Commissioners gather online for the 'blended" General Assembly 2021

Ministers, elders, deacons and special guests are gathering for the second “blended” General Assembly which opens tomorrow.

They will make key decisions that will affect the future of the Kirk against the backdrop of unprecedented challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

General Assembly
The General Assembly is the highest court of the Church of Scotland.

In accordance with social distancing restrictions, only a small number of people will be gathered in person at the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh - those running the proceedings, reporting, livestreaming and recording the event.

Commissioners from across Scotland and further afield will watch proceedings live online via the Church website and Facebook page.

They will be able to take part in debates and vote on deliverances brought forward by the forums/committees of the Church.

The first order of business is to officially install Rt Hon Lord Wallace of Tankerness QC as the next Moderator.

He will chair proceedings from the Assembly Hall for the next five days and thereafter will act as the Church’s ambassador for the next 12 months.

The 66-year-old life peer from Orkney is the second elder in modern times to take up the role which will see him speaking out on issues important to the Church and its mission to follow and proclaim the example of Jesus Christ.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness
Rt Hon Lord Wallace of Tankerness QC has been a Kirk elder since 1981.

Speaking after he was named Moderator Designate, Lord Wallace said: “I am delighted to have been asked to take up the role and feel humbled and honoured that people have put their trust in me.

“I am both excited and daunted about the challenge of the task that lies ahead and to be honest I have had to pinch myself that this is actually happening.”

Lord Wallace, a former Deputy First Minister of Scotland, is a member of St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney.

He succeeds Rt Rev Dr Martin Fair who has served the Church as Moderator with great insight and compassion for all those operating under the most difficult of circumstances.

Dr Fair, who is returning to his role as minister of St Andrew’s Parish Church in Arbroath, Angus, will supervise the passing of the ring and chain of office to Lord Wallace. a former MP and MSP.

The ceremonial aspect to the opening of the General Assembly will be scaled down due to COVID-19 restrictions but Prince William, who has been appointed as the Lord High Commissioner, will physically be in attendance.

His Royal Highness was appointed by Her Majesty the Queen as her personal representative – her first grandchild to do so - and will address the Assembly on the opening and closing days.

Prince William
Prince William will be the Lord High Commissioner at this year's General Assembly. Photo from Kensington Palace.

Over the following week, Prince William, who is known as the Earl of Strathearn in Scotland, will visit projects associated with the Church of Scotland to show his support and provide encouragement.

A wide range of issues will be debated and discussed including the role of the Westminster Confession of Faith and a programme of reforms to create a sustainable structure that will support the Church in its mission for decades to come.

The Assembly Trustees have praised congregations for their “extraordinary” innovative and inspiring response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including generous financial support which has helped keep the Church functioning.

They have brought forward a report that sets out the financial impact on the Church and details of decisions that must be taken to mitigate ongoing financial stress and ensure it is fit for purpose.

Realistic and affordable

Going forward, it notes it is likely that it will be organised around nine presbyteries, down from 43, which will be “properly resourced to become the agents who can redesign the Church for mission.”

The General Trustees will update the Assembly on progress to reduce the number of poor quality and expensive to maintain buildings as part of the ‘Well Equipped Spaces in the Right Places’ programme.

They do not determine where to “prune or plant” but have published a toolkit that helps presbyteries decide minimum standards and where buildings should be located.

The Faith Nurture Forum has published a report that sets out proposals to reduce the number of full-time ministry posts and vacant charge levels by 2025.

The Assembly Trustees propose that a realistic and affordable aim is for presbyteries to plan the life of the local Church around 600 full-time equivalent ministries and a target of no more than 60 further charges vacant at any one time.

This represents a reduction of around 200 posts but the Assembly Trustees said the reduction takes account of the fact that 40% of all current full-time ministers of Word and Sacrament are over the age of 60 with significant numbers, perhaps as high as 60%, projected to retire over the next 10 years.

The Faith Nurture Forum has set out proposed minister numbers for each presbytery.

 Elie Church
Elie Church in Fife

After years of passionate debate, the General Assembly will hear that the Investors Trust has disposed of all its oil and gas shares, completing a switch over two years into sectors with better investment prospects.

A proposal to establish a committee to recommend on ethical investment will be considered.

In addition, the Assembly will consider ambitious plans to move the Church to net zero carbon by 2030.

Same-sex marriage

The Kirk’s Legal Questions Committee will bring forward legislation which could ultimately allow ministers of Word and Sacrament and Deacons to conduct same sex marriages.

If the draft plan is approved by commissioners, it will then be shared with all presbyteries for their consideration under the Church of Scotland’s Barrier Act 1697.

Under this new proposed Act, ministers and deacons would be one step closer to applying for a license to become authorised celebrants for same-sex marriage ceremonies.

However, under the over-arching terms of the committee’s proposed legislation, no-one would be required to participate in the solemnisation of, or be involved in the arrangements for, a same-sex marriage unless they explicitly wished to do so.

CrossReach is the operating name of the Social Care Council of the Church of Scotland and commissioners will hear about the “exceptional” efforts that dedicated staff have made over the last 12 months to ensure that high quality services continued despite significant financial challenges.

Drug deaths

The charity provides alcohol and substance abuse support services.

The General Assembly will be asked to instruct CrossReach to work in collaboration with the Faith Impact Forum to hold the Scottish Government to account on its promise to reduce drug deaths and to ensure that the appropriate resources are put in place.

Commissioners will also be invited to endorse efforts to keep “The Promise” which has been made to children who have experience of the care system to ensure that they grow up loved, safe, respected and able to realise their full potential.

The first “blended” General Assembly was held in October last year.