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General Assembly 2017

Picture by Derek Fett
Picture by Derek Fett

General Assembly 2017: reports

Summaries of the main reports to the General Assembly

General Assembly 2017: full coverage

Full reports, video webcast and archive of the proceedings at the Church of Scotland website.


The Council of Assembly has this year begun to create a strategic plan to help the Church meet the challenges of falling Church membership, attendance and finances.

The Council report states that it will construct the plan around the biblical theme ‘Love God and love your neighbour’, and with three strategic objectives: nurturing congregational life and worship, making disciples, and engaging community.

The report emphasises that the plan, a full version of which is to be presented to the 2018 Assembly, will be produced from a ‘collaborative approach between the local church and national functions’. “Any attempt to implement a Strategic Plan will only have a chance of success if there is genuine ‘buy-in’ from those to whom it applies,” it warns.

The deliverance issues ‘a call to the Church of Scotland to pray that God will do a fresh work amongst us as God’s people’ and instructs ‘Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions to consider how best to respond to this call’; and instructs the Council to prepare resources ‘to support individuals, congregations and Presbyteries in prayer for the development of the Strategic Plan’.

As ever, budget proposals for next year will be presented by the Council at the Assembly, but were not available as Life and Work went to press. The results for 2016 show that the church ran a deficit of £3,433,000; and the revised budget for 2017 has a deficit of £4,686,000. Most of the deficit in both years comes from the Social Care and Ministries Councils.

98.7% of congregations met their ministries and missions contributions in 2016, the highest figure for at least five years.


The Ministries Council reports on its ongoing work to develop a vision for ministry based on the ‘hub-style’ model, under which a team would deliver the church’s ministry over an area covering several parishes. It states there has been ‘much comment and enthusiasm for this idea’ at the Council of Assembly roadshows last autumn and the Presbytery Conference in October.

The exploration of this proposal involves work to define the role of minister, both historically and how it will have to change to meet the challenges of the present and future; and on exploring structures, governance issues and other practical questions around hub-style ministry. A number of options for the possible structure of hub-style ministries are presented, and the Council states its intention to refine these options in consultation with presbyteries.

Among the practical considerations, it is pointed out that this style of ministry may reduce the need for the closure of church buildings; and questions of whether a congregation which will never receive stipendiary ministry should have to pay the same level of Ministries and Mission allocations.

It is emphasised however that the hub-style ministry ‘may only postpone our demise’ if it is purely about dealing with the problem of ministry shortage rather than bringing about the ’radical change’ the Church needs to grow again: “The world that the Church of Scotland was designed for, and flourished in, has disappeared… Even the best designed and implemented Hub-style approach will buy us but a few more years of existence if it does not address these more fundamental issues.“

The number of applicants for full-time ministry in 2016 was 25 (12 male, 13 female; nine higher than the previous year), and for ministry of all types was 59 (30 male, 29 female; again nine more than in 2015). The report states that conversations are taking place between the Council of Assembly and the Ministries Council ‘to evaluate how best to build on the positive momentum’ generated by the Tomorrow’s Calling campaign and the Take a Pew project.


The Mission and Discipleship report highlights some of the Council’s new resources and events and encourages churches and presbyteries to make use of them.

Among the resources mentioned are the new Learn publications, Pray Now, Weekly Worship (the new name for the Starters for Sunday online worship materials) and the Spirituality of Conflict resources which have been produced with the Corrymeela and Iona Communities.

The Council says it has responded to the challenge of few or no children in churches with a series of regional conferences and a new Learn: Children and Young People publication, and is in the process of developing a resource on the Theology of Children and Young People.

It has also published a resource for churches considering employing a children’s/youth worker.

Following a review of the National Youth Assembly (NYA), the Council announces its intention to end the NYA in its current form after 2019, and to introduce ‘a transformed approach to involving children, young people and young adults… (which) will build on the good work previously done by the NYA’.

The review is broadly complimentary about the Assembly, which it says is ‘run in an effective manner’ and has ‘accomplished its original aim, that of bringing young people into the decision making processes of the Church’. It also ‘provided a significant opportunity for young adults to develop their faith’.

However, it notes that the numbers attending the NYA event are relatively small considering the cost of running it; and calls for ways of involving ‘a broader cohort’ of children and young people at all levels of the church’s decision making. The council commits to bringing proposals for achieving this; and for resourcing congregations in their ministry with children and young people.

The Committee on Church Art and Architecture (CARTA) has launched ‘360 Degree’ educational resources, with the aim of taking a more pro-active approach to encouraging critical reflections on the use of church buildings. Over 30 buildings were filmed and photographed using 360 Degree technology, and these have been combined with audio narration and music ‘to create an immersive educational and reflective resource’.

An interim report from the Eldership Working Group recommends ‘that a process be formalised whereby an elder can resign from the Kirk Session and (be appointed) as a non-governing emeritus elder’. It also states that it is developing ‘an overall vision of the office of eldership shaped by local contextual mission and distinctively concerned with the discipleship of God’s people’, and that it will ‘provide training and support in innovative ways to carry out vital administrative tasks’.

The Church Without Walls team has facilitated the Future Focus process in around 20 congregations in the past year, and is now working with volunteers to make the process accessible to more congregations.

Saint Andrew Press published seven books over the last publishing year, including the ‘outstanding bestseller’ The Invisible Church by Steve Aisthorpe. The contract with Hymns Ancient and Modern to run Saint Andrew Press was renewed for another five years from 2016.

Progress on implementing the 2015 Life and Work business review has continued with the appointment of a business manager, completion of a major piece of market research and the launch of a digital edition earlier this year.

Last year the Council was instructed to develop, with representatives of groups from across the Church of Scotland, a series of themes for the work of the Church over coming years. Following a two-day facilitation process, a three-year series of themes based around stories was approved: Stories of Encounter, Stories of Transformation and Stories of Celebration. The Council asks for Assembly approval of these themes, to run from 2018-2020.


The Assembly Arrangements Committee announces that it has begun an ongoing review of the functioning of the Assembly, ‘in particular, how commissioners… will have the best opportunity to participate in its working and decision-making processes’.

Among changes introduced this year is the abolition of the Saturday evening session. The address by the retiring Moderator and presentation of delegates and visitors will this year take place early on the first day. There is also a request for conveners’ speeches to be limited to 15 minutes, instead of 20.

For the first time, the full recorded video proceedings of this year’s General Assembly will be available online. The committee is also investigating the possibility of providing 30 minutes of video highlights each day.


The Theological Forum presents its report ‘An Approach to the Theology of Same-Sex Marriage’, which is commended as a resource and ‘basis for study and discussion’. The report looks at how different approaches to scripture have resulted in different views, before considering arguments based on human rights, on ‘building outwards from traditional understandings of marriage’, and on theological arguments in favour of allowing same-sex marriage.

It concludes that the Forum ‘does not believe there are sufficient theological grounds to deny nominated individual ministers and deacons the authority to preside at same-sex marriages… however, the Forum does not believe that such permission should be granted until there is assurance that the conscientious refusal of other ministers and deacons to preside at such marriages is protected’.

The deliverance invites the church to ‘apologise individually and corporately’ for ‘its history of discrimination’ against gay people ‘and seek to do better’, and to instruct the Legal Questions Committee ‘to undertake a study of the matters which would require to be addressed in any new legislation permitting Ministers and Deacons to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies’.


The Panel on Review and Reform’s update on the Path of Renewal scheme reports that the Panel continues to support 43 congregations and one area grouping going through the process, although one congregation dropped out early this year. It says that the main focus in 2016 was initial work on: “helping ministers and Kirk Sessions to reflect on the changing culture, the challenges it presents and the change of leadership styles and approaches needed for this. Alongside this, ministers have been encouraged to invest heavily in a few people seeking to disciple them.” Early research indicates that this work has been effective in helping the people involved develop a ‘missional mind-set’.

This year, the focus is on developing Path of Renewal groups in each of the congregations. They are also beginning the process of rolling it out to other congregations, with applications in by May and a new batch of churches to begin the programme in January next year.

The Panel has also been looking into local leadership roles in the Church of Scotland, and notes a reluctance among congregations to accept the idea of life without a Minister of Word and Sacrament. Because of this, the Panel admits it has changed its view on this issue and now concludes that the Church should aim to have a Minister of Word and Sacrament in every charge; but with the caveats that ‘an essential part of their role in the local church is to enable the people of God to recognise, develop and exercise their God given gifts’; and that this ambition does not equate to a stipendiary minister in every parish.

The Assembly is asked to instruct the Panel to ‘bring proposals to the General Assembly of 2018 on payment, training and placement of Ordained Local Ministries’ and also to ‘consider the potential use of Commissioned Local Ministers’. The latter point follows a suggestion made by the Rev Dr Doug Gay in this year’s Chalmers Lectures, quoted in the Panel’s report, in which Dr Gay said: “We would be joining the United Reformed Church and the PCUSA if we enabled presbyteries to authorise suitably trained and experienced elders .. to preach, baptise and preside at communion.


This year’s World Mission report is focused on the role and status of women in the world church: both as ‘agents of positive change’ in areas such as climate change, human development, education, child protection and trafficking, but also as ‘victims of discrimination and structural injustice’.

The report highlights prominent women in the churches around the world, both historically (giving thanks ‘for 500 years of witness in the Reformed tradition, and the opportunities for women to exercise all forms of ministry within it’) and in the present day, and, it says, seeks to:

Among the women highlighted are familiar Church of Scotland names suche as Jane Haining and Mary Slessor, but also some less familiar: Dr Isabellle Graesslé, first woman to have served as Moderator of the Company of Pastors and Deacons of the Church of Geneva; Marie Dentière, a contemporary of Jean Calvin who was the first woman to have her name added to a plinth beside the Reformation Wall in Geneva; the Uruguayan modern-day reformed thinker Rev Carola Tron Urban; Rev Dr Isabel Apowo Phiri, Associate General Secretary of the World Council of Churches and member of The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians; and Dr Jessie Mughogho Chihana, Director of Ekwendeni Hospital in Malawi, who talks about the difficulties of holding a decision-making role in a male-dominated society.

It states with regret that ‘throughout history women have suffered violence, mostly at the hands of men, and often with little challenge from the churches, despite Christ’s command to seek life in fullness for all’; and urges the whole church to take part in the Thursdays in Black campaign against violence against women.

The Council, with the Church and Society Council, the Guild and Christian Aid, is planning a conference in September on the theme of Women in the World Church, and the deliverance encourages churches to send a representative; to support Christian Aid’s work on Gender Justice through the Side by Side movement; and to ‘challenge any theology that is used to persecute and discriminate against women’.

There is also support for the Church of Scotland HIV Programme; and for the Church’s peacebuilding work in South Sudan.


“We are living in challenging and uncertain times,” states the introduction to a typically wide-ranging Church and Society report, that takes in issues of surveillance and social justice, the UK’s future in Europe, asylum and refugees, equality, politics, gender justice and pilgrimage. It states that the ‘seismic’ political events of the past year and ‘a palpable rise globally, and nationally, of xenophobia and isolationism’ form the backdrop and impact on all the Council’s areas of work.

The report adds: “It would be easy in this environment, particularly given many of the challenges which the Church of Scotland faces internally, to retreat into our own brand of introspection, isolationism and knee-jerk reaction. This, however, is not what God asks of us. Rather we are called ‘to love justly; to show mercy; and to walk humbly with our God’ (Micah 6:8).”

The Council brings to the Assembly an implementation plan for Speak Out, a decade-long programme of activity based on the seven themes identified as priorities in last year’s consultation process. For each of the themes, the plan briefly introduces the current situation and where the Church would like to get to over the next 10 years, before looking at the policy and culture shifts and practical actions that need to take place for that to happen. On ‘health and wellbeing’, for instance, it calls for the future of the NHS in Scotland to be de-politicised, and an agreement found on how its future can best be resourced.

The deliverance celebrates the ‘outstanding work which local churches are already undertaking to make Scotland fairer, more equal and more just’, and instructs the Council to develop resources enabling congregations to ‘engage fully’ in Speak Out.

The surveillance and social justice report is an attempt to ‘encourage Christians to engage in re-considering surveillance in everyday contexts’. It warns that surveillance ‘can be immensely valuable but deeply discriminatory… and too readily absorbs and magnifies fear and suspicion’. “As UK citizens we have the responsibility to welcome or challenge specific surveillance strategies carried out in our name. As Christians we are called upon to embody Christ’s love by solidarity with those for whom surveillance diminishes dignity.”

The section of the deliverance on the EU referendum and its aftermath regrets ‘the reported rise in xenophobic and racist attacks following the result’ and calls for the rights and contributions of EU nationals to be recognised and protected; while that on asylum and refugees calls on the UK government to accept more refugees into the country. Congregations and Church memebrs are encouraged ‘to take part in opportunities for encounter and learning with asylum seekers and refugees’.

The growth of interest in ethical finance initiatives in Scotland is welcomed, as the ‘Meet Your MSP’ campaign. Congregations are encouraged ‘to build positive relationships with their local politicians’.


A joint report of the World Mission and Church and Society Councils reflects on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, in which the British Government said it would ‘view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’.

The report, entitled ‘Embracing Peace and Working for Justice’, calls for the anniversary to be used ‘to renew our efforts in calling for and working towards a just peace’ in Israel/Palestine, encouraging and supporting those who are committed to non-violence, and challenging anti-semitism and islamophobia.

The deliverance urges that public commemorations are undertaken sensitively; calls on the UK government ‘to base their engagement in this conflict on the principles of justice, equality, dignity, equal access to natural resources and freedom of opportunity for all’; deplores the expansion of illegal settlements; and affirms that ‘Christian theology should not be used to justify or perpetrate a situation of injustice.

Church members are encouraged to engage with the Kairos Palestine document and to take pilgrimages to the Middle East which offer ‘opportunities to meet with, and better understand the realities of partners working for peace and justice’.

The World Mission Council is instructed to undertake a strategic review of the Church’s presence in Israel/Palestine in the context of ‘the pursuit of a just peace’.


The CrossReach report focuses on the conclusions of the Business Strategy Group set up last year. In the face of continuing challenges and volatility in the social care sector, the group has recommended a ‘strategic direction of travel’. This affirms CrossReach’s mission and vision statements, strategic goals and Christian ethos; and suggests revised financial principles, human resources and recruitment policies.

The financial principles include a commitment to total income receivable being no less than total expenditure; and ‘work to be undertaken on the basis of full cost recovery’. ‘Rigorous monitoring procedures’ are to be put in place to ensure these principles are followed and early action taken when situations arise that threaten the organisations ability to meet them.

The past service pension deficit, which is costing the organisation over £1m a year, is identified as ‘the most significant impediment to the achievement of a break even budget’, and conversations are ongoing with the Council of Assembly to find a sustainable solution to the problem.

Meeting the cost of the commitment to pay all employees the living wage is another challenge, with the Scottish Government funding the increase for social care workers but not meeting additional costs such as impact on salary differentials. “Whilst [CrossReach and the Council of Assembly] are committed to the principle of the Scottish Living Wage and to increasing the hourly rates of all lower paid workers this sadly cannot be achieved at the cost of putting in jeopardy the sustainability of individual services or the organisation as a whole,” the report states.

A change to the recruitment policy means that only staff in management positions will be required to be Christian. However, all other staff will have to commit to be respectful of the Christian ethos of CrossReach and commit not to undermine it; and the basics of the Christian faith will be included in induction training for new workers.

Along with noting and endorsing the strategic direction of travel, the deiiverance calls on Church of Scotland members to adopt CrossReach as their chosen charity and make regular donations to support its work.


The Guild deliverance congratulates the organisation on its 130th anniversary, encourages congregations without a Guild to try establishing one, and Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions to consider their relationship with the Guild and support of Guild projects. It also notes that individuals can join the Guild by contacting the national office, particularly where there is no group in their own church.

Highlights of the past year include two ‘Big Sing’ events, with over a thousand people at each, which raised thousands of pounds to support the work of the Synod of Livingstonia in the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian in Malawi; the Annual Gathering in Dundee and a Regional Gathering in Kelso.

Guild membership is recorded as just over 20,000 in 821 groups; and project donations to the six current supported charities totalled £343,000 by February this year.


The report of the Chaplains’ Committee presents an Armed Forces Covenant to which the Church is invited to subscribe.

The principles enshrined in the covenant are that ‘no member of the Armed Forces community should face disadvantage in the provision of public and commercial services’ and ‘in some circumstances special treatment may be appropriate, especially for the injured or bereaved’.

Practical steps include urging presbyteries to appoint veterans’ champions, and churches supporting the Armed Forces community through pastoral care and signposting them to appropriate resources. There is also a commitment to provide support in the employment of veterans through the Church recruitment practices.

The Covenant, the report states, is ‘a solemn undertaking for action in support of those who have defended our Nation’.


The Ecumenical Relations Committee reflects on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which it says is an opportunity ‘to reflect on the historical significance of the Reformation as well as the imperative of continual reform within the life of the Church, both nationally and internationally’. The Assembly is asked to ‘renew its commitment to the vision expressed in eccleia reformata, semper reformanda’ [“A reformed Church is always requiring to be reformed”] within the communion of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’.

Among the reports of relations with other churches are updates on ‘helpful and constructive’ discussions with the United Free Church of Scotland, which last year withdrew from its Covenant with the Church of Scotland; and an initial conversation with the United Reformed Church ‘on the nature of the relationship between our two churches’.

The Joint Commission on Doctrine (of the Church of Scotland and Roman Catholic Church in Scotland) has embarked on a new cycle of discussion; a new bilateral process has been established with the Scottish Episcopal Church, called ‘Our Common Calling’; and the Contact Group formed with the Church of England in the wake of the signing of the Columba Declaration has begun its work.

Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS) is to undergo a comprehensive external review of its work, in response to the changed ecumenical landscape in Scotland since it was established in 1990.


The Safeguarding report notes that in 2017 the Church will ‘celebrate the journey taken by the Church of Scotland over the past 20 years’, during which it has ‘evolved from a focus on criminal record checks… to the inclusion of training, multi-agency working and extending the remit to protecting adults at risk’.

It notes that Safeguarding is a Gospel imperative, and ‘there will never be a time when it will be said that the work is complete’.

It also celebrates what it describes as ‘a major national Safeguarding achievement’ in registering 38,000 posts and 35,000 people with the protection of vulnerable groups (PVG) scheme since 2011: “Through its commitment to the PVG Scheme, the Church of Scotland has ensured the safe recruitment of more volunteers than any other Third Sector organisation.”