THE trinity of faith, flag and family, for decades the target of Marxist and globalist wreckers, needs our commitment to endure. Use it or lose it. Sadly, not enough people are participating in and passing on these traditional assets. We have been poor custodians, and the consequence of our laziness and indifference is everywhere to be seen.
I have written elsewhere about the demise of the public house, but the loss of churches is arguably more significant. Large or small, these stone edifices were built to last, but as their congregations have fallen below critical mass, doors have closed for the last time. Maintenance and repairs to empty buildings might be afforded by the Church of England but is not, and it is not by less endowed denominations.
A stark illustration of the withdrawing tide of Christian worship is in Greenock, to the west of Glasgow. Most famous for shipbuilding and the steam engineer James Watt, this industrial town retains imperial legacy with its grand civic architecture. The Italianate town hall, with its 245ft Victoria Tower, dominates the skyline.
Greenock’s prosperous merchants, including Abram Lyle of the Tate & Lyle sugar company, resided in the west end, with its boulevards of spacious villas (now mostly divided into flats). The lucrative West Indies sugar trade is commemorated by streets named Jamaica, Tobago, Trinidad, Virginia and Antigua. The refineries were a major employer, second only to the shipyards. The labouring class, including the Irish diaspora, lived in cramped tenements in the centre and east end, before slum clearances. Council estates were built on the moors, stretching far from the town’s amenities.
Driving eastward along Union Street, an impressive range of ecclesiastical buildings comes into view. The lofty tower of St George’s North (built 1870) pierces the horizon, looming over neighbouring churches around George Square. Formerly the Middle United Free Church, St George’s became a Church of Scotland. It’s a timeless scene, unchanged from my childhood, when I was taken to Methodist Sunday school. But look closer today, and the faithful foundation, ranging from Gothic splendour to ascetic simplicity, is in terminal decline.
The reason for my visit was the passing of my father. His will specified the Methodist church for his funeral, but on a Sunday morning I found it closed for business (it had last served the Lord in 2017). In the 1970s this church was temporarily closed due to a fire, and the congregation was accommodated by a nearby church, and while I could not remember its name I knew that it was opposite the James Watt College. All that remained was a vacant plot (I later found a newspaper report of the demolition of the Nelson Street Congregational Church two years ago).
Nearby, a kirk of the Church of Scotland, of similar design to St Martin-in-the-Fields at Trafalgar Square, had reduced its operation to an adjacent hall. At George Square, St George’s North was shut a long time ago, and is now used for martial arts. The Baptist chapel on the square was converted to a gym. At least two churches were deployed as furniture warehouses but tragically one of these, the free Gaelic church, was destroyed in a mighty inferno.
I was on a mission, seeking a suitable substitute for the Methodists to deliver my father to the other side. Parking near George Square we could hear an organ playing, and entered St John’s Episcopal Church. A service – with populated pews! My mother, younger brother and I stayed, approaching the lady reverend afterwards to make arrangements. I knew nothing about the Episcopalians and was surprised by a communion Mass with wafer and sherry. A friend in the area smiled when I told him. His parents went to an Episcopal church, and he explained the difference between Roman Catholic transubstantiation and the consubstantiation of the Lutherans, whose dualistic interpretation of the bread and wine and the blood and body of Christ was followed by the Episcopalians.
Two black families were among the gathering, perhaps giving some hope for the future of Christianity. The others were all elderly. With the possible exception of its Catholic inhabitants, Greenock is losing its religion. When we left the church the street was deserted. When I was young, the numerous churches in the vicinity of Ardgowan Street and George Square often caused traffic jams on a Sunday. In that lost world, ladies wore posh coats and hats, and gents wore jacket and tie.
According to a recent Times report, since 1969 more than 1,700 Church of England places of worship have closed, with about 500 demolished, 400 converted to housing and 60 becoming commercial premises; presumably, the remainder are still standing, but forlorn. The minister at St John’s Episcopal Church, to whom I was lamenting the state of Greenock’s historic religious quarter, told me that the Church of Scotland is planning a purge. They have too many buildings and not enough people in them, she observed.
This sacrilege is like the fourth generation of the family firm selling the silver to a faceless corporation. The third generation, as grandchildren, were bound to honour the hard work which had given them a relatively comfortable and purposeful life. But their offspring, having no relationship with the founder, abandoned such duty. Individual freedom is fine, but the collective impact is the decline of civic, voluntary engagement.
Like the pub, the church was a meeting place for social beings. Modern life, with its digital technology, has atomised society. Somehow we must rediscover the meaning in life; indeed, our spirituality.
The author would like to dedicate this article to the memory of his father, Andrew McCrae (1936-2023).