Church challenged on whether it loves its buildings more than its Mission

The Church is being challenged to consider the place of its buildings in its faith mission by the body which oversees thousands of Church properties.

Iain Douglas
Iain Douglas, chairman of The General Trustees of the Church of Scotland

The General Trustees report has highlighted the very difficult decisions facing congregations over the cost of maintaining their churches, and in some cases of disposing of them.

The Trustees Chairman, Iain Douglas, told the Assembly,

“One of the biggest problems facing the church is the number of surplus buildings. In some urban places the union of 1929 has left us three large impressive churches within a stone’s throw of each other. The disposal of buildings is not just a practical issue, it is an emotional one.”

The General Trustees hold title to most of the Churches, Halls, Manses and Glebes around the country and in 2016 contributed a total investment of £6.5m in property loans and grants.

Addressing the Assembly for his last time as Chairman of the Trustees, Mr Douglas said:

“Although many buildings are used throughout the week - many of our sanctuaries lie empty six days each week.

"Are we prepared to address this by creating more appropriate buildings - or do we love our buildings more than we love our Mission?

Mr Douglas highlighted the new church buildings which are being built.

Two large 1960s churches in Glasgow’s Castlemilk have been replaced by a new purpose built modern church building.

A carpentry workshop was established as part of the project to recycle wood from the redundant buildings, including the incorporation of some of the wood into the new building.

“They created a cross using one piece of wood from each church and a circle of timber from the new church. To me that says something about the heart of the community of these congregations.”

But he said the move to new, multi-purpose church buildings did not come without its challenges.

He said “One woman told me she could not get her head around worshipping in the same place where she did Zumba!”

The Chairman outlined the reasons the traditional church façade, with small windows and closed doors can present an unwelcoming presence to the local community, hindering the development of outreach and mission.

He said “Our buildings need to reflect that congregations are supporting the needs of local communities in so many other practical ways. Our buildings need to reflect our duty to serve people rather than being a burden which deflects us from our mission.

"We are challenged to serve our neighbours and in doing so we show the example of Jesus”.

Reminding Commissioners that it is Presbyteries who make the final decision over the future of buildings, he admitted he was not always convinced the correct choice has been made in which building is deemed surplus to requirements.

The Trustees are trying new initiatives to promote closer relations with Presbyteries, with regular meetings take place with Glasgow Presbytery and the establishment of a “Cluster Pilot Scheme” with the five Tayside Presbyteries to discuss building issues. It’s hoped these will lead to a better understanding between the Trustees and Presbyteries.

The Chairman welcomed the extension of the Scottish Government’s Community Right to Buy legislation, which led to a community group securing funding to buy the former Portobello Old Church in Edinburgh.

“When disposing of church buildings we seek appropriate new uses, including continued use by the local community.

"The “Community Right to Buy” legislation is welcomed in this respect and Portobello Old will continue to serve local people.”

Highlighting the importance of proper maintenance and good practice in the oversight of church buildings, he told the Assembly the failure to address reported issues at an early stage remains a significant problem.

As part of the Trustees increasing support to encourage good practice, a Health and Safety Toolkit produced by Brian Auld, the Trustees Safe Buildings Consultant, was launched at the Assembly and will be distributed to all congregations and presbyteries over the next month.

At the end of the report, the Moderator of the General Asembly, Rt Rev Dr Derek Browning commended Mr Douglas for his service to the Trustees and the Church and wished him well in his retirement.

Read the chairman's speech

Watch the presentation and see the slides