RELIGION: Commissioners gather for ‘hybrid’ General Assembly in Edinburgh

Moderator Designate of the Church of Scotland. Rev Dr Iain Greenshields.

By Cameron Brooks

Ministers, elders, deacons and special guests are gathering for the first hybrid General Assembly in Edinburgh tomorrow (Saturday).

Meeting in-person and online, they will make key decisions that will affect the future of the Church of Scotland against the backdrop of major reforms and unprecedented challenges.

Around 400 commissioners from across Scotland and further afield will gather in the Assembly Hall on The Mound while 200 commissioners will take part online.

They will be able to participate in debates and vote on deliverances brought forward by the forums and committees of the Church.

People can watch the live proceedings on the Church website and Facebook page.

The first order of business is to officially install Rev Dr Iain Greenshields as the next Moderator.

He will chair proceedings from the Assembly Hall for five days until next Thursday and thereafter will act as the Church’s ambassador at home and abroad for the next 12 months.

Dr Greenshields, 68, has served as the minister of St Margaret’s Community Church in Dunfermline, Fife since 2007 and once installed as Moderator will be known as Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields.

The role will see him speaking out on issues important to the Church and its mission to follow and proclaim the example of Jesus Christ.

Speaking after he was named Moderator Designate, Dr Greenshields said: “I am honoured and humbled to have been chosen and I aim to represent the Church and God in a way that is positive, instructive and hopeful.

“There are a great many challenges facing our society today including poverty, mental health, social isolation, addiction and climate change and the Church is active in supporting those in genuine need.

“Ultimately the greatest need in our society is the spiritual vacuum that exists in the lives of so many.”

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will be invited to welcome an historic Declaration of Friendship with the Catholic Church in Scotland “that offers ‘a decisive and irrevocable statement of  friendship with one another, based on our shared faith in Christ.’ Lord Wallace QC of Tankerness, retiring Moderator, with Archbishop Leo Cushley. Picture by Andy O’Brien

Dr Greenshields succeeds Lord Wallace QC of Tankerness as Moderator.  An elder at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, he will supervise the passing of the ring and chain of office to his successor.

Rt Hon Lord Hodge, the Deputy President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, has been appointed Lord High Commissioner.

He said he is “delighted and honoured” to have been chosen by Her Majesty The Queen as her personal representative at the annual event.

Lord Hodge is unable to attend the opening day in person for health reasons but is expected to address commissioners via the video conferencing platform Zoom.

Over the course of General Assembly week, it is hoped that he will visit projects associated with the Church to show his support and provide encouragement and appear in the hall in person on the closing day to address commissioners.

The General Assembly will be invited to welcome an historic Declaration of Friendship with the Catholic Church in Scotland which is based on “our shared faith in Christ”.

The culmination of more than 100 years of ecumenical relationship building between the two denominations, it will be presented on Monday and has already been approved by the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

Commissioners will be asked to consider approving an overture to change a standing Church law to enable Ministers of Word and Sacrament and deacons to apply to become authorised celebrants to conduct same-sex marriages if they wish.

A report to the General Assembly shows that 29 presbyteries approved the “Solemnisation of Same Sex Marriage Overture,” with 12 voting against.

However, it has been made clear that no person 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.

The Faith Impact Forum will ask commissioners to approve Church actions on a wide range of global and societal issues.

They include exploring the use of digital technologies for congregations, highlighting work around drug use and recovery, a new glossary of Jewish and Christian terminology to aid interfaith relationships, gender identity and a call to ban conversion therapy.

Other topics that will be discussed include the war in Ukraine, ongoing work to support asylum seekers and refugees, advocating for better access to vaccines in poorer countries and progress on work to achieve a Net Zero Church by 2030.

Commissioners are expected to hear the Forum express regret over the part played in fuelling the frenzy around witch trials many centuries ago and learn about work to explore the legacy of slavery.

Other issues that will be discussed include the financial position of the Church and an update on an ongoing programme of radical reforms to streamline church structures.

The work includes reducing the number of presbyteries, undertaking a large-scale review of Church buildings and developing new and creative mission plans that can be carried out with 600 full-time ministries supported by local elders and members.

A report from The Assembly Trustees’ (ATs) recognises the heavy burden that ministers have carried in championing reforms amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

It includes detailed proposals for Giving to Grow, a new finance system based on the actual cost of a Minister of Word and Sacrament which aims to build and strengthen the local Church.

To help congregations faced with higher contributions, the AT’s have created transition funding which will come from reserves.

The Seeds for Growth Fund, which had to be suspended during the pandemic, promises to invest up to £25 million over the next seven years to provide “new ways of reaching those generations that are missing from our pews”.

It will join the Pioneer Mission Fund and the Small Grants Fund, which is now entering its second year.

The Faith Nurture Forum will reaffirm the Church’s steadfast commitment to supporting the poorest people in society at the “heart of all that it does”.

The invaluable mission work of Priority Area congregations in areas of social deprivation has been commended in a report and commissioners are being reminded that supporting the most marginalised is the “gospel imperative of the whole Church, not just the Church in the poorest places”.

The General Assembly will be asked to consider approving a new Code of Professional Practice and Good Conduct for the Ministries of the Church as a standard to which all are expected to adhere.

Commissioners will also consider the total number of ministry posts to be allocated to presbyteries for the next five years, which is subject to annual reporting.

The Faith Nurture Forum said it remains committed to exploring opportunities to recruit dedicated and inspirational Ministers of Word and Sacrament and to expand training opportunities for a diverse range of believers.

The General Assembly will hear an update from the General Trustees, which hold 3,608 properties and 12,500 acres of Glebe Land on behalf of the Church and how they are contributing to presbytery mission planning to ensure that Church buildings are “well equipped spaces in the right places”.

Commissioners will get a progress report from CrossReach, the operating name of the Social Care Council which runs cradle-to-the-grave services, supporting some of the most vulnerable people in society.

They will be invited to commend staff for their continued efforts in dealing with the challenges of an ongoing pandemic and give thanks for their dedicated service in Christ’s name.

The report notes the financial impact of COVID-19 as it has affected service delivery, recruitment and fundraising.

It encourages congregations to adopt CrossReach as a charity of choice for the next year and beyond so that services can be maintained and developed.

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