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General Assembly Welcomes Fossil Fuels Disinvestment

Wednesday May 26 2021

The Very Rev Dr Susan Brown, convener of the Faith Impact Forum

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland today welcomed the fact that the Church no longer holds investments in oil and gas companies.

During the debate on the report into the Faith Impact Forum, the Assembly gave thanks for the ‘passion of the young people’ in the Church who have campaigned for disinvestment from fossil fuels, and welcomed the agreement that ‘in principle’ no future investments will be held in fossil fuels companies unless the investments are agreed to align with efforts to keep global heating below 1.5 degC.

A number of attempted amendments from David Laing, an elder from the Presbytery of Kincardine and Deeside, to remove elements celebrating the disinvestment were all defeated, although each attracted over 100 votes. Mr Laing pointed out that the disinvestment had been made, according to the Investors’ Trust, for financial reasons, and that it was contrary to decisions of previous General Assemblies which had voted against disinvestment.

He also said that in disinvesting from fossil fuels companies the Church had lost leverage as a shareholder in those companies. However, Faith Impact convener the Very Rev Dr Susan Brown said that that leverage had ‘failed miserably’ in the past.

Mr Laing did succeed in adding a new section instructing the Forum to work with the General Trustees to negotiate an improved rate for electricity, which could help churches switch their heating from gas to green electricity. Dr Brown told the assembly that the Trustees had already begun such negotiations.

Churches were encouraged to sign the Scottish Churches CoP26 Pledge in addition to the other ways the report urged them to engage with the climate change conference. Congregations and presbyteries were also urged to join Eco-Congregation Scotland as part of the Church’s commitment to reach Net Zero by 2030.

The Faith Impact debate also included strong words on gender-based violence and overseas aid.

In her speech, Dr Brown referred to the Very Rev Dr Martin Fair’s speech as outgoing moderator on Saturday morning: “From foodbanks, to bigotry and hate speech, to drugs and rough sleepers and asylum seekers, to the pollution of this planet entrusted to our care, to the violence that makes women feel unsafe, that sends rockets and missiles to maim and kill ordinary people who simply want to live, all of these things remind us as a church that we still have work to do.

“While (Dr Fair) went on to say that it’s not about numbers, we do need the people in order to address these issues and to help turn the world around. I would suggest that it is in engagement in just such Jesus-manifesto issues that discipleship blooms. It is when we get out from behind closed doors, when we are propelled out of what is safe to engage with those who are the same as us but different, and when we face too the challenges the planet faces that we are reinvigorated and discover others wanting to catch that vision.”

Dr Brown said she strongly urged Kirk Sessions to take part in the training offered on violence against women, explaining that the deliverance did not say ‘instruct’ as that ‘sometimes has the opposite effect’. “It’s incredibly important that every congregation engages with this matter… I seriously urge and I don’t want to see a backlash from the word instruct.”

The Rev Fiona Bullock said she was ‘dismayed’ that the Church of Scotland no longer has a dedicated gender justice officer. Dr Brown assured her that the work was still being taken forward and that every area of the Faith Impact Forum’s work was done ‘with an awareness of gender issues’.

The Rev Fiona Smith added that: “Domestic abuse is not just about violence. There are so many different areas to it.” She also warned that women within the Church were still ‘finding it difficult to have our voices recognised within all areas’, more than half a century after the Church began ordaining women to leadership roles.

The Assembly supported the Faith Impact motion urging the UK government to ensure Covid-19 vaccines are available all over the world. Joel Hafvenstein, the executive director of the United Mission to Nepal, who is an overseas delegate to the Assembly, said that ‘all over Nepal people are drawing their final breaths today’ and that the country had only managed to vaccinate three or four per cent of its population. He said: “With our commitment to global justice, we must make this a priority.”

A section calling on the UK Government to restore the commitment to 0.7% of GDP in overseas aid was strengthened, adding that the Assembly ‘Deplore the decision of the UK Government to cut overseas aid programmes’.

Later, the Assembly approved the plans which will see the number of ministry charges within the Church of Scotland reduced to 660 (envisaging 600 ministers and 60 vacancies) by 2025; and the allocation of those posts around Presbyteries set out by the Faith Nurture Forum.

A motion for the Forum to bring alternative proposals, with a breakdown of predicted financial impacts, to a Commission of Assembly later this year was defeated by 374 votes to 163. Faith Nurture Convener the Rev Rosie Frew argued that tinkering with the weightings to change ministry numbers would make very little difference, and that the church couldn’t know how finances would be affected.

The convener of the Assembly Trustees, the Very Rev Dr John Chalmers, admitted that the proposals would cause pain throughout the Church. He said: “We are well aware that this is not an easy ask. Every one of us is a member or minister serving in parishes that will be affected by this. We know reshaping the Church around this will involve painful decisions. But in the goodness and grace of God we trust.”

He said the proposal for 600 ministers was based not just on what the Church can afford, but also on projections of the number of ministers who will be retiring over coming years.

However, he admitted it was also about funding, and said that other Church reforms would be for nothing if the budget for ministers was not brought under control. He said only 44 per cent of churches currently meet the cost of their own ministers, and the level of subsidy involved for the others was ‘in the foreseeable future, unsustainable’.

A section was added to the Faith Nurture deliverance instructing the Forum to explore the possibilities of developing a three-year Gaelic Language Plan, including a particular emphasis on Gaelic ministry and mission to young people.

The Rev Hugh Stewart, proposing the motion, said that the plan should be ‘dynamic, innovative and radical’ so the Church of Scotland could provide for the spiritual wellbeing of Gaelic speakers throughout Scotland, particularly children in Gaelic Medium Education. While he wished the Forum to bring a fully-costed plan from 2022, that was not possible as budgets for next year have already been set.

Another section was added acknowledging and giving thanks for all those who have served the Church in paid and unpaid chaplaincy during the year of Covid-19.

The convener of the Social Care Council (CrossReach), the Rev Thom Riddle paid tribute to the ‘amazing’ CrossReach staff who had worked throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to support some of the people most challenged by it, ‘and most importantly to make them feel loved’. He warned that the pandemic had ‘exposed the cracks in a social care system where neither supported people nor the people who support them’ are properly valued. He added that the Social Care Council would ‘take time to concentrate on the recovery (from the pandemic), paying particular attention

The Convener of the Assembly Trustees, the Very Rev Dr John Chalmers paid tribute to the work of the Council and its staff. He said: “The Trustees month by month and week by week have prayed for CrossReach kept an eye on progress and supported it as much as we could, and we have been conscious there has been that kind of support from the whole church during that pandemic. I want to say how much we appreciate all that you and your staff have done.”

General Assembly 2021: Full Coverage

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