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The Church of Scotland General Assembly

May 27th, 2010

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.

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