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General Assembly 2021

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General Assembly 2021 Reports

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


The Assembly Trustees report on ‘A Year Like No Other’ which has ‘presented unprecedented challenges to each of us’, but praises the ‘resilience, support and love in the ministry of the church’.

Financially, the Trustees warn that the impact of the pandemic has been ‘stark’, with a reduction of about three per cent in ministries and mission contributions paid by congregations, and an acknowledgement that many congregations used their reserves to keep up their contributions.

The budget for 2021 includes £11m to be drawn from reserves, with a warning that there is a ‘high risk’ of exceeding even this. However, it warns that this cannot be repeated without using up the reserves within five to ten years.

In view of both financial constraints and the failure to attract sufficient numbers of ministers, the Trustees say that the Church should work to an estimate of 600 paid ministries plus no more than 60 vacancies – around 20% less than the figure presented by the Ministries Council in 2018. Further detail on how these revised numbers are to be deployed across the Church, along with proposals for a new Presbytery Mission Plan Act, was to be brought in a supplementary report of the Faith Nurture Forum (not available at the time of writing).

A review of the Ministries and Mission allocations has resulted in a proposal for a new scheme which will be entitled ‘Giving to Grow’ which the Trustees say ‘offers the kind of clarity and transparency lacking in the current scheme’. It is hoped to start the new scheme in January 2023. In the meantime, the Trustees propose that the moratorium on increases in Ministries and Mission contributions imposed in 2019 should be removed in order that congregations whose financial position has improved can be asked to contribute more. Those congregations which are especially struggling are to be provided with support ‘to explore… options for navigating through the coming months’.

The Chief Officer’s report highlights recent achievements including meeting the target for reducing national office expenditure by 30% (from 2019) ahead of schedule, the creation of a post of Head of Faith Action Programme and ‘significant advancement in the transformational change programme for the National Offices’.

Also in the Deliverance, Churches are urged to engage with the National Stewardship Programme and to participate in a National Gift Day during Harvest time in 2021.


The Faith Nurture Forum, which combines the former Ministries and Mission and Discipleship Council, states that it works ‘in a continual state of flux which brings its trials and frustrations’. It says that in the past year staff and Forum members have proved themselves to be ‘adaptable, creative and committed’, and expresses gratitude to people in Presbyteries and congregations who have assisted the work.

While some work had to be paused during the first lockdown last year, work has resumed on a suite of resources for creating and deepening a discipleship culture in churches, and a lay training programme which is scheduled to begin in January 2022.

Applications for ministry were down in 2020 were down on the previous year, but 17 people were accepted for full-time ministry, a further seven for ordained local ministry and one for the diaconate. In addition, 24 ministers of other denominations have gained certificates of eligibility to serve in the Church of Scotland since the General Assembly of 2019.

Users of the Ascend website for resourcing the recognised ministries increased by more than half in 2020 to more than 10,400, and return or repeat users increased nearly seven-fold.

The Heart and Soul event will no longer be part of future Assemblies. The Assembly is invited to ‘give thanks for all who have contributed to it over the years and for all whose experience of the Church and its life have been enriched by their involvement’ and to instruct the Forum to report to a future Assembly ‘on how stories can shared and lessons learned’.


The Faith Impact Forum, which encompasses the work of the former World Mission and Church and Society Councils, brings a lengthy section on the Church’s response to the climate emergency. It states: “The Church of Scotland is on a journey of understanding and reversing its own contribution to the climate crisis… the task facing the Church is, without further delay, to make a commitment aligned with our Christian obligation to care for creation.”

A deliverance has been agreed with the Church of Scotland Investors Trust (COSIT) on the ongoing issue of the Church’s investments in fossil fuels (see the summary of the COSIT report below), although the Forum states that disinvestment is only ‘one step in this journey’.

The Assembly is invited to ‘recognise and give thanks for the critical role of the voices, concerns, and passion of people involved in the life of the Church of Scotland who have campaigned for disinvestment from fossil fuels; and urge congregations to provide an opportunity to list to young people… to hear about their concerns’. The report draws attention to opinion polls showing that many young people do not trust adults to tackle the challenges of climate change.

This year, churches are encouraged to get involved in the CoP26 climate conference, to be held in Glasgow in November. Churches can be involved through worship, offering hospitality and pastoral care, and in showing their own vision and leadership on climate change. With the Presbytery of Glasgow and other partners, the Forum states it will be promoting opportunities for congregations to be involved in coming months, and urges churches to organise a worship service for Climate Sunday (September 5).

On the Church’s own commitment to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2030, the Forum has formed a broad group to address this work and offers an outline strategic direction, although this is not yet ready to be rolled out.

Elsewhere in the Faith Impact deliverance, the UK Government is urged to do all it can to ensure Covid-19 vaccines are available throughout the world, while Kirk Sessions are invited to arrange meetings to consider themes and ideas for a just and green future following the pandemic.

The UK Government is urged to change its policies regarding migrants crossing the English Channel, the accommodation of asylum seekers in former army camps or other institutions, and plans to increase deportation of asylum seekers. There is also a call for the UK Government and Parliament to continue to provide a minimum of 0.7% of Gross National Income as Overseas Development Assistance.

Ongoing cross-Church work on equality, diversity and inclusion is welcomed, along with engagement with black, Asian and minority ethnic people within the Church. The report calls for consideration of how to ensure the necessary resources to act on the outcomes of this engagement. Kirk Sessions are also urged to take part in the training provided by the Church’s Violence Against Women Task Group.


A major section of the report of the Church of Scotland Investors Trust focuses on the debate about divestment from fossil fuels. It states that ‘for financial reasons’ the Church’s investment in oil and gas companies has been reduced ‘to the point that no shares in the sector are held as at February 2021’.

A deliverance agreed between the Trust and the Faith Impact Forum (which took over the remit of the former Church and Society Council) and published in the Forum’s report, states that future investment in oil and gas will only take place if the Forum agrees there is ‘strong evidence’ that the company’s strategy and implementation is in alignment with targets set in the Paris climate agreement. A special committee is to be set up ‘to consider the best framework for future recommendations about the ethics of investment practice brought before the General Assembly’.

The total value of funds invested through the Trust decreased from £478.4m to £468.9m in 2020.


The Social Care Council, which provides services as CrossReach, notes that Covid-19 ‘has tested the organisation in a number of ways and has had both personal and financial consequences which will continue to be felt for some time… it has required a significant, sustained and concentrated effort for all involved, but has demanded extraordinary dedication from those working on the front line’. The Assembly is invited to commend the ‘dedication, commitment and exceptional effort of all CrossReach staff who have worked throughout the pandemic and have continued to deliver high quality services, in Christ’s name, to the people who rely on them for support’.

The report states that ‘despite all efforts, and mirroring what was happening over the whole of the UK’, CrossReach care homes for older people bore the brunt of infections in the first wave of the pandemic last year. It reports ‘with immense sadness’ a number of deaths amongst residents at that time and also the death of a member of staff from Threshold Edinburgh who lost his life to Covid-19 in February this year. Some staff members are struggling with the effects of long Covid, and others with the effect of the pandemic on their mental health and wellbeing.

The report also summarises some of the measures that have taken place to enable services to continue. Various services migrated online and additional support was offered by telephone. Where community group activities were closed down, different programmes were put together which people could access from home. Residents in care homes and supported accommodation were helped to connect to loved ones via Zoom, Skype or Facetime, and iPads and tablets were provided to support this. The Council records its appreciation to church partners at home and abroad who helped fund this.

Among other developments during the year were a new advocacy and support service covering Lewis and Harris; Allarton, previously a service for people mental health issues, moving to a new model of housing support to people in their own tenancies, in a purpose-built block of flats; and the completion of the move out of Ballikinrain residential school, with the children moving into small community houses.

The Board of CrossReach records its thanks to everyone who supported the Emergency Coronavirus Appeal. However, it cautions that financial support has been slow to come in and insufficient to fully meet the costs of the pandemic, ‘leading to a significant financial deficit being reported at year end’. It warns that ‘recovery from Covid-19 will take some time’. However, it says that progress has been made on ‘a number of fronts’ that were identified in the path to sustainability that CrossReach had embarked upon before the pandemic hit.


The General Trustees state that ‘the full impact of the year on the future of the Church’s land and building estate will only become clear as the restrictions are lifted’ but warn that ‘there can no longer be an assumption that any building can survive without a critical assessment of its contribution to the future mission of the Church’. The Assembly is asked to welcome progress on the Trustees’ Land and Buildings Plan, including the development of a Presbytery Planning Toolkit for Land and Buildings which has now been issued to all Presbytery Clerks; and the creation of a Historic Property Portfolio.


This committee, formerly the Assembly Arrangements Committee, brings proposals (delayed from last year) for slimming down the General Assembly. This will see the number of Commissioners reduced from the present 700 to around 550 in future. They also propose to remove the automatic commissions to former Moderators of the General Assembly, instead appointing the five most recent Moderators as ex officiis members of the Assembly.

If agreed, the proposals will have to be approved by Presbyteries under the Barrier Act; however the committee argues that ‘this is a change that is sought’ and proposes an Interim Act allowing the reforms to take effect from 2022.

The committee also reports on the progress of Presbytery reform. Three new presbyteries (Aberdeen and Shetland, Fife and Clyde) are now in operation, while three more - Edinburgh and West Lothian; Hamilton and Lanark; the merger of six presbyteries in south west Scotland – are due to be approved at this Assembly and come into being in 2022. Talks are ongoing elsewhere, with the possibility of there being as few as nine Scottish presbyteries by summer 2023.

The report warns that the Assembly Hall may no longer be wholly fit for purpose, with increasing repair and maintenance costs, limited use for most of the year and the need to replace ageing equipment. The committee says it has agreed to ‘explore options for the future of the building’. The long-term future of the Moderator’s flat in Edinburgh is also to be reviewed.


The Theological Forum brings to the Assembly its report on the Westminster Confession of Faith, as instructed by the General Assembly of 2018. Although the Forum offers a preferred option, the report lays out a range of possibilities and invites responses from Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions.

The report notes that the Westminster Confession, which has been the Church of Scotland’s principal subordinate standard of belief since 1647, is perceived by many people within the reformed churches as ‘obediently reflect(ing) the teaching of scripture’ and fundamental to the Church of Scotland’s identity as a reformed church.

However, it acknowledges that there has been controversy over several of the Confession’s theological positions ‘almost since the time of its adoption by the General Assembly’, and that reformed churches in Scotland have found various ways of qualifying and softening acceptance of all or parts of it.

Ministers and other office holders in the Church assent to the ‘the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith contained in the [Westminster] Confession of Faith’ except ‘on such points of doctrine as do not enter in the substance of the faith’. The Church of Scotland’s First Article Declaratory establishes the fundamentals of the faith as Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection and the Word of God contained in Scripture, but does not specify which points of doctrine within the Westminster Confession do or do not form part of this.

The Forum says that for some ‘this is awkward but preserves a breadth of theological opinion among ministers and elders’, but for others it is ‘a bad witness’ that something so fundamental to the Church’s identity ‘can be disregarded or profoundly disagreed with by people in various ministries’.

The Forum lays out a range of options, from the status quo to dependence on the First Article Declaratory to the development of a new confessional document. However, it states its preferred option is ‘a change in the Church’s confessional position… holding the ecumenical creeds (the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed) and Article Declaratory I as the subordinate standards… alongside the selection of a set of confessions and texts which the Church would formally acknowledge ‘. In this, it has been influenced by the PC(USA), which has a Book of Confessions. The set of confessions the Church would subscribe to would include the Westminster Confession, ‘and other confessions reflecting the Church’s reformed identity and its relationship with Scotland’.

Presbyteries and Sessions are urged to discuss the report and respond by the end of this year, and the Forum intends to bring firm proposals to the General Assembly of 2022.

The Forum also offers a reflection on ‘the place of Profession of Faith (Admission to the Lord’s Supper or Confirmation) and sharing of Communion in todays’ church’ and exploring ‘the concept of Church membership in relation to age’. The Forum acknowledges that Profession of Faith may no longer be required for admission to Communion but states ‘the educational, spiritual and communal importance of these rites is no less rich for that’.

On age and membership, the Forum states that it ‘is not unduly concerned’ by the possibility of young people, even pre-teens, being confirmed and made full members of the Church; and urges ‘pastoral discretion on the part of parents, ministers and Kirk Sessions as young people are known, educated and support on an individual basis’.


The Legal Questions Committee report includes draft legislation which would allow Church of Scotland ministers who wish to do so to solemnise same sex marriages, as instructed by the General Assembly of 2018. Under the legislation, ministers would be allowed to apply to the Principal Clerk’s office for permission to become an Authorised Celebrant of same sex marriages. Only Authorised Celebrants will be allowed to permit the use of a Church building in their charge to be used for same sex marriages, or grant consent for other Authorised Celebrants to use the building for such.

The legislation states that it does not ‘contravene the general principle… that any Minister… or Deacon has the right to determine at any time whether or not to conduct the marriage of any persons’ and commits Ministers and Deacons to ‘take account of the peace and unity and pastoral needs of the congregation’ in all matters relating to the solemnisation of same sex marriage.

Also within the report, the Assembly is asked to note that protocols adopted last year for managing Vacancies during the Covid-19 pandemic, and for Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions to meet by video or phone, have all proved useful and for these arrangements to continue until the General Assembly of 2022.

The Committee has been working towards a new Church Courts Act, which will provide ‘for each Church Court clear statements on membership, functions and responsibilities, meetings and the relationship to the other Courts of the Church’. Consultations will continue this year with a full Overture to be brought in 2022.


The report of the Committee on Chaplains to HM Forces invites the Assembly to ‘Recognise the particular service of those Chaplains who have served in support of the contribution of the Armed Services to efforts relating to Covid-19 in the past year and give thanks for the support of their families’, to ‘commend to the prayers of the Church all Chaplains, and all those whom they serve’ and to ‘encourage eligible ministers of the Church to consider service as a Chaplain… Regular or Reservist’.

There is also a section thanking Chaplains to the cadet organisations, and encouraging anyone eligible to consider service in such organisations.


The Safeguarding Committee states that in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and all the changes it has brought about, ‘the need to safeguard the Church, and create a safe Church for all has been absolutely vital’.

The Assembly is invited to direct that instructions from the Safeguarding Service ‘must be followed by all agencies of the General Assembly… Presbyteries, Kirk Sessions, Safeguarding Co-ordinators, staff and volunteers’. The Service is instructed to work with the Faith Nurture Form to ‘scope out a mandatory advanced safeguarding training programme for ministers’, to be reported to the General Assembly next year, and in the meantime ministers are instructed to attend local safeguarding training.


The Ecumenical Relations report asks the Assembly to approve the Saint Andrew Declaration, consisting of mutual Acknowledgements and Commitments between the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church. This includes the two churches recognising each other as sharing the same faith and being ‘true churches of the Gospel’ and acknowledging one another’s ordained ministries; and committing to respond together to our common calling to proclaim the reign of God to all the people of Scotland by strengthening our partnership in ministry and mission’, welcoming each other’s members to worship and committing to work together ‘in practical and prophetic ways’.

The report also notes the establishment last year of the Scottish Church Leaders’ Forum, which it states was ‘an effective ecumenical forum during the Covid-19 pandemic’.


In its first Assembly report for two years, the Guild acknowledges that it has faced ‘enormous challenges’ over the past year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but states that the report ‘is written with a sense of optimism and determination at its heart’: “Its aim is to look ahead to better times when we can learn from our experiences, take account of our losses (both operational and human) and seek to concentrate on the things we can control and the opportunities that lie before us.”

The losses acknowledged are financial, both general and for the partner projects; and the fellowship through the lack of meetings at every level. The report states that a number of local groups will not be restarting after the pandemic, and ‘that is a loss to the Guild but also the congregations of which they are part.”

However, the Guild has responded to the pandemic in innovative ways, including taking the Annual Gathering and Big Sing at Christmas online, with music enhanced by the voices of the Guild’s ‘Virtual Choir’. Other new events include a virtual soup lunch, a virtual afternoon tea, and a Lenten event celebrating the six Project Partnerships as they came to an end. “These events can never replace the “real thing”, but they have served to maintain a sense of fellowship and hope amongst many of our members and to provide a platform where the voice of the Guild was heard,” says the report.

The report also gives an overview of the Guild’s twinnings with Presbyterial Guilds in Malawi. The four twinning arrangements began with the visit of a number of Guild members to the African country in August 2019. Among the fruits of the connection with Malawi so far are a project funding the provision of Bibles in two of the twinned areas, the roofing of a new church in Mzuzu, the work of the project partner Malawi Fruits, and new solar powered lighting units for 24 schools. The Guild has also continued its work in Zambia and India.

Looking forward, the Guild introduces its theme for the next three-year cycle, along with its six new partner projects (see page 32). The overarching theme for the three years is ‘Look Forward in Faith’, and the theme for 2021-22 is ‘Lights and Bushels’.

The Guild also reports on a number of operational changes at the national level over the past two years. These include changing the term of office for the Guild’s National Convener, which historically ran from General Assembly to General Assembly, to follow the Guild’s year instead. Conveners’ (and Vice-Conveners’) years will now begin and end at the Guild National Gathering in the autumn.

The National Vice-Conveners have each been paired with a region, which the report says will help the Guild ‘reflect on changes to the Presbyter structures’. It adds that conversations are already underway with the new Presbyteries of Fife and Clyde.

Across the Guild’s four regions, over 4000 people attended various events – including roadshows, the National Gathering and Big Sings – in the 2019-20 session. “We can only guess at the “knock-on” effect that the motivation these people found in these events has had within the Guild and within the wider Church of Scotland,” the report says.


The Church of Scotland Pension Trustees reports that all six of the schemes under their management are now fully-funded. In particular it recognises that the funding level of the CrossReach section of the Staff Scheme reached 100% last year, which it describes as ‘a major milestone for the members of the Scheme… after significant financial support from CrossReach’.

This year’s statutory increases to pension payments were 0.5% for benefits built up since 1997, and the same increase was applied to benefits accrued prior to 1997. A one-off increase was also applied to the pre-1997 benefits in September 2020, to make up for previous years when there was no funding available for a discretionary increase.


In 2020, the Housing and Loan Fund provided new support to nine people – ministers who were either newly- or already retired, their widow(er)s or spouses. As of the end of the year they had 192 tenants and 11 vacant properties, and 110 borrowers. The Trustees encourage ministers within five years of retirement to contact them if they might need help, and initial approaches from those between five to ten years from retirement. They also give a reminder that the fund can help ministers, their widow(er)s and separated or divorced spouses beyond the point of retirement.


The Hymnary Trustees state in their report that they would be keen to support a request for funding for a supplement to the Church Hymnary (CH4), and have indicated to the Faith Nurture Forum that money is available for such a project.

They are also keen to encourage more applications for trust funds, particularly for local training projects and which might include helping to fund Scottish Church Organist Training Scheme (SCOTS) training days.


The Iona Community Board invites the Assembly to ‘Note with gratitude the completion of the renovation of the living quarters of Iona Abbey as a place of welcome, worship and the renewal of the common life for the whole Church’, and to welcome the appointments of Ruth Harvey as Leader and Sarah Metcalfe as Executive Director.

The Community is ‘engaged in a process of refreshing and renewing our infrastructure and our spaces in order more fully to live out our calling, alone and in community, to respond to the call of God’. As part of the restructuring the Community now has two strategic committees (Community Life and Community Resources) and seven new Common Concern Networks (Environment, Faith and Spirituality, Israel/Palestine, LGBTQ+, Migration and Refugees, Poverty and Inequality and Reconciliation, Peace and Disarmament).

“With these refreshed structures, and the beautifully renovated living space at Iona Abbey, we are ready to respond to the increased call we recognise in society for spiritual renewal rooted in a life of justice and peace,” states the report.


The report of the Delegation of the General Assembly reminds churches that since 2016 they have been urged to adopt the Unitary Constitution. 34 congregations did so in 2020, bringing the total up to 780; but approximately 500 churches have yet to change their constitution from the Model Constitution.


The Nominations Committee cautions that it struggle to garner enough nominations for people to serve on the Church’s various committees in 2020, blaming the extra stress of working and living with lockdown and uncertainty about the Church of the future. While enough nominations were received by February 2021 (following three appeals), the Committee calls on all the Standing Committees to reconsider its constitution and membership numbers.

General Assembly 2021 - Full Coverage