Kirk warned its charity status in jeopardy

THE financial stewardship of some Church of Scotland presbyteries is so poor that it could put the Kirk's charitable status at risk, a report on a root and branch reorganisation of the bodies has claimed.

Presbyteries, the regional administrative arms of the church, have also been criticised as lacking in consistency of superintendence for congregations and for failing to carry out consultations on behalf of the General Assembly, the church's ruling body - as well as the poor management of congregational finances. The report, by the Panel on Review and Reform, said that in some cases, the mismanagement of church funds was such that if it was not addressed then it could endanger the Kirk's charitable status with the charity's regulator Oscr.

Proposals for reform, which will go before the Kirk's General Assembly when it meets In Edinburgh next week, claim that the problem could be remedied by a reorganisation of presbyteries into fewer, larger bodies which are given control of governance, administration and finance,

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Convener of the panel, the Reverend David Cameron, insisted that the report's forthright views were necessary "to grasp the nettle" of its structural problems.

"There is resistance to change, just as you find in any industry or walk of life, but we're trying to express the need for change," he said. "We can't sit back in our small corner and think we're alright. It's really articulating that the status quo really isn't the option and it's time for the wider church to grasp the nettle on this."

The report comes in the wake of a previous failed attempt to shake up the presbytery system, when in 2002, the General Assembly rejected plans for the creation of "super presbyteries".

It states that there is no consistency of practice when it comes to superintendence of congregations and that in the worst circumstances, "congregations with inadequate financial procedures and ineffective safeguarding measures are unchallenged by presbytery."

The panel said that at the extremes of mismanagement, there was "a complete inability" to carry out to an acceptable minimum standard the basic functions of supervision and governance.

The Rev Louis Kinsey, minister of St Columba's Church in Aberdeen, said that he felt that while the idea of devolving powers was a good one, there were serious concerns that they could result in the creation of another layer of bureaucracy at a regional level.

"I think that the devolving of resources could be a positive step," he said.

"But I think a lot of ministers will be worried that decision-making will start to take place at quite a distance from where those decisions will have their most impact." He said that the report's criticisms of presbyteries was "accurate and fair", but the plans would probably work better if the new presbyteries were arranged along shared theologies rather than shared geography.

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The Rev Albert Bogle, minister of St Andrew's Church, Bo'ness, in West Lothian, said that he believed the financial criticisms reflected the increasingly complex demands placed on presbytery members to satisfy Oscr.