Church plans exodus from historic Edinburgh home

The General Assembly has been at the Mound since the 19th century. Picture: Jane Barlow
The General Assembly has been at the Mound since the 19th century. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE Church of Scotland is looking at moving the General Assembly away from its historic home on the Mound in ­Edinburgh.

Ministers and members are to be consulted on how the annual meeting of the Kirk’s highest court can be modernised, including the possibility of moving to a new venue.

The General Assembly is the highlight of the Kirk’s calendar and has become indelibly ­associated with the imposing Victorian building, where ministers have met since the mid-19th century.

As well as being the place where the Kirk has ruled on doctrinal and legislative matters, the General Assembly Hall has witnessed some key events in Scottish history including the papal visit, by Pope John Paul II, on his historic pastoral tour of the UK on 28 May 1982, during the Falklands War.

It was also where the Scottish Parliament was reborn, serving as the MSPs’ chamber between 1999 and 2004 while the Holyrood building was under construction.

The thought of the Kirk moving out of the building, which is part of the New College complex it owns, will upset some traditionalists.

But there are those believe that despite its splendour as a debating hall, it has shortcomings as a conference venue.

The possibility of a move is being examined by the Kirk’s Assembly Arrangements Committee and is one suggestion to be put to a wider church audience in the New Year.

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Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Rev Dr George Whyte, the acting principal clerk of the General Assembly and a member of the committee, said: “The Assembly Hall has limited usefulness to the church. It has certain restrictions as a conference site.

“The Assembly Hall itself is a 19th century creation with a lot of peculiar spaces and we have to decide its future. Do we spend money on it? Do we look at developing it further? We need to know its future.”

He added: “I think we have to discuss it [moving it out]... the Assembly Hall has limited usefulness to the Church.”

At the beginning of 2015 the committee will write to presbyteries and presbytery clerks seeking their views. The committee will also consult on whether the traditional May date should be moved and perhaps become a biennial event.

According to Whyte, the hall remains suitable for hosting debates involving the 800 ministers, elders and deacons who come to the Mound for the event each year. Problems arise when it comes to catering facilities and hosting smaller discussion groups.

He said: “It has restricted break-out and catering space, so to that extent it is good stewardship of our resources to pause and say is it a long term bet? And if it is we need to think of how we develop it. And if it is not we have to think of alternatives.”

He accepted a move might be hard for some to accept.

“It has got a lot of memories. It has its own atmosphere. It is a remarkable place to speak in with 1,200 to 1,300 people tiered around you,” Whyte said. “For such a large gathering it is quite an intimate space and quite a lot of things have happened there in the church’s life. I think we would have to be very convinced that what we were going to was better.”

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