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General Assembly 2019

Derek Fett
Derek Fett

General Assembly 2019 Reports

Thomas Baldwin summarises key reports to this year's General Assembly. Full reports are available on the Church of Scotland website.


The centrepiece of the Council of Assembly’s report is of course the Radical Action Plan for reform of the Church, as instructed by last year’s General Assembly.

The plan (which can be seen in full on the Church website, along with all the reports to the Assembly) envisages reforms at national, presbytery and parish level, a major investment in ‘new ways of doing church’, collaborative working with other churches and organisations, improved training and support for all leadership role sin the Church and a particular focus on engaging with people aged under 40.

The first of 16 tasks is the establishment of a growth fund of £20-25m, to be spent from 2020-2026 on ‘initiatives to develop mission through new ecclesial communities and church planting’. It is, says the report, ‘about supporting the whole Church the new things which we believe God is calling us to’. The money is to be spent in all areas where the church is active, and will be focused on engaging with young people, on building on the Church’s work addressing

loneliness, poverty and injustice at local levels, and on encouraging people to develop and exercise their ministries.

The second task is wholesale reform of the regional structure, which is to see the present 45 presbyteries reduced to around 12 ‘units’ (either united presbyteries or presbyteries closely co-operating) by 2025.

At local level, the plan envisages ‘new forms of church structures’, to include Presbytery Mission Initiatives and Hub-Style ministries. This, it says, will allow the church to keep a presence and exercise mission in communities even where numbers are very low, but releasing such congregations from the traditional requirements of church and civil law, which might otherwise make it impossible for them to continue. The same structures could also be used for fresh expressions.

Also locally, the size and responsibilities of Kirk Sessions is to be reviewed, with the aim of reducing the size of sessions and enabling shorter terms of active service for elders; and new ways to support congregations in long-term vacancies are to be developed.

Another task is to offer support at a regional and local level to congregations on buildings, safeguarding, accountancy, employment and partnership work.

In terms of the national structure, the report notes that this is largely in the remit of the Special Commission on Structural Reform (see below) but it commits to ‘refocus(ing) the national staff team to focus on equipping and supporting local churches’.

The focus on the under-40s is to be achieved through learning from those churches that are successful with young people and families, both in Scotland and worldwide; the creation of a group supporting more contemporary forms of worship; exploring new forms of ministry focusing on children and young people; prioritising funding for ‘training, mentoring and peer group development’ and investing in digital strategies and the use of social media.

The call for more partnership working with other churches and organisations recognises that the Church is struggling to find the resources to fulfil its commitment to a territorial ministry throughout Scotland: “By working effectively with others we maximise resources, create significant opportunities for encounter and witness, and increase the number of individuals and organisations within wider society who support and are invested in the work of the Church.”

There are also proposals for a new platform for easier access to Church resources; for flexible education, training and support programmes for everyone in any ministerial or other leadership role; for reforms to the system of Ministries and Mission contributions and the current vacancy allowance; and for support of the General Trustees’ ‘Well-equipped spaces in the right places’ initiative (see below) to tackle the Church’s buildings issues.

Finally the Council calls for all national Councils and Committees to focus their activities on implementing the plan in the second half of 2019, and for a ‘season of prayer and preparation’ across the church from September-December. “The Action Plan should be thought of, first and foremost, as an act of faith,” it says.

Away from the Plan, the Council reports that it is still unable to bring a proposal on the future of the National Offices; and asks that the General Assembly ‘set aside this matter for the time being’ while the implications of the Action Plan and Fergusson Commission are considered. A further report is to come to the 2020 General Assembly. £500,000 has been allocated for urgent work on the offices this year.

On finance, the Council warns that there has again been a reduction in offerings, as well as a drop in income from legacies last year. This year, the amount required from congregations was increased by over £500,000, while Councils and Committees were asked to achieve budget savings of about the same. Councils, committees and support services operated at close to budget, but that was a deficit budget of over £4m.

The Council states that it has again approved deficit budgets for 2019, but says that ‘this position is not sustainable beyond the short term’.


This report was published as Life and Work went to press. The key proposals are:

If approved, the new trustee body would be set up within a couple of weeks, and detailed proposals on the delivery of the rest of the proposals will be brought to next year’s Assembly.


The ‘Well equipped spaces in the right places’ report takes the form of a consultation paper seeking the views of the Church, which will enable an Asset Plan to be drawn up and recommendations to be made next year. Presbyteries and congregations are encouraged to engage with the process.

The paper states that the General Trustees believe ‘many good things are happening’, and that ‘the opportunity is there to build on the good things’ but that ‘the current way of managing and developing the congregational estate no longer meets the needs of much of the Church’.

It estimates that around half of Church of Scotland congregations have ‘neither skills nor resources’ to properly manage their land and buildings, while ‘many Presbyteries are also finding it difficult to exercise their responsibilities in relation to planning of buildings and supervision’.

The paper says ‘the evidence points to the need for a reduction in the number of buildings, a continuing improvement in the quality of the Church’s congregational buildings and changes in the management model reflecting the skills available to congregations and presbyteries’.

Among its suggestions are to develop formal definitions of what constitutes ‘a  well-equipped space’ and ‘in the right place’; a new system regulating inspection, reporting and maintenance; for Presbytery Plans to include presbytery-wide priorities for investment based on the overall mission plan; for presbyteries or groups of presbyteries to employ professional building officers; for measures to support congregations struggling with day-to-day fabric management; and for the General Trustees to take over management of redundant buildings until they are sold.

It also proposes that there should be more sharing of resources between congregations, and that sharing of space with other denominations should be encouraged.

One thing that is already happening is the development of a web-based database supporting Presbyteries and congregations in their administration of buildings and glebes.


The Ministries Council states that its report ‘bears witness to a… Council which is changing, seeking to change more, wanting to implement changes it first conceived of decades ago, struggling to find the right resources for change, wishing that change would happen more quickly, determined not to lose the reason for change’.

The number of applicants for all types of ministry in 2018 was 49, down from 78 in 2017 but more typical for the two years before that. However the number accepted for full-time ministry of word and sacrament (FTMWS) was up, from 13 to 16; and there was also an increase in applications accepted for Ordained Local Ministry (OLM), from five to 10.

The Council has commissioned a review of its discernment and assessment processes, which produced ‘a number of recommendations’ to ‘alleviate any barriers or delays in the process’. A key recommendation is removing compulsory attendance at a Vocations Information Day as a first step, to be replaced by ‘an individual Discernment Conversation’. There have also been changes to the Probationer Conference programme, which the council says have resulted in ‘very positive’ feedback from probationers.

The report expresses concern about financial hardship among candidates and probationers, some of whom it says are living below the poverty line. Three candidates this year were unable to start training because of the lack of financial support. The Council seeks the support of the Assembly to work with others, especially the Council of Assembly, to provide adequate financial support to trainee ministers

The Council also brings changes to the age limit for completion of ministry training, which is currently 55. The proposed change retains the expectation of 10 years’ service following training, but takes into account changes in the state retirement age.

Last summer, across all stages, there were a total of 51 candidates for FTMWS, 16 for OLM and one for the diaconate. The Council notes that this is about a quarter of the level in the 1980s, and yet in that time the number of training providers has actually increased to five. It asks for permission to bring a proposal to the 2020 General Assembly to reduce the number of providers for initial training to just one or two.

The report also includes a lengthy section on the Council’s Priority Areas work. The deliverance affirms the work of the Priority Areas Committee and the Chance to Thrive project, and encourages congregations to work with communities to challenge poverty and to use resources developed for Challenge Poverty Week. The Council is instructed to work to ensure ‘learning from Priority Area congregations’ is incorporated into the delivery of the Radical Action Plan for the future of the Church.

The Council reports that the Hub Style Ministries Project has completed its first year of operation, with six presbyteries involved. It states: “Though the initiatives all display relevance to their situations, it is too early to assess their overall effectiveness, efficiency, impact and sustainability.” It promises that the work will be publicised to the wider church. The Council also commits to a report on the progress of the Pioneer Ministry Pilot project next year.

The Go For It fund awarded 21 grants totalling over £850,000 in 2018. The total awarded since 2012 is now over £6 million.

Ministerial stipends and salary scales rose by 2% in 2019.


A significant proportion of the Mission and Discipleship report is devoted to the future of the church’s engagement with young people, with the National Youth Assembly in its current form ending this year. It states that the proposals are based on three key principals: young people need community, to participate, and to be empowered.

Among the proposals are an annual series of weekends, three for young people of secondary school age and two for the 18-30 age group, to take place in different parts of the country. It also envisages regional events, run by presbyteries or groups of presbyteries, and ‘a larger-scale residential experience’ to be run in partnership with other organisations.

It also suggests:

The Council proposes that the Legal Questions Committee ‘consider different models for youth representation at the General Assembly’, and that the same body consider the possibility of reducing the minimum age for the Eldership to 16.

Mission and Discipleship also reports on two successful conferences, one on eldership and one on pastoral care. 600 people attended in total and the feedback was very positive. A further elders’ conference is to be held in June and follow-up conferences on pastoral care are also being planned.

There was also a day conference held by the Learning Disabilities Working Group, which marked the completion of the group’s work.
The Council states that ‘the needs of those with learning difficulties will continue to be addressed within the context of the Council’s own remit’.

Two Rural Resourcing Roadshows were held in 2018, and eight new rural resources have been developed. Rural Event Resource Boxes have been developed and are available for rural congregations needing equipment to run events.

The Council announces plans to investigate new ways to resource the Church through the Pray Now resources, but the usual book of 52 prayers in one volume will not appear in 2020.

Subscribers to Life and Work are thanked by the Council ‘for their gracious loyalty and support’, after the magazine delivered ‘a higher than anticipated contribution’ of almost £36,000 in 2018. ‘The work of the wider Church benefits from this’, the report adds.


Reporting in its 150th anniversary year, the Social Care Council states that while the way it delivers its services over the years, ‘the challenge of need remains acutely present’ – in the number of children in Scotland living in poverty, in the absence of specialist perinatal mental health services in most of the country, in the increased death rate due to drug overdoses and the growing number of people with dementia, among other things.

The Council reports that progress on the recommendations aimed at making CrossReach’s operation sustainable continued through 2018, including the completion of the series of closures identifi ed during the 2017 business strategy review. The Council continues to warn that the National Care Home Contract does not meet the costs of looking after people in residential services.

More positively, last August saw the opening of a new education campus, CrossReach Erskine Riverfront. Care Inspectorate reports continued to be positive, with 96% of the CrossReach services inspected achieving a grade of at least 4 (‘good’); and a service user survey showed widespread satisfaction with services, with more than 99% agreeing that the Service respects them and treats them fairly.

CrossReach is also focussing on recruitment and retention of staff , an area of concern in the social care sector. Among the initiatives are a partnership with the Prince’s Trust, which offered work placements for young people leading to permanent employment; and the first steps into offering staff the opportunity to undertake Modern Apprenticeships.


A typically diverse Church and Society report includes a 35-section deliverance split across its seven key areas of work, as well as gender justice and violence against women, girls and children, which the Council of Assembly identified as a significant issue for the church in 2018.

On the economy, the Council reports on work on funeral poverty, welfare reform and ethical investment. The General Assembly is asked to welcome the devolution of social security benefits to the Scottish Government and to urge the UK Government to withdraw the ‘two child policy’ for benefits. The Council has expressed concern that the Scottish Government has not engaged with faith groups in drawing up guidance on funeral costs.

Under Caring for Creation, the deliverance notes ‘with concern that progress towards implementing the Paris climate agreement is falling far short of expectations’ and calls upon governments to ‘make the rapid transition to a low carbon economy a  priority’. All congregations are urged to become eco-congregations.

On politics, the Council is instructed ‘to continue to facilitate informed public conversation about our future relationship with Europe’ and the Assembly to ‘recognise that good local decision making requires the people who will be affected by a decision to be involved in making it’.

The Building Global Friendships section welcomes the creation of the New Scots Integration Project and partnerships aimed at raising awareness of refugees; and urges politicians, commentators and people on social media to ‘choose words which build up respect and promote human dignity’.

Under health and wellbeing, the Society, Religion and Technology Project’s work around the ethical implications of genome testing and personalised medicine is encouraged. The role of congregations in supporting people ‘in spirit mind and body’ is celebrated. Along with work done by churches tackling ‘the growing demographic’ of people suffering chronic loneliness.

Isolation and loneliness is also covered in the local communities section, which welcomes publication of the Scottish Government’s strategy for tackling the issue. Congregations and church members are encouraged to take part in opportunities to improve community connectedness.

The Investing in Young People section welcomes a Scottish Government commitment to a new income supplement for low income families, and calls on the Government to considering topping up child benefit, which it says would immediately lift thousands of children out of poverty. It also calls on the Scottish Government to amend the law to match a UN recommendation that the minimum age of criminal responsibility should be 14.

The deliverance also welcomes the progress made in year one of the Church’s Gender Justice Initiative, and commends resources produced by the Violence Against Women Task Group.


The World Mission report groups the work of the Council into three interconnected elements – presence, proclamation and practical action.

Examples of ‘presence’ facilitated by the Council include the sending out of people from Scotland to overseas partners and welcoming guests to Scotland. The latter includes providing accommodation for students from partner churches to study in Scotland; the former sending delegates to mission camps in Taiwan and the Czech Republic, as well as hosting a day of preparation for members of congregations planning twinning visits.

The section on ‘proclamation’ includes working with churches and other partner organisations to support Christians facing persecution in Pakistan, self-help groups for Dalit women in North India, a WCC forum working for peace on the Korean Peninsula and earthquake victims in Nepal.

And ‘practical action’ includes the Church of Scotland HIV Programme (with a mention for the Heart and Soul Swing Band, which has raised over £25,000 in six years); supporting the Thursdays in Black campaign highlighting the issue of violence against women; working with the Guild on a project helping teenage mothers in Zambia; and sending mission partners to support the Church and Society Programme of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian.

The deliverance also calls on the church to give thanks for the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon ‘through its accompaniment of Christians and Muslims alike’, marks the 50th anniversary of the World Mission Stamp Appeal, and encourages the church to continue to pray for peace and justice initiatives in South Sudan.

The attention of vacant congregations is called to the opportunity for congregations in Scotland to invite pastors from the Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren to be their minister for a year or two.


The strategic review of the World Mission Council into the Church’s presence and operations in the Holy Land argues that ‘at this point in history, remaining present on the ground allows the Church of Scotland to continue to walk alongside its partners in attentive accompaniment’ and that ‘it would not be responsible for the Church of Scotland to withdraw at a time when Christians are facing some of the biggest challenges across the Middle East’.

It notes that ‘the political situation is at present in very unpredictable flux’, and criticises Israel for ‘its violations of International Law and International Humanitarian Law, as it continues to suppress violently the civilian population of the West Bank and Gaza’, the Palestinian Authority which it says is ‘widely seen as having failed to offer effective leadership and governance’ and the International Community for having ‘no plan for holding Israel to account’.

The Deliverance calls on the UK Government to recognise the State of Palestine, condemn illegal expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and affirm that Jerusalem ‘must be a city shared by Israelis and Palestinians’.

While the report quotes Desmond Tutu in stressing that ‘the Christian community does not want to delegitimise the State of Israel, but seeks an end of Israel’s suppression and oppression of four million Palestinian people’, it adds that the ‘Church of Scotland cannot be neutral, it is essential to name the unjust system and stand with and speak out in support of those who want to see justice and peace prevail’.

It recommends the church retains the Scots Hotel at Tiberias – ‘as part of its overall strategy of engagement with the region’ – but with different financial arrangements, and announces plans to upgrade the St Andrew’s Scots Guesthouse.

It states that running Tabeetha School – a Scottish school with Christian, Muslim and Jewish students, delivering an English curriculum – has ‘become increasingly challenging’ but that talks with local partners to develop cooperative working have ‘not yet yielded fruit’. A small group has been formed to bring forward concrete proposals for the future.

Also in the Deliverance, the Council is called to ensure that ‘the Church’s institutions, resources and investments in Israel and Palestine aim for the highest ethical considerations’.


The Chaplains’ report includes the customary appeals to eligible ministers to consider service as a Chaplain to the Forces, either regular or reserve. There is also, following debate last year, recognition of chaplains to the Cadet services. The Committee ‘heartily commends chaplaincy in all the Cadet organisations as a wonderful opportunity for mission to young people’.

The report also references the ongoing issue of the Registration of Ministries Act as it applies to Forces Chaplains (who had complained about having to apply and go through training before being designated Category O, and therefore eligible for parish ministry). The committee says that a change in the process of applying for a change of status ‘should help to demonstrate consistency of process amongst Forces Chaplains, and between Chaplains and other applicants’; and commits to keeping chaplains as up-to-date as possible on the information and training needed for Category O status.

The committee concludes: ‘While many Chaplains remain unhappy that that the Registration of Ministries process applies to them, they have committed themselves to making the very best of the situation’.

Following last year’s adoption of the Armed Forces Covenant, the committee reports that most Presbyteries have appointed an Armed Forces Champion. Where they had struggled to identify a suitable person, the committee is working to suggest someone.


The Safeguarding Committee calls for instructions to Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions to ensure that Locums should be registered to the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (PVG) Scheme before they start work in congregations. This also applies to Interim Moderators, as the Locums’ line managers. Sessions are also instructed to conduct Basic Disclosure Checks on organists, church officers, caretakers, café workers and any other employees in leadership roles or positions of trust.

At central church level, the Committee asks for instructions to negotiate memoranda of understanding with various councils and departments, and the deliverance also instructs Councils to have clear safeguarding protocols in place for overseas projects.


The Guild last year changed the structure of the national organisation, away from having standing committees, to small groups being established to complete specific tasks. This is to result in ‘a National Council that is familiar with the whole agenda and has the chance to work on broad policy and strategy rather than being caught up in… small details’.

They have also changed the names of the regional structures from ‘Presbyterial Councils’ to ‘Guilds Together’ groupings. The report states ‘The Guild is under no illusion that name changes will solve our problems, but they do offer us a chance to refresh our conception of what these groups are about’.

It also reports on the success of the Big Sing events and the Annual Gathering, as well as other events such as the Resource Co-ordinators’ Conference and Roadshow events. Looking Ahead, the Guild announces plans to strengthen its connections with Malawi though twinning relationships with the Presbytery Guilds there.

Guild Week is to move to September this year, to be launched at the Annual Gathering on September 7.


The Ecumenical Relations report explores how to translate the Ecumenical Policy of the Church of Scotland, agreed last year, into ‘a meaningful and effective strategy’ for ecumenism at local, national and international levels.

The Assembly is asked to approve a seven-point Local Ecumenical Strategy, with the Committee committing to engaging with presbyteries, sharing initiatives and resources and establishing and deepening links with Churches Together groups.

At national level, the Committee reports that Action of Churches Together in Scotland is to be succeeded by a new body, the Scottish Christian Forum. A Transition Group has been established and the process should be complete by the end of this year.

The report notes that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland last year decided to no longer issue invitations to the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, or to accept invitations to the Church of Scotland gathering. However, collaboration between the two churches is ongoing in various areas, including in Armed Forces Chaplaincy, and World Mission; and Committee representatives have met with representatives of the Irish church to discuss complementary working ‘where this was thought to be mutually beneficial.’

Engagement with the Scottish Episcopal Church has deepened ‘markedly’ through the Our Common Calling working group; and the latest biennial consultation with the Church of England took place last year on the theme ‘The Future Shape of Mission’.

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