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Home  >  Features  >  General Assembly - Beginner's Guide

General Assembly

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Beginner's Guide to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

The General Assembly is the Church of Scotland’s highest decision-making body. It meets annually in May for a week (Saturday to Friday, with no business on the Sunday), in the Assembly Halls (right) in Edinburgh.
It is attended by:
  • Around 700 Commissioners, a mixture of ministers and church Elders who have been sent from each of the church’s 46 Presbyteries [regional groupings: 43 in Scotland, plus the Presbyteries of England, International Charges, and Jerusalem].
  • Youth delegates: 10 delegates are appointed by the Church’s National Youth Assembly, and Presbyteries are also invited to send youth representatives. Youth delegates may speak and propose motions, but do not have a vote.
  • Corresponding members, mostly representatives of church departments, who may speak but not vote.
  • Representatives of other churches, UK and overseas, who again may speak but not vote.
The Assembly is chaired by the Moderator. The proposed Moderator, or Moderator-Designate, is selected by a committee several months beforehand, and presented to the Assembly for approval on the opening morning. The Moderator serves for the rest of the year in an ambassadorial role, before opening the next General Assembly and overseeing the election of his/her successor.
Former Moderators are available on a rota to take the chair if the Moderator needs a break or has business elsewhere.
Also at the top table are:
  • The Principal Clerk to the General Assembly
  • The Solicitor of the Church
  • The Procurator, a QC or advocate, principal legal advisor to the General Assembly
  • Assorted clerks and other officials
The Monarch, who has no authority over the Church of Scotland, is invited to attend the Assembly as a spectator. The present Queen has attended twice during her reign but usually sends a representative, known as the Lord High Commissioner. This may be someone from the royal family or more often a member of the House of Lords or someone prominent in Scottish public life. He/she gives speeches at the beginning and end of the Assembly, hosts ceremonial occasions at Holyrood Palace, and spends much of the week travelling around Scotland visiting church projects. In the hall, the Lord High Commissioner sits in a throne above and behind the Moderator, symbolically separated from the General Assembly.
During the Assembly, the Lord High Commissioner is the only person in the UK, besides the Queen, whose car has no registration plate. They are screwed back on during the closing ceremony.
Assembly business takes the form of reports from church councils, committees, associated organisations (such as the Scottish Bible Society and the Iona Community) and any special commissions which are due to report.
The reports to the Assembly are compiled in what is colloquially known (for obvious reasons) as the Blue Book. Supplementary reports (ones which were not complete in time for the publication of the Blue Book) are printed separately, in the Order of Proceedings. Assembly papers are produced almost daily, including notices of motion and minutes of preceding days.
Reports are introduced by the relevant convener, who makes a speech and responds to questions, comments and motions from the hall.
Each report includes a proposed deliverance, broken into a number of sections, which can be instructions to the council/committee, instructions or recommendations to presbyteries and congregations, or statements of the Assembly. Commissioners can move amendments, addenda and counter-motions to sections, move to reject them entirely or propose new sections. Conveners can choose to accept a motion or resist it; if they resist it goes to a debate and a vote. Each section is debated in turn until finally the Assembly is asked to approve the deliverance as a whole.
Most decisions are approved by commissioners tapping their feet or clapping. Where a vote is needed this is done first by standing. If it is too close to call, the Moderator can call for an electronic vote: commissioners vote using their chipcards (which they also need to operate the microphones when they wish to speak).
An overture is a motion brought by one court of the church to another. In the context of the General Assembly, it usually refers to a motion brought to the Assembly by a Presbytery.
Individuals and groups may also petition the Assembly about matters which affect them.
The Barrier Act is a piece of legislation under which, if a General Assembly makes a fundamental change to church law, it must be referred to Presbyteries. If a majority of Presbyteries agree to the change, it then comes back to the following General Assembly which must also approve it.
The day-to-day business is managed by the Business Committee, whose convener usually gives an update each morning. For the rest of the year, this sits as the Assembly Business Committee.
Worship: Each morning opens with worship in the Assembly Hall, including one or two hymns or psalms, readings, prayers and a reflection from the Moderator. Communion is held on Monday morning, and the Assembly also closes with worship on Friday. On Sunday, there is an Assembly service in St Giles' Cathedral and a Gaelic service in Greyfriars Kirk.
Heart and Soul (right): A ‘celebration of the life of the church’ which has been held in Princes Street Gardens on the Sunday of Assembly week since 2010 and is usually attended by around 5000 people. This includes stage performances, stands and displays by church groups and parish churches, and closing worship.
Fringe: A number of organisations and church departments hold events during General Assembly week. Most happen at lunchtimes in venues near the Assembly Halls, although there are some evening events too. They can be purely social occasions, or aimed at promoting a group’s work or launching a new project or publication.