20th May 2018

General Assembly - Saturday

 

General Assembly 2018 - Saturday Morning

by Laurence Wareing

Saturday 19 May: morning

Welcome to Edinburgh and the 2018 meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

It is with mixed feelings that we bring you this first summary of the year’s business. The Reverend

Douglas Aitken, who recorded these podcasts for a decade and a half, died just before Easter this

year. The great breadth of experience and knowledge of the Church worldwide that Douglas brought

to this work, and his fine speaking voice, is missed hugely. But he was deeply committed to the work

of the General Assembly and his spirit lives on.

The day’s opening worship commenced with the unique sound of unaccompanied psalm singing: “All

people that on earth do dwell, sing to the Lord with cheerful voice”; and the Moderator, the Right

Reverend Derek Browning, reflected on the Assembly’s theme: ‘Peace be with You’. Is there peace in

the Church? he asked. Where is peace in the world? During his year of office, he said, he

encountered many places around the world where communities and individuals wish to build

“longer tables and not higher walls”. He added: “with peace in our hearts, we can still speak of God

in a secular society”.

Dr Browning referred to the General Assembly as a “theatre of faith lived out loud”. The first part of

this morning’s session consisted, as ever, of well-honed ritual and formalities and, following worship,

Dr Browning presented the name of the Reverend Susan Brown, minister of Dornoch Cathedral, to

be Moderator for 2018-2019. Mrs Brown takes up the role exactly 50 years after the first woman

was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Church of Scotland: more about that

later in the week. Having consecrated Mrs Brown and handed over the Moderator’s ring and

pectoral cross, Dr Browning assumed the title ‘Very Reverend’; Mrs Brown becomes the ‘Right

Reverend’.

The new Moderator thanked the commissioners for electing her to the role, asked for continuing

prayer and referred to the “two very special Highland parishes” in which she has served. She then

called for the Queen’s Commission to her Lord High Commissioner to be read. The Lord High

Commissioner for this Assembly is His Grace Richard Scott, the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry.

He has been associated with a number of major institutions including, for ten years, as President of

the National Trust of Scotland.

Following the reading of the Queen’s letter, the Lord High Commissioner himself addressed the 842

Commissioners, Delegates, Guests and Youth Participants that make up the Assembly. He noted that

among the commitments that prevent Her Majesty being present in Edinburgh in person was the

marriage of her grandson in Windsor at midday today.

None of his Grace’s ancestors has held the role of Lord High Commissioner. He himself is an

Episcopalian and his wife a Roman Catholic. He spoke movingly, however, of those who have

inspired him by expressing their faith in different ways: among them the Church of Scotland minister

of his local church, the late Bill Scott, who he described as “the best and kindest of men”; and of a

local woman of exceptional courage, Ethel Walker, the inspiration for Sir Walter Scott’s character,

Jeanie Deans. When her 18 year old sister was condemned to death under a draconian law against

concealed pregnancies, Ethel put her trust in the Lord and walked to London, 350 miles, barefoot, to

find and petition the Duke of Argyle and the King for mercy.

“Our Faith, founded on the Holy Bible, brings us together today”, His Grace said, and he recalled Her

Majesty’s words at the meeting of Commonwealth leaders in April. She spoke of shared inheritances

which “help us overcome difference so that diversity is a cause for celebration rather than division”.

In the words of St John the Evangelist, His Grace concluded: “if we walk in the light, as he is in the

light, we have fellowship with one another.”

The Moderator thanked His Grace for his words and then invited the immediate past Moderator, Dr

Derek Browning, to give the Assembly a brief report on his year in office. He described the year as a

huge privilege and “outrageous fun”, and said that it had been marked by different images of bridge

building. Faith at its best builds bridges, he said.

He had spoken a blessing for the opening of the Queensferry Crossing across the River Forth. A

bridge, he said, connects people and places – they are concrete and steel parables of the

relationship between earth, sea and sky.

He met his holiness the Pope in the Vatican. He experienced the Pope as a man of immense grace

and kindness, and with a wicked sense of humour. It was a privilege to pray with him and talk about

situations in the world. One of the Pope’s titles is “Pontifex Maximus”, sometimes translated as

“greatest bridge maker” – the Pope is a bridge builder, Dr Browning said, between the poor and the

Church; between refugees and the Church; between different faiths. “His ability to be a bridge is

incredible.”

Finally, Dr Browning spoke about the work of CrossReach, the social work arm of the Church, and a

particular visit to a day care centre in Kilmarnock: Morven House. He met a man who was there on

his second visit; a man with low self-confidence. “This place is great,” the man told him. “So far,

nobody has judged me. I think they may be able to help.” Here was another bridge between a small,

caring church centre and a lonely, uncertain individual.

No doubt noting that the Assembly Hall gathering included Scotland’s First Minister and leaders of

local authorities from across the country, Dr Browning concluded with a plea to those in local and

national government, to take seriously the expertise that already exists within the Church. He said:

“We have been in the business of building bridges for generations. . . It’s not simply about ‘doing

God’; it’s about doing humanity’. . . We demand to share in the privilege of serving others alongside

government and charities and NGOs – and not to be excluded because of our faith profile. We have

tables to share”, he insisted. “We have bridges to help build.”

Following a short break, business resumed with the proposal and appointment of Ms Christine

Paterson as Depute Clerk. The Moderator was then invited to greet delegates and visitors from other

denominations and ecumenical bodies in the United Kingdom and from throughout the world.

Two visitors were invited to address the Assembly: the Revd Alistair McHaffie, a Church of England

vicar, who had started life as a member of a Free Church in Troon, on the West Coast of Scotland;

and on behalf of the overseas visitors, the Revd Rola Sleiman from the Evangelical Synod of Syria and

Lebanon. In 2017, Rola became the first female to be ordained to the ministry in the whole of the

Middle East. She was prevented from travelling to the Assembly last year; this year she stood before

commissioners to declare: “We are to be pioneers and not to submit to social conceptions.”

The report of the Assembly Arrangements Committee was presented by Ms Judith Pearson. She

outlined the demanding, multi-faceted role required of commissioners to the General Assembly, and

asked how the Assembly might be made more effective in carrying out its functions of law-making

and governance. She said that the Assembly needs to hear as many voices as possible, from all

commissioners (not just ministers!) from across all Presbyteries. As well as offering a range of

resources offered to help commissioners prepare for the Assembly, the Committee has proposed a

limit of five minutes on most speeches – including now allowing five minutes for the seconder of a

motion or amendment to speak. “It’s a small change,” she said, “but the intention behind it is to

allow more voices to be heard.”

A number of questions followed, many about appropriate use of money.

There was a question about the rates paid to commissioners, to which the convenor responded by

saying that these rates are always kept under review. One minister with a form of dyslexia said that

reading the Blue Book, the book of Assembly reports, was very difficult for her. She asked if there

was a way of producing an electronic version that can then be converted to a more appropriate font.

The Convenor promised to look at this. A question about the place of prayer in Assembly business

received a reply that the business has to be done, but that there are a growing number of ways in

which prayer is incorporated into the week – not least through Sunday’s Heart & Soul event in

Princes Street Gardens.

A former Moderator and Principal Clerk brought a new section of the deliverance, encouraging the

committee in its desire to publish a further volume of the Fasti (a list of ministers that extends back

to the Reformation) for the years 2000-2020 – there was a discussion about its value as an historical

document. The Assembly also considered the costs associated with the Moderator’s visits to

presbyteries, normally lasting ten days. The convenor accepted that there should be flexibility

around visits, which this coming year will be to the presbyteries of Hamilton, Kirkcaldy, Annandale

and Eskdale, and England.

The CEO of the Scottish Bible Society, Elaine Duncan, gave a report on the work of the Society. She

enthused about the million Bibles that have been distributed across the island of Cuba. She showed

an image of children queuing for Sunday School in Malawi, where the Scottish Bible Society provided

almost ten thousands Bibles for Malawi last year as part of a multi-year partnership with the Bible

Society in that country. Her team had met a local pastor whose Bible had fallen apart over time.

“How can I teach my church when I don’t have a whole Bible?”

Finally, the Scottish Bible Society has seen the Bible used in other parts of the world as a tool for

helping to heal trauma. Ms Duncan reported that the programme has now been introduced into

Scotland. She then turned to the Moderator and presented her with a copy of the Bible.

The next few items of business were quickly agreed and the Assembly was suspended for lunch, to

return in the afternoon for the reports of the Legal Questions Committee, the Council of Assembly

and a Joint Report concerning the resourcing of Local Church Reviews.

 

Saturday 19 May: afternoon

After lunch, the Moderator called for the Report of the Legal Questions Committee. The convenor,

the Revd George Cowie, said that this was the longest ever report included by the committee in the

Blue Book. This was because of the large amount of legislation that the committee had been asked

to review. He said that most of the work had been about paring down and consolidating existing

Acts in order to reduce their overall number. For example, three acts relating to ordination have

been consolidated into one. The convenor’s hope was that, as a result, members would find

legislation more accessible.

The committee asked the Assembly to approve a new Discipline Overture and transmit it to

Presbyteries for consideration under the terms of the Barrier Act. The new Overture draws together

existing Acts that deal with matters of discipline, bullying and discrimination into a “consolidating

and cohering Act”.

The Overture is the fruit of a four year project and a wide-spread consultation exercise. The aim is to

ensure that when discipline issues do arise, the best possible practice is followed by the Church. It is

hoped that measures should not be heavier than needs be or take longer than necessary. For that

reason, a three person commission is being replaced by a single assessor with an advisor. For that

reason, also, there will be an accelerated procedure for individuals who admit the alleged offence.

The Church currently meets the full legal costs for Ministers and Deacons facing disciplinary

procedures. Elders and other office bearers receive no support. Legal costs to the Church last year

amounted to a six figure sum. The Committee is anxious to create a new system of legal aid that is

less costly and offered on a more level playing field. All office bearers will be included under the new

legislation.

Following an instruction from the General Assembly of 2017 the Legal Questions Committee was

required to “undertake a study of the matters which would require to be addressed in any new

legislation permitting Ministers and Deacons to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies.” The

core of this report is an Opinion by the Procurator Fiscal, who is the Church’s independent advisor

on legal matters.

The report is not bringing legislation at this time but guidance, outlining the context within which

any legislation would have to be prepared if desired. The Opinion looks in particular at the

implications for the Church of the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977. A key consideration is the

preservation of “the rights of individuals who wish to abide by historic and current practice of the

Church in relation to human sexuality”.

The committee was asking the Assembly to note that this work had been undertaken.

Commissioners raised a number of detailed queries about the different areas of legislation under

revision: whether there would be sufficient safeguards for individuals within the proposals to reduce

legal aid; why should individuals be required to bring evidence of written legal advice in the event of

admitting guilt? The Convenor said that, since the Overture relating to discipline would be going to

presbyteries under the Barrier Act, there would be an opportunity for people to feed back comment,

and for small adjustments to be made where it was felt greater clarity would be helpful.

Turning to the deliverance the first nine sections were accepted without further discussion. At this

point, the Revd Bryan Kerr brought forward an amendment to the Deliverance instructing the Legal

Questions Committee “to prepare legislation enabling those Ministers of Word and Sacrament and

Deacons who wish to do so to be nominated to solemnise same-sex marriage ceremonies”, in light

of the Committee’s report and the Procurator’s Opinion.

One commissioner proposed that the Assembly ‘depart’ from Mr Kerr’s amendment without

discussion, in the interests of keeping the peace. A former Moderator said that peace would not

break out by ignoring issues that cause dissent. On a vote, the Assembly agreed to discuss Mr Kerr’s

amendment. He said that, though there had been much discussion over previous years about the

ability of ministers in same-sex relationships to serve the Church of Scotland, there are many

members of the Church who desire to be married to same-sex partners in church but don’t have that

option. He believed that the Church should be able to consider this possibility within the principle of

“constrained difference” established over previous years.

Mr Kerr’s seconder emphasised the anomaly of a broad Church able to accept ministers in same-sex

relationships but unable to bless such relationships. “Those seeking God’s blessing are waiting and

watching,” she said. Another commissioner proposed adding a caveat that legislation be prepared

only if the Committee finds that safeguards, in their opinion, sufficiently protect against the risks

they have identified. Supporting this, further speakers reminded the Assembly that the report had

indicated that Church legislation couldn’t be “future-proofed” against civil legislation. The Convenor

agreed that “future-proofing” was difficult but that “we have to be brave to do whatever we think is

right at the time”. On a vote, the amendment to Mr Kerr’s new section was accepted.

Returning to the now-amended section, one minister spoke about his two daughters, both married.

His heterosexual daughter had had the choice of asking him to either officiate at her wedding or to

walk her down the aisle. His lesbian daughter had no such choice. However, another commissioner

urged the Assembly not to “sleep walk” into the uncertainty that had been outlined by the

Committee. Yet another argued that no legislation will protect those who officiate at same-sex

marriages because it is “perception that creates disunity in a parish”. He said he’d be willing to give

up his right to conduct any weddings in the interests of the peace of the Church.

In an electronic vote 345 voted for Mr Kerr’s amendment and 170 against, so his proposal was

accepted.

Returning to the deliverance in the print, the Assembly passed an Act that will legislate for

attendance at meetings online or otherwise from a remote location. In a supplementary report, the

Legal Questions Committee sought to tweak standing orders and make a small amendment to the

Vacancy Procedure Act. The deliverance was approved virtually without comment.

The 2017 General Assembly issued an instruction that the Ministries Council jointly with the Legal

Questions Committee “consider issues that have arisen when implementing the Ministers and

Deacons in Civil Partnerships and Same-Sex Marriages Act. The Council had concluded that its wish

for change cannot be made through simple amendments to the current Act. Further theological

reflection is required. The Ministries Council asked to be discharged from the 2017 instruction, and

the convenor said the Council will bring a further deliverance next week outlining how it wishes to

proceed on the matter. Commissioners agreed with this approach.

Turning to the report of the Council of Assembly, the Convenor, Mrs Sally Bonar, said that, following

the success of the 2017 Together We Pray initiative, a further National Day of Prayer has been called

on 3 November 2018. However, she said that, while prayer is fundamental to our Christian lives, this

does not preclude good stewardship of our resources. Though she found the Council’s report

energising and appropriately challenging, nevertheless she recognised that human and financial

resources are declining. For instance, income from legacies has diminished sharply over the past few

years. “We must take account of that”, the Convenor said. A deficit budget has been recorded for

2018 and a deficit budget is projected for 2019. Sustainability will not be achieved without a

substantial change in how we manage our money, she warned, adding: “I have learned that how we

govern and steward our finances are an indicator of the health of the organisation and can be

leavers for change.”

In other areas: data protection legislation has taken up a lot of time this past year and the role and

work of a new interfaith officer had been taken forward. This latter topic will be taken up in detail by

the World Mission Council on Monday.

Dr. Robin Hill asked if the Council might affirm not only local and regional work but international

work also. The Convenor was pleased to affirm the international perspective. There was a question

about the funding of the Gender Justice Officer. Another commissioner noted that many local

congregations are drawing on reserves year on year and asked how many were running at a deficit.

The convenor promised to bring that information to a later session of the Assembly.

Addressing concerns about the possibility of confidential information being made public, a new

section to the deliverance was proposed by the deputy presbytery clerk of Dundee Presbytery. He

requested help to ensure that presbytery office bearers can fulfil their duties fully “whilst observing

best practice in relation to Data Protection principles”.

In the light of pressures on budgets, a former Moderator put the case for maintaining funding for

work place chaplaincy – which enables those who are engaged with the work of sharing the Gospel

to both support Christians and non-Christians alike working in sometimes stressful workplace

situations; and also to engage, challenge and judge the culture, morals and ethos of a place of work

in the name of Jesus Christ.

Finally, a Joint Report presented by a number of Councils and Committees, all with an interest in the

implementation of Local Church Review, asked for their working group to be discharged. The future

aim will be to align the process of Local Church Review with the Church’s strategic plan, to be

discussed on Monday.


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