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General Assembly 2015

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Monday May 11 2015

GENERal assembly 2015: reports

Thomas Baldwin takes a look at some of the key reports to this year's General Assembly. Full reports are available on the Church of Scotland website.



The Council of Assembly ‘is pleased to report further progress in 2014 towards its objective of financial sustainability for the Church at a national level’. It reports that the budgets of Councils ‘are mostly in balance or showing small surpluses for 2015’; the exception being the Social Care Council (CrossReach), for which the aim is ‘to bring the Council’s budget back into balance by 2016’.

The full proposed budget for next year is, as ever, not available in time for the publication of the Assembly reports and will be set out in a supplementary report. Early indications are that total congregational income in 2014 was slightly up from the previous year, and Presbyteries and congregations are again urged to continue their involvement in the National Stewardship Programme and to make use of the church’s Stewardship Consultants.

The largest section of the Council’s report records the progress of the Joint Working Group on Strategic Finance and Resource Allocation. This was set up last year with the remit of comprehensively reviewing the way money is raised and spent by the church at a national level.

The group reports that it is driven by the vision ‘of a Church and its people flourishing where trust, responsibility and resources are aligned’. While arguing that there are many positive aspects to the current life of the Church, it recognises a series of difficulties and problems, including inflexible financial systems, the growing number of churches without a minister, the number of non-essential buildings and the perception of the national structure as ‘overly complex and unrepresentative’.

Recommendations are to start exploring alternatives to the current Ministries and Mission (M&M) Contributions system, review the current proportion of the M&M contributions given to the Parish Ministries Fund, research into effective examples of change in local congregations and exploring how Councils and committees of the Church could best be structured to support Presbytery involvement.

The Assembly is asked to note the progress of the group and ‘endorse the direction of travel’.



The Ministries Council report centres on the early steps in the Decade for Ministry which was approved at last year’s General Assembly. It states that some initiatives have already begun, adding: “While these will take time to bear fruit, already there are some promising shoots.”

The number of applicants accepted for full-time ministry last year was 14, three more than the year before. The total number of applicants for all recognised ministries (parish ministers, ordained local ministers (OLMs), deacons and readers) was down, partly due to a spike in OLM applications in 2013.

The Decade for Ministry target of training 30 people per year for full-time ministry remains, the report says, ‘an aspiration’. “Opportunities for discernment offered by the Council… and encouragingly by some Presbyteries acting together at a regional level, mean that we now have contact with more potential applicants,” it adds.

One area where progress that has been made is the appointment of the first Vocations Champions, which will work with Presbyteries, congregations and individuals to help people explore their sense of call. There has also been work in appealing to the under 35s age group.

A review of the enquiry and assessment process for potential ministers has resulted in changes which have streamlined the process for some candidates.

The Council has also been exploring pioneer ministry, which is about establishing new faith communities. It is in discussion with potential providers of pioneer ministry training – some to be provided to all candidates, some for people who wish to concentrate on that type of ministry – and has agreed to fund up to five pilot pioneer ministry posts.

The report presents overhauled Regulations for Remuneration and Reimbursement of Parish Ministers, which include the recommendation of making a seventh Sunday a year of Pulpit Supply available to ministers. They also include clarification of expenses rules, with a particular emphasis on upkeep of the manse.

Stipends have been increased by two per cent this year, which is half a percentage point above the inflation measure used by the Council. This helped to balance the previous year when the stipend increase was below inflation.

A revised familiarisation programme, for ministers transferring in to the Church of Scotland from overseas, is to be implemented later this year, and the £300 application fee for such transfers is to be scrapped.

Place for Hope, the organisation begun in the Church of Scotland which helps churches find positive approaches to dealing with difference and disputes, has now become an independent charity.

The Go For It fund reports that, as of January 2015, it had awarded £2,346,000 since the start of operations, and is currently funding 115 projects in 37 presbyteries. In 2013/14, around 1500 volunteers working at 120 funded projects benefited over 35,000 people.



“For the first time since 2011 the Council has a full complement of staff in the year that marks its tenth anniversary in its current form,” the Mission and Discipleship Council reports. “It remains our aim to equip God’s people to worship and witness and to grow in faith, understanding and discipleship. This involves not just creating new programmes or resources…but also giving people the confidence to believe that by working together in step with God’s Spirit we can make a difference to our communities and to our nation.”

Much of the Deliverance is about encouraging Presbyteries, Kirk Sessions and congregations to make use of the various Mission and Discipleship resources, including Starters for Sunday, Different Voices, Pray Now and the Learn:Eldership publication.

The latter has been one of the Council’s great successes of the past year, with thousands of copies sold.

The report adds that the Learn initiative, which was officially launched at the 2014 Session Clerks and Elders Conference, ‘will produce learning and development opportunities for all areas of Church life’.

A review of the business of Life and Work makes a series of recommendations to help the title meet the challenges of the current communications environment. They include the reinvestment of profits back into the magazine, the establishment of a management board, the appointment of a business manager and investment in independent market research.

There has also been a review of the work of the Committee on Church Art and Architecture (CARTA), with the aims of being more proactive in encouraging congregations to consider their buildings in relation to their mission, of clarifying its role and improving collaboration with the General Trustees.

In a report into the funding of the National Youth Assembly (NYA), the Council commits to supporting the event in its current form for the next three years. It suggests the event be reviewed in 2015-16, on the understanding that any significant changes would not take effect until after NYA 2018.

A Learning Disabilities Working Group consultation reports that ‘there are many examples of good practice and resources available for ministry in this area’, that ‘a variety of approaches should be employed’, and that ‘those with learning disabilities can bring much to a church community and indeed there is a gospel imperative to involve all’. However, there is ‘little to no clarity’ about the role of Presbytery Disability Advisers, and the Council will propose a new way of working with congregation members who wish to be involved in this area.


CHURCH AND SOCIETY COUNCIL                          

A typically diverse Church and Society report opens with reflections on the big events of 2014 – the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the Independence Referendum, themes from both of which are continued into this year.

The theme of the ‘common wealth’ is followed up with a major report on tax, giving and wealth sharing, which calls for a national debate about the issues within ‘the context of economic and social inequalities and the transfer of fiscal and welfare responsibilities to the Scottish Parliament after May 2016’.

There is also a call for the Scottish and UK Governments to reform the tax system ‘in order to promote the reduction of wealth and income inequality’; and for the Council to ‘pursue the concerns’ in the Church Action on Poverty report on benefit sanctions, released earlier this year.

The Deliverance celebrates the ‘wide public engagement and high turnout in the 2014 Referendum’ and commits the Council ‘to continue to work for broad participation in the delivery of devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament and related matters’.

On climate change, the Deliverance welcomes the announcement of a moratorium on drilling for onshore shale oil and gas (fracking), calls on the Scottish Government to look at how to introduce cheap, low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels for domestic heating and instructs the Council to bring a report on energy and fuel poverty to the 2016 General Assembly.

The Council is also to prepare resources to help congregations engage with the Paris Climate Conference later this year.

The church’s long-standing opposition to nuclear weapons is restated in a section that declares such weapons are ‘inherently evil’.

On assisted dying, responding to an instruction from last year, the Council has begun conversations with the Theological Forum and is hoping to produce a ‘substantive’ report for 2016 or 2017. The Council convener and a representative of the Scottish Episcopal Church spoke in opposition to the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill at a Committee of the Scottish Parliament in January.

Further sections on health call for the Scottish Government to promote organ donation and for congregations to consider promoting the fleshandblood campaign, which encourages churches to see organ and blood donation as an aspect of Christian giving.

There is another call on the Scottish Government to begin ‘a wide review of the operation of current mental health and related legislation’ and encouragement for congregations to use ‘available resources to help overcome the stigma often associated with mental illness and to ensure that all are welcome in the life of their churches’.

In education, the Deliverance urges that Religious and Moral Education should be provided for all pupils by specialist teachers.



The World Mission report this year focuses on the various relationships fostered between the Church of Scotland - at both national and congregational level - and mission partners, churches and organisations around the world.

Through specific examples it looks at the impact such partnerships can have in areas such as poverty relief (in Scotland and abroad), AIDS and other health issues, gender-based violence, human trafficking and climate change.

The report states: “The World Mission Council seeks to support congregations and Presbyteries, Councils and Committees to be in the vanguard of involvement with the living stones of the world church. There are so many positive and exciting developments already happening, and there are more opportunities for all parts of the Church of Scotland to make connections and develop links of love, friendship and support with the churches internationally. There is learning to be offered and received on each side of the relationship.

“In the coming church year, please consider how your congregation, Presbytery, Council or Committee can share in God’s worldwide work of building relationships with people in other countries.”

The deliverance includes encouragement for the Council ‘to be open to new areas of partnership in areas of the world where it does not have living links, but where there are strategic opportunities’.

Other sections include instructions to support partner churches involved in peacebuilding, healing and reconciliation in South Sudan, Sri Lanka and the Korean peninsula; to pray for and support minority communities, especially Christians, facing discrimination; to develop new fundraising strategies for the Church of Scotland HIV Programme; and to work with the Church and Society Council and Christian Aid in a ‘partner consultation’ on climate change.



CrossReach reports on progress towards developing the ‘four tiers of engagement’ it introduced to last year’s assembly. These were:

Prayer – through the development of a ‘well received’ revised prayer diary featuring specific services and church projects;

Getting alongside – opportunities for churches to support CrossReach nationally, including CrossReach and Social Care Sunday, CrossReach Week, other events and resources and links with the Church and Society Council and National Youth Assembly;

CrossReach Local – exploring the establishment of social care initiatives, provided by local churches but with CrossReach support. The report says: “Many congregations offer a variety of forms of social outreach and community care already and… we believe that the Social Care Council might usefully assist in making that work more visible, more effective and… enable the development of new initiatives.”

The help envisaged is in the area of regulatory guidance, information sharing, facilitative partnerships and advising on finance and funding. Discussions are ongoing and a Social Care Mission Officer is to be appointed to take it forward.

CrossReach National – The council has continued to provide services in over 70 locations under the headings of adult care, services to older people and children and family services. Nearly 97% of service users who responded to a survey agreed that their quality of life was better because of the service; and nearly 99% that they feel supported and well cared for.

The report states that it has been operating in a ‘challenging financial environment’, and operated at a deficit of around £1 million in the past year. Although this figure is reduced compared to the average over recent years, the council admits that it is not sustainable and is in the middle of a three year recovery plan to achieve a breakeven budget.

It adds that ‘it is a source of real concern and disappointment’ that the Council was unable to give staff a cost of living pay rise in 2014, instead giving a one-off £100 payment in December: “this is not a tenable long term position and the Council are committed to continuing discussions with funders and employee representatives to try to seek ways to address this without affecting the long term sustainability and viability of the organisation.”

Discussions were also ongoing with regards to developing an action plan towards paying all employees the Scottish Living Wage.



The Guild is embarking on a new three-year period under the theme ‘Be bold, be strong!’, which the report says is ‘a statement about how we should approach the short, medium and long-term future of our organisation’.

The new set of six project partners are Street Pastors, Care for the Family, a Christian Aid project in Bolivia, Mission International’s Haiti Project, a Feed the Minds project against female genital mutilation in Kenya, and the Prospects organisation which supports people with learning disabilities in churches.

Highlights of the past year include the annual meeting, Guild Week, a ‘Big Sing’ in Perth North Church and involvement in the commemorations of the centenary of the death of Mary Slessor. The Guild also contined its ongoing involvement in the issues of domestic abuse and human trafficking, Jubilee Scotland , the Prison Visitors’ Centres Group, Scottish Women’s Convention and the World Day of Prayer.

At the end of February this year, nearly £350,000 had been donated to the last six project partners. In 2013, donations to the work of the church totalled over £800,000.

The 2014 General Assembly instructed the Guild to put together an Action Plan for its future, which was to be presented as a Supplementary Report (not available at the time of writing).



The Ecumenical Relations report is themed around pilgrimage, asking ‘what it means to be on a pilgrimage of justice and peace’ and the implications of ‘travelling together’ with other churches, both in Scotland and further afield.

The Deliverance encourages ‘Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions to take up the invitation of the World Council of Churches to join in a pilgrimage of justice and peace and to do so ecumenically, wherever possible’.

Among ecumenical developments in the past year, the Church of England has added the Church of Scotland to the list of churches recognised under its ‘Ecumenical Relations Measure’, which means that Church of Scotland ministers will be allowed to conduct worship and preach and assist in baptisms, marriages and Holy Communion in the Church of England, when invited.

Discussions continue with the United Free Church of Scotland, which is looking to withdraw from a Covenant with the Church of Scotland over the latter’s trajectory on same sex relations and the ministry. Both churches are ‘committed to a process of engagement over the next year to 18 months’, facilitated by the World Council of Churches.

Two ecumenical parishes in Scotland, Livingston Ecumenical Parish (now known as Livingston United Parish Church) and St Nicholas Uniting Parish Church in Aberdeen, have adopted the new Constitution for Single Congregation Local Ecumenical Partnerships.



Despite the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, the Chaplains’ Committee reports, ‘if anything the number and variety of [British military] operations has increased’, along with the calls on the services Chaplains. Over 35 Chaplains have been deployed over the past year to locations across the globe, and ‘Church of Scotland Chaplains have been at the forefront’.

Among the specific deployments mentioned, Padre Jim Francis and Padre Nicola Frail have both deployed to Kabul; Padre Chris Kellock was deployed with a field hospital to Sierra Leone, supporting military personnel helping in the ebola outbreak; and Padre Mark Dalton was deployed to a ‘hospital ship’ off the coast of the same country.

“The demand for Chaplaincy therefore remains as high as ever,” adds the report, “And the need for ministers of the Church of Scotland to offer themselves as Chaplains is still as pressing as ever.”



Two serious accidents on church premises in the second half of 2014, one of them fatal, have prompted the General Trustees to make the issue of ‘safe buildings’ a priority. A working group has been set up ‘to address a range of measures to encourage a practical and proportionate response to health and safety issues within congregations’.

The Trustees also propose the creation of a Manse Fund which would provide grants for the repair and upgrade of manses, and the purchase of replacement manses. This is in response to an unsustainable demand for such grants from the Central Fabric Fund.



This committee was expected to be discharged this year, with its work reallocated to other groups, but this has not yet happened due to ‘unresolved pension technicalities’.

After ‘some weeks’ of negotiations, employees of the Central Services Committee (primarily staff at the Church Offices in Edinburgh) accepted a pay increase of 1.25% or at least £400. Staff have voted to end the recognition agreement with Unite the Union and set up a Staff Association instead.



The Legal Questions Committee (LQC), Ministries Council, Church and Society Council, Ecumenical Relations Committee and Theological Forum were asked in 2013 to jointly ‘explore the possibility of ministers and deacons ceasing to act as Civil Registrars for the purpose of solemnising marriages’.

This was in response to the introduction of same sex marriage, and concerns that the Church or individual ministers could be open to charges of discrimination for refusing to conduct a same sex wedding ceremony.

While the LQC says it remains concerned about a possible legal challenge to the current scheme (in which bodies, such as the Church, and individuals are allowed to apply for authorisation to conduct different sex marriages but not same sex ones), the committees and councils agree that currently the benefits of continuing to solemnise marriage outweigh the risks.