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Home  >  News  >  Call for Reform of Church Structure


Call for Reform of Church Structure

Wednesday February 15 2017

Rev Dr Doug Gay

A senior theologian has called for wholesale reform of the presbytery and central structures of the Church of Scotland.

The Rev Dr Doug Gay’s proposals include reducing the number of Scottish presbyteries by nearly three quarters, and merging the four main central councils into a single body.

He also said the church’s administration should move out of its offices at 121 George Street in Edinburgh.

In the third of his series of Chalmers Lectures at St Giles’ Cathedral, Dr Gay, Principal of Trinity College at the University of Glasgow, compared the need to modernise Church structures to the need to update a church building.

He said: “It seems to me we are long overdue a moment of refocusing, of streamlining, of simplifying. There is a kind of Victorian gothic quality to our institutional architecture. It’s time to knock some solid walls down, take out some pews, put up some new glass partitions, and create some cleaner, clearer, fit for purpose spaces.

“Talking of spaces, the key symbolic focus of what we need to move on from may be the building at 121 George Street itself. If we can make it work in terms of stewardship - and that could be a big 'if' - it would be great if we could treat ourselves to a new beginning somewhere else. The ideal would be a building which could be built or converted to somehow be an architectural statement of the kind of holistic witness we want to offer 21st century Scotland.”

Under Dr Gay’s suggestion, the number of presbyteries would be reduced from the present 43 in Scotland to 12. The new, larger bodies would be given ‘substantial devolved financial responsibility for deploying and resourcing ministry within their bounds’ including the creation of new ‘congregational support posts’.

In the centre, the Ministries, Mission and Discipleship, Church and Society and World Mission Councils would be combined into one Church of Scotland Mission Agency. The number of people working for the central councils and bodies would be reduced ‘by up to a third’.

There would be separate arrangements for CrossReach, the Church’s social care arm.

Dr Gay paid tribute to the people who serve and staff the existing councils, telling them, “We in the church are in your debt - you are muscles and sinews within the body, you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Your work and commitment and care are precious to the church and we believe, precious to God…. I have many friends who work at 121, whose work and witness, whose dedication, gifts and vision I admire greatly.”

He also said anyone arguing for reform should be mindful that “Our thought experiment is someone else’s life, job, salary, home-base, ministry and vocation.”

However, he argued, “In any major institutional reform… some things will have to be done, which will prove to be very difficult for some of the individuals affected, but which are done in the hope that they will be for the good of the institution as a whole.”

He said that the reform was necessary for the sake of the Church’s mission, and to offer ‘more effective support to the witness of local congregations’. He said there is ‘widespread dissatisfaction’ with how presbyteries work currently, and that the church needs ‘stronger missional leadership at regional level’ and ‘more effective training and support at local level’.

The current system, he added, holds too much power, resource and initiative at the centre and is too bureaucratic; while the division of councils ‘perpetuates a silo mentality, which includes both competition for resources and defence of council prerogatives, with no adequate management mechanism’.

However, he added that any reform, with the consequent upheaval, should only be carried out if it met three tests: it would better enable the mission of the Church, it commended itself to the mind of the Church, and it could be done in a way which maintained the peace and unity of the Church.

“It is far more important that we love one another, than that we improve our institutional architecture,” he said.


Videos and full transcripts of all three lectures are available on the Church of Scotland website.

What do you think of Dr Gay's proposals? Email us on or write to Life and Work, 121 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 4YN

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