General Assembly May 2016 Report

General Assembly 2016: Start of Proceedings: Saturday 21st May

Background to the General Assembly:

Welcome to the 2016 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, meeting in the Assembly Hall on a sunny Edinburgh morning.  Some 850 commissioners, delegates, visitors and youth representatives were gathered. Also present for this opening Session were a number of past Moderators, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, and representatives from Scottish Municipal Councils.

As on every morning of the Assembly, the day starts with worship.  It was conducted by the retiring Moderator, the Right Revd Dr. Angus Morrison. His next duty was to offer for election as his successor, the Revd Dr. Russell Barr, Minister of Cramond Kirk on the outskirts of Edinburgh and then induct him as Moderator for the coming 12 months.  With Dr Barr in the chair, there was a succession of formal speeches, duties and reports, the first of which was to receive the Lord High Commissioner, the Queen’s representative. For a second year this is His Grace, Lord Hope of Craighead, a retired senior High Court judge.  During the week of the Assembly, Lord Hope lives in the Palace of Holyrood House and is ranked third in line to the throne. After the formalities were completed, the civic and state dignitaries left and the Assembly turned to its business based on the volume of reports.  In the chair was Dr. Barr, now styled ‘the Right Reverend’, who has indicated that he will major in his year on the problem of homelessness.

The first report to come to the Assembly was that of the Assembly Arrangements Committee, which has been consulting on the frequency, location and timing of the General Assembly. In terms of the size and frequency there was no great wish for change, nor of its meeting in Edinburgh.  There is some thought that it might move to mid-June to keep clear of university examinations. In addition, it is proposed that Heart and Soul, the Sunday celebration in Princes Street Gardens, should continue at least until 2020, with the possibility of regional celebrations being considered.

Overture under Barrier Act: Ministers in Scottish Law Same-Sex Marriages:

In the presentation of the returns to Overtures, the Principal Clerk asked that the Assembly receive the Report and convert into an Act the Overture that was sent down to Presbyteries following last year’s Assembly.  The Act would permit ministers and deacons in a same sex marriage to be called to parish work. The Clerk made it clear that the wording of the Overture now reflected the Civil Law regarding same sex marriage and not the view of the Church. In the debate, strong views were expressed, more than one stating that the motion was a departure from Scripture. The minister of St Andrews Church, Jerusalem, pointed out that the history of the Church is that it has always been able to include people of diverse views by being able to agree to disagree.  Contributions tended towards the emotional and included a representative from the Presbyterian Church of Australia. In answer to a question, the Convener of the Theological Forum said that he was intending to bring a report on the nature of marriage to the 2017 Assembly.  The Assembly voted 339 for the Overture and 215 against. Arrangements for the recording of dissent have been made

Council of Assembly: The Legal Trustees overseeing the Church of Scotland:

The report of the Council of Assembly followed and was presented by the Convener, Grant Barclay. His speech was largely about finance, noting that income from congregations had not risen over the past year.  It amounts to something in excess of £46 million.

The next question regarded the high level of salaries of senior staff in the Church Offices. The Commissioner moved a motion asking the Council to review the salaries of senior staff posts and set a cap on the salaries. The Assembly agreed. 

Legal Questions: Changes to church Law:

The Assembly turned to the Report of the Legal Questions Committee. The Convener highlighted proposed changes to the Vacancy Procedure Act, requiring a Parish Profile of the congregations including the latest Local Church review report. It should be based on the template in the new Guidelines for Session Clerks. Another issue was the timing of Stated Annual meetings of congregations.  Since the Congregation no longer approves the Annual Accounts – that is the responsibility of the Congregational Trustees – there is no need to hold the meeting by 31st March so the Committee proposes that the meeting be held by the 30th June.  

Again, the Committee proposed that the Unitary Constitution – where all the work of the congregation is the responsibility of the Kirk Session – be the sole Constitution available when a congregation desires to change its constitution.  This to take effect from 1st January 2017, but it does not require any congregation to change its constitution.

General Assembly Heart and Soul Celebration in Princes Street Gardens: Sunday, 22nd May 

On Sunday afternoon in Princes Street Gardens in the centre of Edinburgh, some three or four thousand people gathered for the annual celebration ‘Heart and Soul’ to see an avenue of tents in which councils, committees and a number of parishes and ecumenical partners display their work and witness.  On the main stage, the African Children’s Choir and the Heart and Soul Swing Band entertained.  The celebration ended with an open air act of worship with the Moderator as the preacher.  He is the first Moderator in recent days to wear the kilt as part of his Moderatorial dress.

General Assembly 2016: Monday, 23rd May

We turn now to the business of Monday morning, which followed the Communion Service held in the Hall where members are united around Christ’s Table before they may be divided in debate.

World Mission Council:

Following the double earthquake in Nepal, the Church of Scotland has raised more than £151,000 for the rebuilding of homes for those who were displaced by the tremors, and work has begun in the training of stonemasons.  

Social Care Council and CrossReach:

The Council has continued to reposition itself within the Church, building up local engagement. Last year’s Assembly agreed to the appointment of a Social Care Mission Officer who is now helping congregations to develop local services for those in need. The Church has more than a thousand congregations in Scotland.  This means that CrossReach has a potential of a thousand branches, where local services of care can be provided, for example a drop-in centre for elderly residents in a village, or a books-on-wheels facility in a location where the municipal library service has been withdrawn.  These are all examples of “walking beside people” in the journey through life.  As ‘people of the way’, we have to ask: Who should we walk beside?  Everyone has a need, so sharing is for all.

The Panel on Review and Reform:

The Convener said that the Panel had been involved in exploring what they call Missional Churches. The first thing they recognised was that one size does not fit all.  So they have been working with 40 congregations, from Shetland to Guernsey, to develop ‘Path of Renewal’ pilots.  The Council wants to share its learning from the pilots with other congregations.  

The Council has also been thinking about working with churches in long-term vacancy.  They were disappointed to find that congregations are set on finding a minister of Word and Sacrament rather than considering a change in the nature of ministry.  This raises the issue of leadership and the need to explore with Presbyteries how best to discover and develop and, indeed, encourage younger members of our churches to take up leadership.

The first question from the floor was about the proposed instruction to the Theological Forum to consider whether those who are not ministers of word and sacrament might be authorised to administer the sacraments and in what circumstances. The Convener of the Theological Forum said that the Forum has looked at the issue and should produce an answer fairly quickly, but it was not likely to change the current situation. The feeling of the Assembly certainly seems to be in favour of seriously considering the broadening of those who are permitted to celebrate the sacraments. (JH note: See also Thursday’s report under Theological Forum for Convenor’s subsequent apology!).

General Assembly 2016: Tuesday, 24th May

Worship on Tuesday at the General Assembly included a Scripture reading in the Gaelic language by the grandchildren of the Moderator’s chaplain, and a violin solo by a pupil from Cramond Primary School. The Moderator commented that since the Assembly is calling for children and young people to be more involved in the work and witness of the Church, it’s appropriate for the Assembly to do the same. 

Church and Society Council:

The Convener, began by imagining Scotland in perhaps 2035, as a more equal and just society and said that the Council had asked for 10,000 responses to the question:

What issue do we need to address in order to achieve such a society?

They received around 11,000 responses and from them the Council has extracted seven key themes –

1.       Ensuring health and wellbeing of all.

2.       Investing in our young people.

3.       Building local communities where people flourish.

4.       Doing politics differently.

5.       Creating an economy driven by equality.

6.       Building global friendships.

7.       And caring for creation. 

This led to the issue of fuel poverty in which 845,000 house-hold in Scotland live, spending at least 10 per cent of their income on heating and some having to choose between warmth or food.  A commissioner with experience of advising and protesting on fuel poverty issues addressed the Assembly.  He is a minister in Orkney where 61 per cent of the population lives in fuel poverty. He said: “It’s hard to hear the Gospel when you’re frozen.” 

 A further issue raised was violence against woman.  It is said that one in four women suffer violence. This raised a question in the following debate by a commissioner as to the possibility of widening the protest to include men, of whom one in six suffer violence.

A heartfelt debate followed on the subject of corporal punishment. One commissioner declared the difference between a smack born out of love and care is very different from regular and abusive beatings of children. She wished the Assembly to disagree with three sections of the Deliverance. Another commissioner agreed but a third wanted to support the whole deliverance. There was concern that one section talks about corporal punishment of children as a violent act that damages mental and physical health.  Commissioners who opposed the motion believed it supports legislation that could criminalise parents.  The Convener responded by saying that these sections were prepared in association with the Social Care Council and the Safeguarding Committee and she urged the Assembly to support all four sections on the issue. On an electronic vote, the first section, which spoke of corporal punishment as “violence”, the Assembly voted 275 for the section and 259 against. The other three sections were also agreed.

Church of Scotland Guild:

The Convener, Mrs Linda Young, wearing a scarf made from the newly-commissioned Guild tartan, introduced a short film on the work of the Guild in its 800 branches throughout Scotland.

The Guild has six projects in each three-year cycle – the present series includes the support of Street Pastors in Scotland, and Christian Aid’s “Caring for Mother Earth” project in Bolivia – paying for solar ovens to save deforestation for firewood. Another project is the Feed the Minds campaign to highlight the serious problem of female genital mutilation in Kenya. The convener stated that the Guild has never shied away from controversial issues. There is also Mission International’s building project in Haiti; a scheme run by Care for the Family and finally, there is All Friends Together where help is being offered to help congregations welcome those who have additional support needs.

The convener closed by quoting the Guild’s founder, Dr Archibald Charteris, who said: “It is they who dream bright dreams that in the end deliver; do not be afraid or ashamed to announce splendid hopes. It is enthusiasts the world needs.”

Celebration of Golden Jubilee of Admission of Women to Eldership:

The Assembly rose to make way for a celebration of the Golden Jubilee of the admission of women to the eldership. In the hall was one woman ordained in 1966. Chaired by Dr. Alison Elliot, an elder in Edinburgh, speakers included the just-retired Solicitor of the Church, Mrs Janette Wilson, who described the process that led to women elders being accepted by the General Assembly.  It was a time for sharing memories and inspirations with much grace and good humour.

General Assembly 2016: Wednesday, 25th May

Ecumenical Relations Committee:

The Convener introduced the Columba Declaration, which is an agreement between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England in mutual faith and understanding.  It does not fail to recognise the differences between the two denominations, one church being episcopal and the other Presbyterian.

It is the report of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland joint study Group entitled: ‘Growth in Communion: Partnership in Mission’. The two Churches have never formally recognised each other as Churches even though they already co-operating in mission and sharing experiences. The Declaration formalises this mutual recognition and what follows from that recognition – prayer, and to welcome each other’s members into worship and congregational life.

The Convener invited the Archbishop of Canterbury to speak on the Columba Declaration.  He spoke of the honour paid to him being invited – he enjoyed speaking at such assemblies because he does not bear responsibility for its decisions.  He said that it is important to get rid of clichés of ecumenical conversation and he quoted some of them. But he said that we are already united in Jesus Christ. He said that the manner in which the Declaration was announced had caused deep pain in the Scottish Episcopal Church and he took full responsibility for the error and apologised to that Church unreservedly.  He went to say how the two Churches, in a variety of mission and service, are united in Christ, both responding to the shared context in which they live and work.

He also said that they are aware of the differences, not least the recognition of ministries; but we are workers together in the world mission of the common Lord Jesus Christ.

The Very Rev Dr Angus Morrison, the immediate past Moderator, spoke of the privilege of addressing the General Synod where he commended the Columba Declaration; and thanked the Archbishop for his hospitality, including the quality of his porridge which even a Harris man could recognise. He went on to speak of how the two Churches have a common mission in Christ, and he commended the Declaration to the Church of Scotland Assembly.

The Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness of the Scottish Episcopal Church, who is a corresponding member of the Presbytery of Inverness, spoke of the hurt felt by his Church at the announcement of the Columba Declaration.  He said that it had come without warning. So he thanked the Archbishop for his kind words this morning and implied that the Archbishop’s apology will be well received.

Moving to the Deliverance, the main section addresses the Columba Declaration. Two amendments were agreed, noting ‘sadness’ and ‘regret’ at current difficulties surrounding conversations with the United Free Church and the Presbyterian Church of Ireland.

Safeguarding Committee:

The Assembly agreed with the proposal to have Safeguarding as a standing order on kirk session agendas. It also instructed kirk sessions to ensure that all engaged in Regulated Work are members of the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (PVG) Scheme. 

Ministries Council:

The Convener began with a story of a conversation with his seven-year old daughter which ended with her searching question: “But Dad, when are you going to do some actual Jesus stuff?” The Convener said that his daughter’s question was one that has to be asked: What is at the heart of the ministry today?  How closely does our vision for ministry relate to the reality of the needs and expectations of congregations? Does the technical demand too much energy at the expense of the spiritual? 

These questions lie behind the Council’s quest for a renewed vision of what ministry is.  It’s a vision that must be biblically based. It will inspire recruitment, it will need inspirational training, a new vision, a locally engaged and imaginative deployment of ministry; it may include hub-like models where a single minister operates in a wide geographical area with several parishes, and works in a team including ordained local ministers, deacons, readers and others.

The Revd Dr Doug Gay, whose motion at the 2014 General Assembly gave rise to the Tomorrow’s Calling initiative, described the Ministries Report as an accurate weather report. He said the storms are coming and that we’ll need to learn to walk through them. The next five years will bring a devastating loss of ministers and the Church of Scotland needs not only to close unsustainable congregations but to plant lots of new ones.

General Assembly 2016: Thursday, 26th May

Thursday Morning worship at the Church of Scotland General Assembly included the anthem “Love Divine” by Howard Goodall sung by the choir of Cargilfield School in Edinburgh, continuing the Moderator’s wish to involve children in the life and work of the Church.  Moreover, for 20 years the Moderator has been chaplain at the school.

Committee on Chaplains to Her Majesty’s Forces:

The Convener, himself a former chaplain, said that this past year has been a busy one with over 28 current operations under way, some of a small and discrete nature, so that it is a continuing challenge to provide chaplaincy cover for all personnel.  There is still work in Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Falklands, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Canada and Kenya. There are also short term training operations in places like Nigeria and Chad to be included.

A commissioner asked whether deacons are or will be considered for service in the Chaplaincy.  The Convener said that the matter is under positive consideration.

Mission and Discipleship Council:

The Convenor said that the amount of sections in the report addressed to the local church were not presented to frighten congregations but to encourage fresh thinking, fresh expressions of church. 

Many people are leaving the Church’s pews.  But research by a Development Office of the Council suggests that some are leaving not because they have lost faith but in order to keep it. The book of the research, The Invisible Church, does not make easy reading for the institutional church, but it does bring a message of hope. 

Elders are asking for training – and the Council is looking at the role of Eldership as a resource of 30,000 men and women. The Council invite the Church to help find a clear focus for the Eldership 

The Council has also been looking at the Rural Church.  43 per cent of all congregations are in rural areas – 309 in accessible rural areas and 272 in remote areas. It is important to find ways to encourage the rural churches to work together, to share resources and to take local action.

One minister was frustrated by the amount of paper work required for Local Church Reviews. The convener indicated that the Council of Assembly had already accepted an amendment, supported by his own Council, to look at this issue.

A Youth Delegate moved an addendum asking the Church for help to learn, understand and love those in their congregation who are trans-gender in order to better facilitate adequate pastoral care and inclusion. The Convener said he was going to resist the motion. Another commissioner could not believe the Convener’s refusal to accept the motion as it seemed to contradict the Council’s ethos of inclusion. The Convener of the Theological Forum said simply: “I urge the Assembly to accept this motion” The proposer said that the motion was not about theology or gender structure but about pastoral care. The Assembly passed the motion by a large majority. 

Past Moderator the Very Revd Albert Bogle spoke of the “invisible Church” and said that, as a pilot minister, he was working on establishing an internet congregation and hoped that it may be possible to be linked with physical congregations.

Another commissioner said that she missed the word “spiritual” from the publications like Pray Now.  The Convener took the point but said that seeking for a wider readership, sometimes the words have to be more general

The Minister of Dornoch Cathedral asked the Council to present a five-year theme in cooperation with Heart and Soul so that congregations can plan their future and focus together in the forward vision for the Church. (JH note: this was approved).

Finally, a Commissioner asked that the Council be instructed to produce a guide to the Church of Scotland to be used in outreach and worship.  Professor Torrance said there is already a book on the Church of Scotland and the Convener added that the first 31 pages of the Accounts of the Church are a perfect description of what the Church does.  The Assembly rejected the addendum.

Theological Forum:

The Convener spoke of the value of apologies, and said that when, earlier in the week, he had dismissed the possibility of elders celebrating Communion he had done so too quickly.  (JH note: See Monday under Panel on Review and Reform). He explained how he understood the sacrament of Communion. Martin Luther saw everyone who is baptised as a consecrated priest, bishop and pope. In the 1980s the conservatives in the Church were angry at indiscriminate communion.  He went on to say that it should be possible to train and ordain elders as Ordained Local Ministers. Another commissioner asked whether the efficacy of the sacrament is dependent on the one who celebrates it. The Convener said that there are views on the issue but the Church has evolved rules on such matters.  

General Assembly 2016: Friday, 27th May

Welcome to the final day of the 2016 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.  It is the day when the Assembly receives the reports of seven or eight committees that deal with very important domestic issues, which are rarely controversial but are essential for the work and mission of the Church. Sadly, the lack of interest is reflected in the fact that at the beginning of the morning session only about half of the commissioners were in the Hall.  The session began, as always with worship during which the Assembly Choir sang a version of Isaac Watts’ hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross”.

General Trustees

The Chairman, explained that they wish to see congregations prosper in their buildings which meet their anticipated needs.  However, there are about 230 vacant buildings, churches, halls or manses.  They have to be maintained. Congregations should think seriously of disposing of unwanted buildings.

In answer to a later question, he estimated that perhaps up to 40 per cent of buildings will need to go within the next ten years. Indeed, they say that people need to leave the past and move out boldly to a future with a new and appropriate church building fit for their context. He gave a series of examples of exciting developments of new churches – pictures were shown on a screen.

Church Hymnary Trustees:

An organist asked the Trustees to investigate the possibility of an E-Book version of the Church Hymn Book or a ring-bound version, which would lie flat on an organ music stand, because the hard bound version is not very user-friendly. The Convener responded first by saying that this was exciting – it was the first motion to be proposed in 33 years of the Trust and it had happened on her watch! The motion was accepted. 

Church of Scotland Investors Trust:

This trust exists to provide investment services to the Church of Scotland and to bodies and trusts within or connected with the Church. In response to the Church and Society’s motion regarding ethical investment, the Trust has agreed to add companies with a significant interest in the extraction of thermal coal or oil from tar sands to their excluded investments.

Church of Scotland Pension Trustees:

The Chairman said that that for the first time in some years there is no deficit in the Pension Fund

Nomination Committee:

This committee presents the names of ministers, deacons and elders for the Assembly to appoint them to the various Councils and Committees. With the report’s acceptance, this series of summaries of the work of the Assembly comes to a close.  We hope you have found them helpful and informative. 

Editor's Note:
Rev Douglas Aitken produced daily podcast reports running to 14,000 words.
I gratefully acknowledge his work which makes possible this 4,150-word precis using his reporting.
James Houston, Elder, Lochmaben Church, and Commissioner to 2106 General Assembly
June 3rd, 2016