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General Assembly 2023

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Reports to the Assembly

Summaries by Thomas Baldwin.


ASSEMBLY TRUSTEES

The Assembly Trustees warn in their introduction that the report ‘does not present an easy read’ and that the Church has ‘reached a place where significant action is needed for we simply do not have enough people to support the structures which were serviced by previous generations’.

The most recent complete congregational returns – for 2021 – show a Church membership of 283,600, a 4.6% decrease on 2020, with a similar fall expected for 2022. Around 60,000 people were worshipping in person on Sundays, but the Church still has over 1000 church buildings. The vast majority of ministers are over 50, and around 40-50% are expected to retire in the next ten years, with only 20-30 new ministers being recruited per year.

Financially, the report warns that, based on current estimates and if congregational income falls as projected, then the Church’s General Funds will be exhausted by 2026-27. This is despite a 30% reduction in the cost of the central Church. It adds that the changes required at every level to make the Church financially secure ‘are significant and wide-ranging’.

The Trustees state that their priorities looking forward are: ‘(i)the growth and development of the Church through the new Presbyteries working closely with the local congregations; (ii) the work of the national on the local need with a particular emphasis on recruiting and equipping our future leaders in ministries of the Church and (iii) the modernisation and simplification of our governance structure’.

The new Giving To Grow scheme of congregational contributions came into force in January, replacing the old Mission and Ministries payments. The Trustees note that 75% of congregations are paying less to the national Church under the new scheme, but urge congregations and presbyteries to consider making voluntary contributions, and to engage with the National Stewardship Team to encourage increased giving and develop new income streams.

The new Seeds for Growth Fund will be launched on June 1, supporting the development of new worshipping communities and fresh expressions, work with the under 40s and community transformation. The Pioneer Mission Fund will give grants for one more year before the money is merged into Seeds for Growth. The Small Grants Fund will continue ‘through 2023 and beyond’ and will again be available for congregations to meet winter needs within their communities.

Further reform of the central structures is proposed, with the work of the Faith Impact and Faith Nurture Forums being merged to become the work of the Faith Action Programme Leadership Team. That leadership team will oversee four programme groups: Mission Support, People and Training, Public Life and Social Justice, and Resource and Presence.

On the future of the Church’s administrative offices at 121 George Street, the Trustees ask the Assembly to approve ‘a relative holding position’ for the next five years, saying that there are too many unknown factors in the financial and property markets and the future needs of the Church. Work has taken place to allow staff to be accommodated on two floors, and it is hoped to rent out the rest of the space. During 2022 £172,000 was generated in rental income, and the Trustees hope to double that in future years.


FAITH IMPACT FORUM

A significant proportion of this year’s Faith Impact Forum report is given over to a reflection on the Church of Scotland and the Legacies of Slavery. Fulfilling a deliverance from 2020, this report examines the history of the Church of Scotland and slavery, both in the Caribbean and in Scotland.

The report lists a number of Church of Scotland ministers, elders and members who benefited from the slave trade or received compensation following the abolition of the slave trade. There are also nine churches (some now closed) which were at least part financed by slave owners or are known to be the place of worship for merchants who benefited from the trade; and several more churches which contain memorials to people connected to slavery.

In the Caribbean itself, there are records of Church ministers and missionaries being present on plantations. The report says it is likely that many places of worship were built by enslaved labourers.

There was also at least one bequest in which the Church directly benefitted from money gained through slave ownership in Trinidad.

The report also acknowledges that Church synods, presbyteries and individual members were involved in anti-slavery campaigns, and that the General Assembly condemned slavery on several occasions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (although, it says, there is no evidence the Church ever petitioned Parliament on the issue).

It concludes that although many of the relationships between the Church and slave ownership were indirect, ‘slavery related connections between Scotland and the Caribbean clearly abound’. It calls for a statement of acknowledgement and apology to be brought to a future General Assembly, a permanent acknowledgement on the Church website, a commitment to becoming an ‘anti-racist church’, the commissioning of an artwork ‘that can help congregations to begin conversations around historic slavery and racial justice’ and the funding of an academic scholarship enabling a student from Africa or the Caribbean to study at a Scottish university.

Elsewhere in the Faith Impact report, the Forum provides an update on progress towards the Church of Scotland’s goal of becoming a net zero carbon emitter by 2030. The strategy is currently in phase one, which is focused on ‘collecting data, policy change and planning to support action and implementation at local level’. Work is ongoing across four areas: property and land, activities and travel, finance and investment, and policies and behaviour change.

Presbyteries and congregations are encouraged to ‘offer prayerful and financial support to the rebuilding of lives and churches in Syria and Lebanon’ following the earthquake in the region, through the Standing Firm – Rebuilding lives in Syria’ campaign.

The Forum asks to be instructed to build a network of congregations, supported and equipped to help respond to violence against women; and to share the Church’s experience and policy ideas in relation to the cost of living crisis with Scottish and UK governments.


FAITH NURTURE FORUM

The Faith Nurture Forum acknowledges that the Presbytery Mission Planning process ‘has been an exercise unlike any other in the living memory of the Kirk’ and ‘has required a huge commitment and trust by everyone involved and the Forum’s thanks go to many people’. As of February 2023, all but four presbyteries had submitted a PMP, two of which had presented a plan which the presbytery voted down.

The Forum states that now the ‘hard work’ of implementing the plans must begin, and that it has prepared guidance on Local Mission Church and Team Ministry. All Presbyteries are encouraged ‘to be awake to the possibilities of working across boundaries’, and the report also notes ‘that the ecumenical dimension of Presbytery Mission Planning is one where there is still scope for further work’.

The Forum says it has been working to bring together four staff teams engaged in mission support - Priority Areas, Congregational Engagement, Mission Development and Digital Ministries - under one Mission Support Programme Group. It has developed a strategy it says will allow existing programmes to continue along with the development of new areas of work, with the priorities of ‘develop(ing) and support(ing) congregations and communities to grow in Christian faith and deliver missional activity throughout the year; alongside establishing 100 new worshipping communities’ and ‘a comprehensive programme of support to equip all those responsible for evolving fresh forms of worship including digitised ministry alongside continued support for developing best practice in existing worship’.

Around 400 churches have reported that they have at least one new worshipping community in some stage of development, including Messy Churches, Café Churches and digital church.

The report states that it is ‘encouraging’ that 723 congregations support at least one school in some way. Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions are encouraged to support the ministers and others engaged in ministry to schools. New Gaelic-medium resources for children from Scottish Bible Society and the Gaelic Committee of the Church of Scotland,

The last New Charge Development, Wallacewell in Glasgow, will be handed back to the Presbytery of Glasgow this year. While no new NCDs are planned, the Forum says there are ‘recognised learnings’ from the process and gives thanks to everyone who has contributed.

The charity Workplace Chaplaincy Scotland officially ceased operating in March, but the support of the 100 volunteer chaplains has been transferred to the Church of Scotland, under the banner ‘Scottish Workplace Chaplaincy’.

A part-time development worker is to be employed, from endowment funds, to research and shape proposals for the future of the Diaconate.

The Forum also asks the Assembly to recognise that ‘with new staff structures, changing committee structures and with a new strategic Faith Action Programme, the immediate capacity for developing or taking on new areas of work this year is limited’ and asks for ‘a stay on instruction of new work’, which it says would only be for one year.


GENERAL TRUSTEES

The General Trustees also acknowledge the pain that has been caused by the ‘impending loss of churches across the country’, although they restate the importance of the Presbytery Mission Plan process: ‘Good quality, inviting, warm, well-maintained and resourced buildings are not a luxury, they are a vital asset… As difficult as it is to divest ourselves of much-loved buildings in the present, we will simply not be able to forgive ourselves if, in 10 years’ time, we do not have a markedly improved estate of buildings which are an asset for mission and financially self-sustaining in their communities’.

Churches and presbyteries are reminded of their duty to keep manses in a good state of repair, with the Trustees warning that too many do not meet the required standard.

Part of the report addresses the issues of ‘historic signature churches’, which it says are ‘too often an untapped resource for mission’. The Trustees announce the intention to develop a programme in partnership with presbyteries and other bodies ‘to explore how we can better develop the place of these unique buildings’.

There were 73 property sales (buildings and land) in 2022, totalling over £13,800,000.


THEOLOGICAL FORUM

The Theological Forum brings an Overture creating a Book of Confessions for the Church of Scotland, as previously approved following discussions on the place of the Westminster Confession of Faith. In addition to the Westminster Confession, the Book will include the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the Scots Confession and the 1992 Statement of Faith. If the overture is accepted by presbyteries and ratified by next year’s General Assembly, these will all form the subordinate standards of the Church.

The largest part of this year’s Forum report is a reflection on The Calling of the Church, which explores the church’s place and purpose in modern, secular Scotland. The reflection concludes that the Church is called ‘to become like Christ by the spirit’, but that what that looks like in practice will be different for each congregation and context. It calls for ‘increased awareness of the calling and purpose of the church’, ‘training and resources for identifying, developing and deploying giftings’, ‘clarity in relation to church office and sacraments’, and ‘guidance on navigating callings’.

The Forum also requests an instruction to explore theological questions around transgender identities, and to bring a report to next year’s Assembly.


SPECIAL COMMITTEE ON THE ETHICS OF INVESTMENT PRACTICE

The Special Committee, formed following the debates over the Church’s investment in fossil fuels companies, proposes the establishment of an advisory Ethical Oversight Committee that will ‘help the Church of Scotland Investors Trust (COSIT) to focus on the theological and ethical background of what the Church should be investing in, consider the complexities of the investment options, and be a space for intelligent conversations that can support the COSIT to provide the investment managers with very specific briefs, in line with the Church’s values’.


ASSEMBLY BUSINESS COMMITTEE

The Assembly will be asked to approve the last of the new large presbyteries, bringing together Argyll, Caithness, Sutherland, Ross, Inverness, Abernethy, Lochaber, Lochcarron-Skye, Uist and Lewis to create the Presbytery of the Highlands and Hebrides. The new Presbytery is expected to come into existence on January 1 2024.

As part of General Assembly reform, space is going to be made in future for reports from at least two of the new presbyteries.

Other Assembly reforms are addressed in other reports, or are still being discussed, but Business Committee says there has been strong support for more opportunities for prayer during the General Assembly, which will be implemented this year.

A review of the role of the Moderator of the General Assembly, following conversations with former Moderators, concludes that the role should continue to be full time for a year, but recommends measures to improve support for the Moderator during the year and better debriefing afterwards, more ‘down-time’, stronger relations with Presbytery Moderators, a Job Description for the role of Moderator’s Chaplain and template for the role of Moderator’s spouse.

The Assembly is asked to approve the sale of the Moderator’s Flat in Rothesay Terrace, Edinburgh, which the Church has owned since 1998. One of the church’s furlough flats for overseas staff has been identified as a replacement.


SOCIAL CARE COUNCIL

The CrossReach report begins with discussion of the proposed National Care Service for Scotland. While the council accepts that ‘much change is necessary’, it says that it and other third sector providers of social care hold ‘reservations about the Bill as it stands’, including cost, the impact on supported people and loss of local control.

The proposed deliverance instructs the council and Faith Action Programme Leadership Team ‘to continue to engage with the Scottish Government... and urge the Scottish Government to respect the views of care service providers and services users and their families’. It argues that the new service should promote co-operation between commissioners, service providers and service users, have ‘clear and transparent’ ministerial accountability, be based on values protecting and upholding human rights and dignity, and respect the Fair Work Convention recommendation on pay across the whole care sector.

Meanwhile, the report states that CrossReach continues to ‘offer services to those in need of care and support across the life course’ and draws particular attention to its work this year in three areas: drugs deaths, dementia and The Promise, a national commitment to young people in vulnerable situations. On drugs deaths, the success of CrossReach’s existing programmes has been recognised in a £2.4m grant by the Government to extend Beechwood House, Inverness, under the new Residential Rehab Rapid Capacity Programme.

CrossReach is an active partner in the Scottish Government dementia strategy and is responding to the consultation on rewriting the strategy. Its Heart for Art programme now has 18 groups and supports around 300 participants every year.

One of the ways in which it is responding to The Promise is in offering trauma informed training to its children’s workforce across all services. These include Prison Visitors Centres at HMPYOI Polmont and HMP Perth, and the Daisy Chain early years project in Govanhill. It also reports that its work with children – supporting up to 25 young people in seven small community houses, and its school for up to 30 children in Erskine – ‘has led to the creation of a sector-leading practice model, one of the first of its type, outlining the Care and Education Services relational model of care to support children and young people, to be formally launched later this year’.

Less positively, the council reports that the organisation has been impacted by the difficulties in recruitment across the whole sector, leading to ‘heavy reliance’ on agency workers. This has led to some services being ‘reduced, closed or temporarily unable to offer support to new service users’. It asks for the support of Presbyteries and the Church to help advertise vacancies.


CHURCH OF SCOTLAND GUILD

Built around the year’s theme of ‘Wee Seeds, Big Trees’, the Guild’s report welcomes small signs of hope and urges the organisation to take advantage of the opportunities offered by change. It welcomes the opening of a new Guild in Ellon, Aberdeenshire, as well as the start of the Young Adults Guild, which held its first online meeting in January. The latter, it says, ‘has given the young adults and the Guild a real sense of hope for the future’.

The report also mentions the growth of summer Guilds which, it says, has ‘enabled a whole new group of people to be part of the Guild family’. It continues: “These groups challenge us to be open to new possibilities and new ways of working, and in doing so we see growth.” Elsewhere, it says that in many places a change from evening to afternoon meetings has led to a growth in membership.

The report acknowledges that church mergers will impact on the number of Guild branches, but says they can lead to growth in membership, ‘particularly where one of the uniting charges does not currently have a Guild’. It also encourages Guilds to consider meeting in community halls or other spaces where a church building will no longer be available.


COMMITTEE ON CHAPLAINS TO HM FORCES

Alongside the usual commendations of those who serve as chaplains, and encouragement of ministers to consider service, the Chaplains’ Committee this year recognises the contribution of Chaplains following the death of the Queen last year.

The report states: “The death of Her late Majesty was profoundly felt across the whole military community. She was their Commander-in-Chief, she knew the community very well, and some would even say she was at her happiest when visiting the military family. The Committee is grateful to all Chaplains who supported our military personnel, and their families, through this period of national mourning.”

The Committee also asks the Assembly to recognise the contribution of Chaplains supporting personnel who responded to NATO’s call for support following the invasion of Ukraine. It adds: “As with the whole Church, we pray for peace and justice in that land.”


ECUMENICAL RELATIONS COMMITTEE

The Ecumenical Relations Committee asks the Assembly to affirm the ‘ecumenical imperative embedded within the Articles Declaratory of the Church of Scotland’, and to note the ecumenical implications of 2021’s Presbytery Mission Plan Act. That includes guidance that presbyteries may not need to duplicate services offered by another denomination, and should explore opportunities for working ecumenically where more than one denomination exists in a community.

The report notes that several presbyteries have already engaged with them on the place of Local Ecumenical Partnerships within their plans, and ‘encourages the exploration of potential opportunities for creative and collaborative ecumenical initiatives.

It reports that the establishment of the Scottish Christian Forum (which the Church of Scotland agreed to participate in in 2021, replacing Action of Churches Together in Scotland) ‘continues to be a matter under discussion’. A conference of ten denominations took place in January, and the Ecumenical Officers’ Forum will bring proposals for the Scottish Christian Forum to a future gathering.

The Committee invites the General Assembly to welcome the signing of the Saint Margaret Declaration, between the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, which took place in November last year. It also commends a new Saint Margaret Declaration Liturgy and encourages its use ‘as an expression of that which the Catholic Church in Scotland and the Church of Scotland hold in common’.


HOUSING AND LOAN FUND

The Trustees of the Housing and Loan Fund report that in 2022 the fund provided assistance to eight retired or retiring ministers or their spouses. As of December 31, the fund had 176 tenants living in its properties along with two let commercially and seven vacant properties. There were also 101 outstanding housing loans.

Rents have not been increased this year, with existing rental income sufficient to cover maintenance and repairs. Post-covid, the report states that routine visits to rental properties have resumed and that the backlog of maintenance work caused by the lockdowns has been cleared.

The report encourages ministers within five years of retirement who may wish to request the fund’s help to contact them, and also says it welcomes initial contact from people within five to ten years of retirement. “Such approaches not only assist the Trustees with financial forecasting, but can help to alleviate some of the anxieties which ministers and their spouses may experience in respect of housing as they contemplate their future after retirement.”


General Assembly 2023: full coverage