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'Necessary and Long Overdue'

'Necessary and Long Overdue'

Tuesday July 30

The Rev Professor David Fergusson, chair of the Special Commission on Structural Reform, introduces the proposals accepted by this year's General Assembly.


A Special Commission was appointed by the Commission of Assembly in October 2018, its membership comprising myself as Convener, Sarah Davidson (Scottish Government), James McNeill QC and Morag Ross QC. Our task was to examine governance issues in the Unincorporated Councils and Committees of the Church (SC011353), and also to identify ways in which a ‘leaner’ organisation could better support the mission of the local church.

The trigger for the formation of this Commission was a series of intractable problems faced by the Council of Assembly. But our investigations quickly revealed that the difficulty in operating efficiently was not one confined to any one element of the organisation. Current problems include the loss of 4% of our membership per annum, the chronic shortage of ministers which is set to worsen with the anticipated number of retirements, the static level of congregational income, and the annual deficits (c£4.4m in 2018) now being incurred. Our membership has halved since the beginning of this century; if current trends continue, it is likely to halve again within the next 12–15 years.

In response to this, we have proposed the following measures:

A new trustee body – the Assembly Trustees – has been established. Comprising twelve members appointed by the General Assembly, this group will be tasked with articulating the strategic priorities of the church, holding all the funds within the central charitable organisation, and appointing a new Chief Officer who will be responsible for the management of the central organisation. 

A ‘leaner’ central organisation – a slimming down of the central organisation is necessary both to eliminate the financial deficit and to enable a process of devolution of power and resource to larger Presbyteries. As part of this process, four Councils are expected to merge into two new groupings in January 2020. Ministries will unite with Mission and Discipleship, and World Mission with Church and Society. The Assembly Trustees will supersede the Council of Assembly, while the Social Care Council will seek to make Crossreach a more self-sustaining and arms-length body.

Presbytery reform – we have been struck by the need for simultaneous reform of the church at every level, a point argued by Dr Doug Gay in his recent Chalmers Lectures now published as Reforming the Kirk (St Andrew Press, 2017). The task is one of adjusting several component parts in order to get the whole machine working more smoothly. For this to happen, we urgently need to reduce the number of Presbyteries in Scotland from 45 to around 12. Led by the Principal Clerk, this process is already underway and has been further promoted by the Radical Action Plan also presented to the General Assembly. For devolution of power and resource to facilitate congregational work, we will need larger, more effective, and well-staffed Presbyteries.

Assembly reform – the process of change needs to be embraced by all the courts of the Church. The General Assembly itself does not function optimally as the AGM of our organisation. A meeting that last seven consecutive days is difficult to attend for those with work and family responsibilities. The volume of reports and quantity of deliverances circulated in the ‘Blue Book’, Supplementary Papers, and Daily Papers result in an unwieldy set of materials that are not fully digested by most commissioners. The time and money spent in preparing and running the Assembly is disproportionate to the size of the Church and the outcomes achieves. With this in mind, a new Assembly Business Committee has been established to bring forward proposals in 2020 for a more efficient and effective General Assembly.

Kirk Sessions – our report also registers the need for the local church to engage in a similar process of reform. We support the aim of the Radical Action Plan in identifying ways in which Kirk Sessions can function with fewer elders acting in a trustee capacity. Can we reduce the total number of hours spent in committees to release time and energy for new initiatives? This is a question that should be pressed throughout the whole church.

Our report has been received as hard hitting and sometimes shocking.  But we believe that this process of reform is now necessary and long overdue. If we can embrace change at every level, then the prospects for revitalising congregational life will be enhanced in the years ahead.


General Assembly 2019 - special supplement