Church of Scotland will be 'very different' in future, General Assembly told

The Church of Scotland has cut its central costs by 30 per cent and will dig into reserves to find at least £16 million to help congregations recover from Covid, the General Assembly has been told.

The Kirk is also planning major reorganisation, with fewer ministers and a reduced number of presbyteries.

The Very Rev Dr John Chalmers, convener of the powerful Assembly Trustees, told the opening session of the Assembly on Saturday there would be a "very different kind of church" in the future.

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He said: "Building on the remarkable imagination and adaptability shown during the pandemic, each of us must concentrate now our energies on reshaping every aspect of our church life.

The General Assembly is taking place largely online with very few people in the hall Picture: Andrew O'Brien

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"We have streamlined the central administration, but that will be for nothing unless we complete the work of reforming our presbyteries as the planners of mission and implementing a radical reshaping of the local church around a realistic and affordable number of ministries.

"We have reduced central costs by 30 per cent and we will use £11 million of our reserves this year and at least a further £5m in the coming year to reduce pressure on congregations and help recovery from the pandemic."

But the Assembly agreed to suspend for two years a review of the Kirk's headquarters at 121 George Street, which could lead to a recommendation to sell the building.

Assembly Trustees convener the Very Rev Dr John Chalmers Picture: Andrew O'Brien

Dr Chalmers said nothing pained him more than having to propose the delay.

"It's an issue that's been around for too long, but we have to accept there will be new ways of working beyond this pandemic and we have to know what kind of premises we will need when we move into a blended way of working.”

Property values were also “up in the air”.

He said no more than £100,000 would be spent on essential repairs before the end of 2022. "By then we should have a clear indication of what our future plans are for staying or going or developing - heaven forfend - 121 George Street."

The General Assembly opened on Saturday with some of the usual pomp and ceremony Picture: Andrew O'Brien

The Rev Michael Goss from Carnoustie voiced "deep disappointment" at the delay. "If we manage not to spend more than £100,000 I will be surprised. Old buildings have a habit of needing money spent on them."

He suggested the church could have decided to rent office space while working out what would be needed long-term – "not finalising the space we will have, but getting rid of the old space in the meantime".

Assembly voted 254 to 221 to approve the Assembly Trustees’ decision to suspend the review and operate a basic maintenance programme.

The Rev Bryan Kerr from Lanark challenged the amount of money paid to outside consultants, which he said was £570,000 in 2018 although now reduced.

"We know the church is facing a challenging financial time, we know there has been a voluntary exit scheme where we have lost a number of key staff.

"Please can we try and make sure we have less reliance on outside contractors and more reliance on the skills and talents of the people within our staff, the ministry and the eldership and wider membership of the church?"

Dr Chalmers said there would always be a need for outside expertise but claimed the church's running costs were well within those expected of any charity.

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