Kirk members to be 'guinea pig' ministers
Senior officials at the Church of Scotland yesterday confirmed what they called a "bold experiment" to turn parishioners into fully-fledged preachers for the first time since the Reformation.
The move breaks with the centuries-old tradition of university-educated ministers and shows how seriously the Kirk is taking its efforts to keep the faith alive in the country's most remote areas.
The Church of Scotland has 961 ordained ministers but 199 vacancies, many of them in rural parts of the country once considered part of the Presbyterian heartland.
Martin Scott, secretary of the Church's ministries council, the body responsible for the training of new clerics, said: "There are places in Scotland where, really, ministry as we have known it – one minister, one manse, one parish – is becoming unsustainable in terms of the number of folk around to do the job.
"But that doesn't have to mean that it will be impossible to continue worship and normal parish life.
"It just means that we have to think differently."
The Kirk's proposed solution is what Scott calls "locally ordained ministers" – members of churches who will train, probably on the job, to preach, do pastoral work and, crucially, carry out sacraments, like Communion and baptisms.
The Kirk has lined up five volunteers – insiders refer to them as "guinea pigs" – to begin 18 months of study to become ordained without a theology degree. All come from Caithness, a county and presbytery where there are just three ordained ministers for 14 churches.
Scott said: "We have been trying to look at a more localised ministry where people from congregations are able to be trained locally to do certain functions of ministry."
The Kirk has long had "readers" – men or women traditionally trained to read out messages or sermons penned by their minister in his or her absence.
Some of those are effectively already overseeing Sunday church services and carrying out traditional pastoral duties, such as visiting the sick, the needy and the bereaved. But they are not allowed to do give Communion or carry out baptisms and they don't receive the stipend, or salary, for their work.
Three of the Caithness "guinea pigs" are readers. One is 60-year-old Lyall Rennie, currently "acting minister" at Canisbay Church, overlooking the Pentland Firth, near John o' Groats.
The retired oil engineer, a father of two, moved to Caithness from Aberdeenshire in the summer with his wife, Isabel, who is also active in the Kirk, to take up the post of locum at Canisbay.
He said: "I already do the pastoral work and take the Sunday services – unless there is Communion or baptism. But being a locally ordained minister would mean I could do that too."
The traditional role of the Church of Scotland cleric is a minister of "word and sacrament". Rennie and several other "reader" locums dotted around Scotland are effectively ministers of word but not sacrament.
Few believe the Church of Scotland will ever go back to the days when almost every one of its 1,162 parishes had a minister all of its own. Each minister now has a "charge" that may well include more than one kirk and parish.
The Canisbay job, for example, comes with duties for the neighbouring parishes of Keiss and Dunnet too. All three congregations must rely on a minister other than Rennie coming to offer Communion, an interim moderator or substitute from elsewhere in the county.
That job often falls to Alastair Gray, a fully ordained minister with at least three parishes of his own and a hospital chaplaincy as well.
Gray, who covers 400 miles a week between services, has taken to getting elders to show DVDs of his sermons as he races between one kirk and another.
The Caithness guinea pigs can become ordained only if the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the ruling body of the Kirk, gives its blessing to the pilot scheme. A motion is expected to go before the body when it meets in May 2012.
The Church of Scotland has no problem filling vacancies in the cities. Edinburgh Presbytery, as revealed by Scotland on Sunday last month, has a glut of candidates for the ministry this year.
Church watchers believe many spiritually motivated young ministers are eager to work in urban estates.
The number of people coming forward for the full ministry has held steady in recent years, at between 30 and 35. This summer it fell to 14 and officials hope they have seen a blip.
To the pulpit
Four decades ago, Esme Duncan had a "vague notion" to be a minister. The Church of Scotland had just begun ordaining women. There was nothing to stop her.
Then a teacher in her late 20s, she could have retrained. "I was put off by all the extra studying," she said. "Now I know that is what I want to do".
Duncan, 68, is one of five lay members of the Church of Scotland about to begin training to become "locally ordained ministers".
A former convener of the Church of Scotland's Woman's Guild, she is no stranger to the pulpit.
She is a reader in the Kirk and already does a lot of pastoral work. She has conducted more than 100 funerals and many, many services, most near her home at Canisbay, Caithness.
She went there to help hold services 12 years ago and has never returned to her native Aberdeen.
"There are just not enough people to go around." she said. "I know of people who are housebound or in care homes who have not received Communion for ten years or more because the interim moderator – the acting minister – just hasn't had time to get to them.
"I would like to be able to go to care homes and the elderly and give the Communion, because it means so much to them."