New look presbytery will bring new opportunities for Kirk across the Highlands and Islands
Published on 15 January 2024 5 minutes read
The beginning of 2024 marks the start of a new chapter for the Church of Scotland across the north of Scotland with the creation of Clèir Eilean Ì, a single presbytery which will cover almost half of Scotland.
Clèir Eilean Ì – Gaelic for the Presbytery of the Island of Iona – held its first meeting online last week, bringing together ministers, elders and others across an area which stretches from the tip of Argyll to John O'Groats and from the Western Isles to Moray.
As part of the wider reorganisation of the Church to create a more sustainable Kirk and lay the foundations for future growth, Clèir Eilean Ì brings together nine former presbytery areas.
This will allow them to share resources and, for the first time, ministers and congregations across the region can call on full-time support staff to help in their mission of spreading the Good News of Jesus.
Rev Doug McRoberts, who was confirmed as Clèir Eilean Ì's first moderator at its inaugural session, believes this will make a big difference to the Kirk across the region.
"Every one of our previous presbyteries has been too small to have a full-time clerk, let alone any other full-time posts," he said.
"Now that central resource will be available to everybody within the presbytery and the first three positions will be in place within the first month of the presbytery's life.
"Beyond that, we are working with the Church's IT department in Edinburgh to allow our presbytery clerk to be genuinely mobile, allowing him to work anywhere in the area.
"This is about central Church resourcing presbyteries which will in turn resource ministry activities and mission work on the ground."
Taking on the key role of presbytery clerk is Rev Rory MacLeod, previously the clerk to the Presbytery of Lochcarron-Skye, the first to step into the role.
"No other calling would have persuaded me to leave my charge of Strath and Sleat, which I love," Mr MacLeod stated.
"My priority will be to get out and about so that all of our local churches feel supported and know that they are at the centre of Clèir Eilean Ì's activities."
The pooling of resources will also allow Clèir Eilean Ì to employ a full-time presbytery support officer, a full-time finance officer/treasurer, and eventually a full-time mission director.
Property issues will be looked after by contracted local property specialists across the presbytery area in an approach which has already been trialled successfully in Argyll, which faces similar geographical challenges.
"We have learned some lessons from the other big presbyteries which have already been running for a year or more," Mr McRoberts said.
"Where things that haven't gone well for them, they have helpfully told us what to watch for and where things that have gone well for them that we haven't thought about, we have built these in to what we do."
Mr McRoberts is excited about the potential opportunities the new presbytery will bring.
"By doing things in ways that have never been done before, we will open up new possibilities, new ways of ministering and mission," he explained.
Much of the groundwork for the new entity had already been carried out ahead of the first full meeting on Tuesday, with subsidiary committees already holding online meetings.
Given the scale of the new presbytery, covering 40 per cent of Scotland's landmass and including islands in both the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the four main business meetings held over the year will rely on the internet to keep everyone connected.
However, local representatives will be encouraged to gather together in designated hubs, allowing for in-person fellowship while connecting remotely with their peers elsewhere.
Mr McRoberts has also committed to visiting each hub in person in turn to meet as many members of the presbytery face-to-face in their home areas as he can. These meetings will be conducted on Tuesday evenings or on a Saturday to make participation easier for elders and other church officials who have other jobs.
Helping Clèir Eilean Ì meet the technical challenge this presents is the presbytery's first business convenor, Rev Donald McCorkindale, who brings his experience in managing hybrid meetings as former convener of the General Assembly Business Committee, where he has already encountered similar issues and challenges Clèir Eilean Ì will face.
The first meeting began with an online communion and the opportunity to break bread together.
For Mr McRoberts, this is an important indication of Clèir Eilean Ì's future.
"We are going to start as we mean to go on. This really is about being united together in our mission and our ministry," he said.
And this new united approach is already bearing fruit.
"Two of the united presbyteries, Inverness and Ross, have already started training local preachers and worship leaders in association with Highland Theological College in Dingwall," Mr McRoberts added.
"That will qualify them to preach or lead worship in their local congregations. In Clèir Eilean Ì, we will carry this forward across the whole presbytery. Within a few years, the whole pattern of worship will be changed."
Covering the heartland of Gaelic, with the exception of the Isle of Lewis where the local presbytery voted not to become a part of Clèir Eilean Ì at present, the language will also be a special focus for Clèir Eilean Ì.
"We will be the entity responsible for taking forward Gaelic worship," Mr McRoberts revealed.
"People will be able to turn to our website and find details of where they can worship in Gaelic and find other aspects of ministry met for them in Gaelic. We will take that responsibility seriously.
"But we very deliberately went for a name which didn't just literally translate Gaelic into English. So instead of Clèir Eilean Ì, the Presbytery of Iona, in the English version it is the Church of Scotland in the Highlands and Hebrides."
The Kirk's newest presbytery may have a name which looks back to the missions of St Columba, but the creation of Clèir Eilean Ì is very much about the future.
Mr McRoberts said: "Of all the world's religions, Christianity is the only one ultimately and absolutely defined by where, in Christ, we're going, and so, how we go forward – not by where we've come from."
Find out more about Clèir Eilean Ì at its new website: cei.presbytery.org.uk