’s a lot of churches for the Old Town.

Yet if you tally the worshippers on any given Sunday in the churches of Edinburgh’s Old Town, I doubt you will get anything near 4000 congregants assembled.

The dome of West Register House, Charlotte Square

Charlotte Square, home of a beautiful old parish kirk that is now West Register Office, along with the rest of the New Town, has suffered a similar fate as the Old Town. People just don’t live there anymore. The churches have very few congregants, although Charlotte Baptist Chapel is able to pack ’em in like sardines.

Another cause of un-kirking in this city is the death or amalgamation of some denominations. This was the case for Mansfield Place Catholic Apostolic Church, now the Mansfield Traquair Centre. The Catholic Apostolics thought the Second Coming was due in the 1920’s, so they made no plans for succession for their Apostles. By the 1950’s, Mansfield Place Church was closed.

When the bulk of the Free Church of Scotland reunited with the Church of Scotland, the Free Church’s “High Kirk” become the library at New College, which means that students of New College get to study amidst some lovely stained glass!

However, when we recall my statement that even with so many churches in the Old Town, the 4000 inhabitants still don’t fill them, we return to the main cause of un-kirking, and it is that people are no longer warming or filling pews.

Mansfield Traquair Centre Wall Painting

At a certain level, this makes Phoebe Traquair’s angel cry.

People’s butts keeping pews warm as they did ever since they put the first pews in European churches in the centuries following the Reformation is not really what Christianity is about. Getting lots of people into your church doesn’t mean a thing in some ways.

Yet those butts warming those pews are human butts. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to become one of them. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to die for them. They are the butts of people who need to hear and know the message of the greatness of the glory of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

At least if they are at kirk each Sunday, they stand a chance of hearing this message and being transformed by it.

The un-kirking of Edinburgh and Europe is a phenomenon that, I understand, has been going on since at some point in the 1960’s. People just stopped going to church. Fewer and fewer people go to church every year. Even in the USA, which is imagined by many to be a “Christian” nation, the average Sunday attendance in 2005 was 80 persons — the megachurches are not offsetting the exodus.

My friend Rick, pastor of an international, multicultural, “evangelical” church in Cyprus, says that the European church has entered a phase of exile. Our mission and ministry have different needs than ministry in places where the church is exploding in size, as in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Our churches are dwindling, and people need the Gospel.

Maybe we don’t need David Wilkersons per se in Europe. But we do need people who are willing to invest in these cities and the people who populate them. People willing to walk past the empty spires and remember the One Whose Cross is raised high above.

People who are willing to love their unkirked friends to the bitter end.

People who are willing to live across from drunks and junkies and love them ceaselessly and endlessly.

People who are willing to truly befriend atheists and agnostics and take them seriously as people, not projects, not simply arguments with bodies.

We need Columbas and Ninians. (Too many reservations to want another Knox, really.)

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