Church of Scotland General Assembly opens with most logging on from home

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will open today with much-reduced ceremony due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but with around 670 ministers, deacons and elders logging on from their homes to take part in the five days of business.

Among the issues on the agenda are same-sex marriage, disinvestment from the oil and gas sector, Covid recovery and church reorganisation.

Prince William who is attending as the Lord High Commissioner, the Queen’s representative, will be welcomed by a fanfare of trumpets as he take part in a procession through the courtyard of the Assembly Hall at The Mound. But inside he will be one of only a small number of dignitaries and church officials present in person in the hall.

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Among the others will be former Deputy First Minister and Church of Scotland elder Lord (Jim) Wallace, who will be installed as the new Moderator at the start of proceedings. He is only the second elder in modern times to be chosen as Moderator and takes over from the Right Rev Dr Martin Fair, who will return to his role as minister of St Andrew’s Parish Church in Arbroath.

Last year's General Assembly was cancelled in May because of Covid, but a shorter, mainly online Assembly was held in October instead. Pic: Andrew O'Brien

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The Kirk’s decline in membership continues unabated. As at December 2020, there were 297,435 members of the Church of Scotland, a fall of 5 per cent from 2019 and a drop of 33 per cent since 2010.

But the Assembly Trustees has praised congregations for their “extraordinary, innovative and inspiring” response to the pandemic, including generous financial support which helped keep the church functioning.

Some 84 per cent of congregations had offered online worship; 67 per cent had offered alternative offline worship and 82 per cent had re-opened for public worship when able to do so. Almost 95,000 households are estimated to have worshipped online.

Very few people will be in the Assembly Hall during the Assembly which runs until Thursday

The Assembly will debate legislation which could ultimately allow ministers to conduct same-sex marriages. The proposal would permit them to apply to become authorised celebrants for such ceremonies, but it stresses no-one would be required to participate in the solemnisation of, or be involved in the arrangements for, a same-sex marriage unless they explicitly wished to do so.

Even if the draft plan is approved by commissioners, it will have to be sent to presbyteries for their consideration and brought back to a future Assembly for final decision.

The issue of disinvesting from oil and gas companies has led to passionate debate at previous Assemblies, but the calls for disinvestment were defeated. However, the Kirk’s Investors Trust will tell the Assembly it has now disposed of all its oil and gas shares for financial reasons.

The move has been welcomed and the Assembly will be asked to approve the creation of a new committee to recommend on ethical investment.

Financial pressures and difficulties in recruiting candidates for the ministry have forced the Kirk to look at a smaller number of ministers in the future. A report by the Assembly Trustees says a realistic and affordable aim is for around 600 full-time equivalent ministers to serve local churches, representing a reduction of around 200 posts.

And it notes the church is likely to be organised into nine presbyteries, down from 43.

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