A three-year Radical Action Plan aimed at safeguarding the Kirk’s future was the focus of heated debate at the 2019 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Prior to the debate the day’s proceedings began with a Gaelic reading from Felix Walker, 14, a pupil at James Gillespie’s high school in Edinburgh, and included guest visits by former Scottish rugby captain Doddie Weir and celebrity chef Prue Leith, guests of the Lord High Commissioner, the Duke of Buccleuch.
The 17-point plan, which was approved, includes the creation of a £20 million-£25m Growth Fund from 2020-2027 to establish new churches in areas where they are needed, the establishment of 12 presbyteries instead of 45, ‘devolution’ of decision making and resources to local and regional churches and co-operation with other dominations.
However, Rev Karen Fenwick, Forfar Lowson Memorial church in Angus, provoked a lengthy debate when she raised issues about a proposed reconfiguration of ministries and missions contributions – financial contributions from churches depending on the income and number of members – which was one of the action points included in the plan.
Rev Fenwick said the Kirk could be seen as acting like a ‘tax collector’ with measures hitting cash-strapped churches the hardest.
Rev Barry Hughes of Stirling St Mark’s church in Raploch, supporting Rev Fenwick’s motion, said he warned colleagues at his first Kirk session they would struggle to pay but managed after being adopted by Sainsbury’s as their charity for a year.
An amendment was passed resulting in a freeze on an increase in contributions until the matter is resolved.
Dr Sally Bonnar, convener of the Council of Assembly, told commissioners that the plan was intended, primarily, to support local churches and ensure resources were shared appropriately.
“In terms of the values which underpin this plan, first and foremost it is intended to be about equipping, supporting and resourcing the local church. This has to be the core outcome of whatever we decide. Despite the fact that 80 per cent plus of our financial income returns to the local church there is still the perception that the centre hold on to too much when it should be the servant of the local.
“So throughout the action plan there is an emphasis on devolving where possible, both resources and responsibility to a local or regional level.
Dr Bonnar added that the Growth Fund - consisting of grants allocated from existing reserves and investments - would be made available to help congregations and presbyteries to work towards making changes.