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Assembly Rejects Divestment Call

Wednesday May 22 2019

- Church told to 'get real' on buildings
- Continued presence in Israel/Palestine backed

The General Assembly today narrowly rejected a proposal for the Church of Scotland to disinvest from fossil fuels.

It is the second year in a row that the Assembly has rejected a call for the Church’s Investors Trust to withdraw its holdings in oil and gas companies, and is despite the Assembly also passing a motion recognising ‘that we are experiencing a climate and ecological emergency’.

Proposing the disinvestment motion during the debate of the Church and Society Council, the Rev Gordon Strang said that ‘an awful lot has changed since last year’, including the declaration of climate emergency and the high-profile campaigns by schoolgirl Greta Thunberg and broadcaster David Attenborough. He argued that despite the Church’s engagement with fossil fuels companies ‘little or nothing is changing’, adding: “By continuing to invest in them we are actively contributing to the climate crisis and my children, Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and many others will be right to ask ‘why’.

“The world looks to us for a moral lead… let us mean what we say we believe.”

However Catherine Alexander, chair of the Church of Scotland Investors’ Trust, said: “We believe it’s the wrong way to influence change,” citing moves by BP to report to shareholders on how its activities align with the aims of the Paris Climate Agreement, and by Shell to link its directors’ remuneration packages to progress on targets on emissions. She added: “Disinvestment only removes the Christian voice from the ear of those of whom we are part owners. It may look as if we are doing something, but we are actually doing nothing.”

Mr Strang’s motion was defeated by 303 votes to 263.

Following the decision, the convener of Church and Society, the Rev Dr Richard Frazer, resisted another motion congratulating and encouraging Greta Thunberg and the school strikers. He said: “I don’t see the point of doing this when we have just agreed what we have just agreed.”

Earlier, the Assembly had heard from members of Church’s in areas directly affected by climate change. The Rev Paulo Mucapele Joao of the Igreja Evangelica de Cristo em Mocambique said that areas of the country had been devastated by Cyclone Idai and Cyclone Kenneth. He said: “Climate change is a reality in Mozambique.”

And the Rev Sharon Hollis of the Uniting Church in Australia, which works with communities in the Pacific Islands, said: “Climate change is already directly affecting lives in these communities. There are climate refugees now. These people cannot live in their own land, because tidal waves have washed away their villages and communities, and they have nowhere to go.”

The Church of Scotland’s presence in Israel and Palestine was reaffirmed by the Assembly, which approved the conclusions of a strategic review by the World Mission Council.

This included investment in the St Andrew’s Guest House in Jerusalem and support for the continued operation of the Scots Hotel in Tiberias.

Introducing the report, World Mission convener the Very Rev Dr John Chalmers said that ‘this is no time for the Church of Scotland to walk away from its history and involvement in the Holy Land’.

He added: “If we were starting out from scratch, we wouldn’t necessarily want to start with our existing footprint, but that is precisely where we are…

“Our presence in the land is not just about property, it is about people and, in particular, it is about working with people and organisations committed to supporting the dwindling Christian community within the region, non-violent means of ending the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and opportunities for interfaith dialogue to break down the scourge of mutual dehumanisation which is the result of oppression and occupation by one side - exacerbated by rockets and rhetoric from the other side…

“It is because we have journeyed with the people of Israel and Palestine throughout many years of conflict that we are compelled to continue the journey. It is because we have had a real human and institutional presence in the land, with Mission Partners on the ground, that we have been able to strike up relationships which make a positive contribution to the search for peace and which offer real advocacy and encouragement to those who, after years of struggle, are on the verge of giving up hope.”

There was a debate over whether the operating profits from the hotel could be described as supporting the work of the Church, bearing in mind the levels of investment that have been required. Dr Chalmers argued that the Assembly could get itself in ‘an awful fankle’ if it tried to work out whether the money would have accumulated more if it had been left in the Church funds, but that in any case the ‘social value’ of the hotel was hard to quantify and would not necessarily appear on the balance sheet. He emphasised that the hotel paid the equivalent of the minimum wage and offered scholarships to staff, and buys artisan and fair trade products where possible.

The chairman of the General Trustees, Raymond Young, told the Assembly it was time for the Church to ‘get real’ about its land and buildings.

Introducing a consultation on the Trustees’ ‘Well Equipped Spaces in the Right Places’ strategy, which will be finalised next year, Mr Young said: “There are some very good spaces in the Church, but we have too many, and many are not fit for purpose. Neither is the Church a building preservation organisation.

“Church buildings should be managed, changed and developed in such a way that they are not a distraction from the call ‘follow me’.

“For years the Assembly has nodded in sympathy when my predecessors have said that we must reduce the size of this estate, yet at the start of this year Presbyteries have said 86 per cent of these church buildings are expected to remain in use beyond the life of the Presbytery Plan. Only six per cent are expected to go. Really?”

He said that progress in the Presbyteries of Shetland and St Andrews, and new churches including the soon-to-be-opened St Rollox in Glasgow, showed what could be achieved. A church plant in a new estate outside Perth might not include a traditional church building. There was also a need to develop partnerships to support buildings which are not just church but community assets, and the General Trustees are consulting with Historic Environment Scotland on how to manage the church’s 1700 listed buildings – the most owned by a single organisation in Scotland.

Mr Young concluded: “We need to be fleeter of foot, not encumbered with buildings that take up energy that should be used for worship and mission.”

The Church and Society Council agreed to engage with Scottish Government to encourage reduction in single-use plastics, and also to encourage churches to reduce the amount of single-use plastic in their buildings. There was a slightly awkward moment when a youth delegate pointed out that there were a lot of single-use plastic bottles on the top table (which was later replaced by a jug of water).

The Assembly agreed to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism and its guidelines, ‘to aid it in challenging antisemitism’. A countermotion arguing that the Church should develop its own definition was defeated.

The Assembly backed a call from the Rev Bryan Kerr noting changes to the Scripture Union Scotland Ethos Statement, which Dr Kerr and others said had led to youth workers and volunteers not being able to work alongside SU Scotland, and instructing Church and Society and Mission and Discipleship councils to hold conversations with the organisation about it.

The Assembly called on the UK Government to impose a moratorium on UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, ‘given the humanitarian catastrophe and suffering that the people of Yemen are going through… fuelled by the Saudi-led involvement in the conflict'.

A new joint working group is to be formed to 'develop proposals... for ordination to a form of Word and Sacrament shaped by the context of the emerging Church'.

It was announced that the Guild’s Big Sing on Tuesday evening raised £3437.05, which will be used to replace a church roof in Malawi.


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