The Church of Scotland General Assembly

assembly-hallThe Church of Scotland General Assembly met this past week (20-26 May) at the Assembly Hall on The Mound in Edinburgh. It was a busy yet fascinating week for me and my two fellow representatives from PCI. I was accompanied by one of my chaplains, Rev Philip McConnell, and by Mr George Russell, Session Clerk of First Portadown.

Regular attenders at the General Assembly considered this year’s meeting to be down-beat, even a bit boring, after the controversy of last year. The 2011 Assembly will undoubtedly result in some more heated debate and discussion when it returns to the vexed and controversial issue of homosexuals in ministry.

One of the main items of business for this year’s Assembly, and the one which led to the best debate, was the Kirk’s discussion of the Third Article Declaratory. It reads:

“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 is constitutionally committed to providing a ministry of Word and Sacrament in every part of Scotland without exception. The Assembly affirmed this Third Article Declaratory, and accepted the commitment, as an integral part of its calling, to maintain worshipping, witnessing and serving congregations throughout Scotland.

In practice this means that congregations must be maintained, irrespective of their ability to support themselves, and that in turn means that other stronger congregations must take on the burden of support. In reality, 35% of the kirk’s congregations support the other 65%. The Assembly rejected what was described as a “supermarket” model of ministry which means that the Church only maintains a presence where there is a “customer base” which makes it economically viable to do so.

George Russell and Philip McConnell
George Russell and Philip McConnell

That debate was closely linked to another report from the Ministries Council of the Church concerning the church’s resources to carry out such a calling. The Church of Scotland is facing a deficit budget of £5.7 million, and hard decisions need to be taken to prune the amount of money spent on paid ministries. In the next four years, it is planned to cut the current 1,234 ministry posts to 1,000, and presbyteries face the harrowing task of making reductions in ministry positions and in re-aligning their work. It is envisaged that new patterns of ministry will emerge, and that there will be many more part-time ministries, with both non-stipendary  and bi-vocational positions. Each presbytery will be allocated a ministries budget which will allow it to determine the patterns of ministry which are best suited to serve all the communities for which it is responsible.

Allied to this shift is a major review of theological education and training so as to foster patterns of emerging ministries. The current proposals involve the development of three strands of training, at certificate, diploma and degree levels, which will train people to serve at local and national levels, in part-time and full-time positions. These proposals are being developed at a time when the number of ministry students at New College, following this year’s graduation, will have dropped to single figures. Currently only 6.4% of ministers in the Church of Scotland are under the age of 40, while 25% are over sixty.

The strong ecumenical emphasis of the Church of Scotland was seen in the report of the Ecumenical Relations Committee which urged congregations to celebrate their common baptism with Roman Catholics for the first time by using a special joint liturgy for the reaffirmation of baptismal vows. The church’s press release stated that theologically both churches believe baptism involves conversion, pardoning and cleansing and marks the beginning of a new life in Christ, characterised by growth.

On Sunday afternoon, the Assembly had a special two-hour session in which it reflected on the 450th anniversary of the Scottish reformation. This involved some inspirational unaccompanied psalm singing, dramatised readings, and reflections on the Reformation. Significantly, one Scripture reading in this session was read by the Right Reverend Joseph Toal, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Argyll and the Isles.

Some of the “fringe” events of the Assembly were very helpful. In one event, arranged primarily for those from the Highlands, Reverend Tommy MacNeill from Stornaway gave a wonderful account of the development of youth ministry in his congregation, and how the number of teenagers in his congregation had grown from three to almost fifty through a focused effort to address their needs, but not without the full support of the Kirk Session. Like our own denomination, the Church of Scotland is an aging denomination, a point made very eloquently and passionately by the outgoing moderator, the Very Reverend Bill Hewitt, as he reviewed his year, and called attention to the fact that young people were conspicuous by their absence in many congregations.

In another meeting, the Scottish Bible Society launched “Biblefresh”, an initiative aimed at encouraging greater use of the Bible by individuals and churches, designed to coordinate with the 400th anniversary of publication of the King James Version. Elaine Storkey gave an insightful analysis of current culture and why the Bible continues to be an important factor in our lives and society.

The General Assembly had its own experience of cutbacks in that the traditional garden party at Holyrood Palace was cancelled this year due to financial constraints in the Royal budget. Ironically, after enduring many wet and cold afternoons on that occasion, Edinburgh enjoyed the warmest day of the year on the Saturday when the garden party would normally be held.

Clearly our brothers and sisters in the Church of Scotland are undertaking some major reforms in the way they “do church”, and their insights and experience in these areas will be useful to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. If this year’s Assembly had an internal focus, then next year’s meeting will capture the attention of the wider community as it wrestles with one of the major issues to afflict Christian churches, namely, the place of homosexuals in the leadership and ministry of the church. It is anticipated that whatever the external weather conditions, the temperature may rise in the Assembly during that debate.

Archbishop Martin’s discouragements

imageIn a frank and very honest assessment of the future of the Irish Catholic Church, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, makes some very interesting comments about the state of the church, the nature of Catholic education, and how that the Scriptures need to play a more central role in the life of the church.

He sets out clearly the reasons for his current sense of discouragement:

Why am I discouraged?  The most obvious reason is the drip-by-drip never-ending revelation about child sexual abuse and the disastrous way it was handled.   There are still strong forces which would prefer that the truth did not emerge.  The truth will make us free, even when that truth is uncomfortable.  There are signs of subconscious denial on the part of many about the extent of the abuse which occurred within the Church of Jesus Christ in Ireland and how it was covered up.  There are other signs of rejection of a sense of responsibility for what had happened.  There are worrying signs that despite solid regulations and norms these are not being followed with the rigour required.

Many people in Ireland and across the world will understand why these matters would cause him to be discouraged. But he goes on to outline another reason which may actually begin to point in a different direction and may begin to address the underlying causes of widespread sinful behaviour within our culture and even among those who claim to follow Christ.

The second and deeper root of my discouragement is that I do not believe that people have a true sense of the crisis of faith that exists in Ireland.   We have invested in structures of religious education which despite enormous goodwill are not producing the results that they set out to do.   Our young people are among the most catechised in Europe but among the least evangelised. (my underlining)

Continue reading “Archbishop Martin’s discouragements”

Child Evangelism Fellowship

img_0238This week I am speaking at the European Conference of Child Evangelism Fellowship which is being held at a conference centre close to Stuttgart in Germany. There are over 350 delegates from all across Europe, and at the opening session fifty flags were paraded on to the stage to represent the fifty countries in Europe where CEF ministers.

CEF’s ministry has expanded greatly in recent years under the inspiring leadership of two Ulstermen, Sam Doherty and Roy Harrison. This year, Roy and Ruth Harrison, both members of First Portadown Presbyterian Church, retire after over 40 years of work with CEF in Europe.

img_0245At the opening session, the World President of CEF, Reese Kaufmann, reported on the global expansion of CEF’s ministry. Through a variety of activities including literature publication, radio broadcasts, websites, mail box clubs, residential camps and Good News Clubs, he reported that last year CEF communicated the Christian message with over 10 million children in 160 nations. Continue reading “Child Evangelism Fellowship”

RUC GC Garden

memorial-gardenOne of the last official functions of my moderatorial year will be to preach at the annual Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation service in Armagh at the beginning of June. In order to get a fuller picture of the work of the Foundation I visited the Garden at Knock, within the grounds of the PSNI Headquarters. The Garden is not only an impressive piece of landscape architecture, but it is also very moving in what it represents.

It was created to mark the sacrifices and honour the achievements of the Royal Ulster Constabulary which served Northern Ireland for 80 years. It is hoped that the total project, when completed, will also include a museum.

There are two parts to the Garden. The “history trail” tells part of the story of policing, and throws up a number of very significant facts about the origin of policing in the British Isles and its beginnings in Ireland. It traces the colourful, and sometimes tragic, story of the role of the police during the various phases of Irish history in the last two centuries.

The moving and emotional part of the Garden is the “area of peace” in which officers who died directly as a result of terrorism, and those who died in service, are remembered. For anyone who wants to understand the most recent history of this part of the world, a visit to this location is a “must”. It is clear that much thought and work has gone into this project.

Part of the Garden wall includes a prayer for the RUC GC, taking its inspiration from the shamrock, harp and crown of the crest.

O Holy Trinity, as symbolised by the humble shamrock, we give thanks for the love of the Father, the sacrifice of the Son, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As Christ Jesus has shown us that the reward of love may be a cross, so we praise you O God for your faithfulness through times of prosperity and of adversity.

Like a harp that sounds forth in glorious tunefulness, so we give honour and thanks to those in the policing family who served gallantly and sacrificed dutifully for the harmony of our communities. Steadfast to their legacy and mindful of continuing needs, may our eyes shine with the light of hope as we embrace the future.

Lord, grant us the perseverance to faithfully finish the race, that we may receive the crown of righteousness to which we have been called heavenward. Equip us with the spirit of peace, an abundance of your grace, and the wisdom and strength to meet the challenges that may lie before us.

All this we ask in the precious name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.

For any church or community group interested in a profitable and interesting outing, this is an appropriate destination. The Garden is open to individuals and larger groups, by appointment, on a daily basis, and volunteer guides are on hand to conduct all visitors.

Postscript: The Prince of Wales paid a visit to the Garden recently.

Wisdom from Tom

It was announced last week that Bishop Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, is resigning his position at Durham to become Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the School of Divinity at St Andrew’s University. It is clearly a significant appointment for the university.

Some of Bishop Wright’s views are controversial among conservative and evangelical Christians, but some of his writings are very lucid and helpful. Here’s a couple of paragraphs from Virtue Reborn in which he reflects on Jesus as our example. I think he nails it. And he uses a great example from sport to make his point. Continue reading “Wisdom from Tom”