21st May 2018

General Assembly - Monday

 

General Assembly 2018 - Monday

by Laurence Wareing

3. Monday 21 May: morning

Over the weekend, the Assembly spilled out into the streets of Edinburgh – or, strictly speaking, its

gardens. On Saturday evening, to mark the Year of Young People, there was a special event for

anyone who felt young – in Princes Street Gardens, featuring the Manchester-based Christian band

LZ7 and, as guest speaker, the Youth Moderator, Robin Downie. Then, on Sunday afternoon, the

annual Heart & Soul event was rolled out with much more music and, this year, amongst others,

broadcaster and writer Sally Magnusson; Louise Macdonald, CEO of Young Scot; and Dr Margaret

Forester, talking about 50 years of women’s ministry in the Church of Scotland.

And there were bubbles to blow, also – lots of bubbles – for young and old alike, including – once

she got her hands on a bottle of them – an enthusiastic Moderator.

In the morning, the Moderator had preached at the Assembly service at St Giles High Kirk before

going on to participate in the Gaelic Service at Greyfriars Kirk.

It was worship that also preceded this morning’s business: a service of Holy Communion – always a

reverent and moving occasion, symbolic both of the presence of God at the heart of the Church’s

conversations; and of the fundamental shared faith of all present, whatever their differing

viewpoints may be.

During initial business announcements, one youth delegate requested that at future Assemblies,

non-alcoholic wine and gluten free bread might be made available. He said that he’d just helped to

distribute the communion elements but had not been able to receive them himself.

A reply to the Queen’s Letter, received on Saturday, was read out by the immediate past Moderator,

the Very Revd Dr. Derek Browning. This was followed by the Report of the World Mission Council.

The Council’s work is about making connections worldwide, especially with partner Christian

churches. This year’s report focussed on conversations across faith boundaries. (It’s worth noting

that a key objective of the Council of Assembly’s strategic plan, to be debated later, also focuses on

“connecting people”.)

The Convenor, the Revd Iain Cunningham, asked whether the voices of our international church

partners are the only voices we should listen to. Is it possible, he asked, “that sometimes it may also

be good to talk… and even better to listen… to those whose whole understanding of the world, and

of God, is often very different from ours?” He said that interfaith dialogue is not an optional extra

but at the heart of our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. For Jesus, he said, there weren’t any

“no-go areas” or any “untouchable” people.

“There really is no point in saying ‘Peace be with you!’ if we do nothing to help build that peace”, the

Convenor said, adding that “interfaith engagement, where we begin to listen to, and start to

understand, one another is one component of that process. One particular interfaith initiative last

year enabled five young Scottish Christians and five young Scottish Muslims to travel together to

Rwanda in order to learn about peace and reconciliation.

Over the years, the Convener himself has travelled on the Church’s behalf to a number of countries

where conflict and violence has been rife – most recently with the present Moderator to Gaza, days

before the beginning of the Right of Return protest marches that have led to the killing of dozens of

Palestinian protesters. He said: “While in all of these cases religion was only one factor in a

complicated mix of issues, the religious differences were in each case significant and cynically

manipulated.” Interfaith friendships matter, he argued, because the logic of our Christian faith

demands it; because the example of Christ demonstrates it, and because the world in which we live

here and now desperately needs it.

Finally, Mr Cunningham showed off his kilt and advertised a new official, registered Church of

Scotland tartan. The World Mission Council, in partnership with Lochcarron of Selkirk, designed it.

He said it represents peace well in the interweaving of its colours and he hopes it will be used for

gifts when visiting partners and congregations overseas – and he presented the Moderator with a

tartan stole.

In the questions that followed, the Revd Alan Sorensen asked for advice on beginning interfaith

dialogue locally. The Convenor said that resources are bring considered and he mentioned the

recently appointed Church of Scotland Interfaith Officer. But we can begin with our own neighbours,

he said. Later in the debate, the head of Christian Aid in Scotland added that the most powerful way

to develop interfaith relationships is “to do” things together in the community. She said, “One of the

best ways to build bridges is to walk on them together”.

The Revd Graham Finch asked what the Council is able to do about Pakistani Christians who have

fled from persecution to live in hiding in Bangkok. The Council is aware of the situation. It’s difficult

to get engaged directly in such situations, the Convenor replied. Normally this is the work of the

partner Church, though in this instance the Church of Christ in Thailand is also finding it difficult to

respond.

Mrs Kate Aspinwall spoke on behalf of the Palestinian Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center

based in Jerusalem – “Sabeel” means “the way” or a spring of life-giving water. Sabeel seeks justice

through non-violent means, and liberation from unjust structures. Every Thursday at noon, a

communion service is held in its offices in Jerusalem – preceded by the distribution of prayer points

to enable others across the world to engage with Sabeel’s concerns.

Mrs Mary Musallam brought greetings from the Tent of Nations farm above Bethlehem, which Dr

Derek Browning had visited during his moderatorial year. For 27 years, she said, “we have lived in

hopelessness and frustration, pain and fear” but the resolve of the organisation remains strong and

she invited commissioners to visit. The Convenor said that the Assembly has often expressed its

admiration for the Nassar family that owns the Tent of Nations – it is “a light that shines in great

darkness”. Later, in response to a plea that commissioners pray for Palestinians to be recognised as

people and as ‘a people’ by Israel, the Convenor responded by saying that the UK Government

should recognise the State of Palestine as part of the process of creating a two-state solution.

A commissioner from Kingussie spoke about a year she spent living in Pakistan – the most

informative and developmental period of her life. Pupils of her local school had visited their twin

school in Malawi, as they do regularly; but this year visiting one of the Church’s mission partners in

that country – an experience that she recommended to others travelling overseas.

A number of overseas visitors offered insights into the contexts from which they had come, often

offering real gratitude to the Church of Scotland for its support over the years. The Revd Lee Jae

Cheon from the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea said that, during the Korean war, three

million perished, including Scottish soldiers – he said “the war is not over, just suspended”, and

spoke of proposed ecumenical cross-Asia peace initiatives.

The Convenor indicated that it is the Council’s aim to continue work in strategic areas from the

world – strategic in terms of church growth and in terms of the fault lines within human societies.

A commissioner from Haifa in Israel introduced himself as “a Christian Arab Palestinian Israeli” with

Swiss heritage! When his father established the House of Grace in Haifa, it was out of a growing

understanding that his task was not to “kick out his enemy” but to work with those in need,

including former prisoners. Even though Christians are a minority, he said, “we have a great message

to carry in the Holy Land.”

Christians are also a minority in Singapore. However, the Revd Kien Seng Lee argued that in the

midst of dialogue and social action, we must remember Jesus’ commission to his followers “to make

disciples of all people”.

Aftab Gohar, who lost his mother in a bomb blast in Pakistan, is a minister in Grangemouth. He

thanked the Council for its work in Pakistan against the blasphemy law. He said that the Asia

Secretary frequently visits Peshawar near the Khyber Pass, one of the most dangerous areas in

Pakistan, on behalf of the Church. “You are always there”, he said.

Turning to the deliverance, one minister proposed a new instruction to the Council. It raised the case

of Asia Bibi, sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy, instructing the council to seek the urgent

assistance of the UK and Scottish Governments in securing her early exoneration and release from

detention. Asia Bibi is a Christian woman accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed after

attempting to share water in a field with fellow Muslim workers. The proposer said that the

instruction added “a human face” to an important issue of what he called Pakistan’s “outrageous

blasphemy laws”. The instruction was accepted.

The Revd Stuart Duff spoke about a valuable learning experience in Nepal as part of his study leave.

He wanted to encourage other ministers to take opportunities to visit partners overseas to learn

about the work of God. His new section instructed the World Mission Council, with the Ministries

Council, to encourage such possibilities, and this was accepted by the Assembly.

Miss Tara Shannon, a Youth Delegate, had also been to Nepal to visit the ‘Let Us Build a House’

project in Nepal following the earthquake there. Her proposed new section instructed the Council to

make such opportunities available to people of all ages.

The Revd Jack Holt brought an amendment that commended “the on-going work of mediation and

trauma training with significant church leaders in South Sudan” and asked for prayerful support.

Rather than a drop in the ocean this was small seeds being sown, he said.

From South Sudan, the Right Revd Peter Gai Lual spoke about the need for God’s peace in a broken

world and added that people need material as well as spiritual support. “A hungry person is an angry

person”, he said.

Finally, the Very Revd David Arnott asked the Assembly to celebrate the centenary of the Evangelical

Church of the Czech Brethren, with whom the Church of Scotland has strong links. The Church has

lived through many crises and currently faces the staged withdrawal of funding from the State.

Commissioners didn’t get to the World Mission Council’s Special Report on Lessons for Scotland

from Christian Faith in Africa before breaking for lunch, but will turn to this later.

 

 

4. Monday 21 May: afternoon

Commissioners returned after lunch to take up the Special Report of the World Mission Council on

Africa. This follows the recent World Mission practice of focusing on one theme or geographical

area each year. But this year there was a specific task required: to understand the lessons to

Scotland that might be learned from Christian Faith in Africa. Much of the content of the report had

been written by or with members of partner churches in Africa, and today’s discussion took place

with the benefit of having some 20 visitors from different churches in Africa amongst the gathering.

Christianity is now rooted in the global south. 26 per cent of the global Christian population lives in

Sub-Saharan Africa, with that figure estimated to reach 40 per cent by 2060. For one writer, “the

global south is the new seat of Christianity”, with Pentecostalism being the dominant tradition –

active in mission work and evangelism.

The convenor, the Revd Iain Cunningham, said that it would be impossible to do justice to the

breadth, depth and variety of expressions of Christianity that you find in Africa in a single report.

However, what seemed most noticeable about African Christianity is its sense of confidence—not

self-confidence but a deep-seated confidence in the good news about Jesus Christ.

Moreover, he said, “the report reminds us that in the global South the normal state of the church in

the world is growth.” He suggested that there is a vibrancy and vitality to faith and worship, and

often also to Christlike service in the community, that is sometimes missing here in Scotland.

The Convener hoped that this was a report that would provide food for thought. Clearly it did, with

one commissioner describing it as an eye-opener. The Revd Alistair May said that the report was

“terrific encouragement” – he was thankful for the African communities from which we can learn,

and for God’s Spirit at work on that continent. “We need to learn confidence in the living God when

we see what is being done in Africa”, he said.

The delegate from the Presbyterian Church of Ghana thanked the Council for its humility in

producing the report. He was sad to see the decline in young people in the Church in Scotland and

said that “the Church in Africa is concerned for you”. Above everything else, the church is a faith

community, he added. If it is to grow it has to pay attention to its evangelism and outreach. The

Revd Bishop Chipasha Musaba from the United Church of Zambia added the Church in Scotland

needs to make some radical decisions in order to bring young people back into the Church.

One commissioner travelled to Africa in 1999, at a time when there was concern about declining

number of ministers in Scotland (“Does that sound familiar?” he asked) to try to understand how

four million members of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa were served by 320 ministers. He

learned that congregations were resourced through their lay members – who were themselves

resourced by theological education by extension. “How can we put in place a meaningful

programme of lay training to rise to the challenge of the hour?” he asked. The Convenor responded

with the observation that, thirty years ago, the Church of Scotland tried to learn the lessons of

theological education by extension but made it too formal and academic and, he said, “missed the

point”. Many commissioners appeared to agree.

With only small amendments, all designed to strengthen the report, the deliverance was passed with

a strong sense of approval.

The Council of Assembly then returned, bringing the outstanding items of its report – a draft

strategic plan and an interim report on proposals for the national offices. It was the strategic plan

that most people wanted to talk about first.

This was the product of around two years of consultation and development and offered “directing

principles for planning and prioritising short, medium and long-term goals for the life and work of

the Church of Scotland over the next ten years”. The convenor emphasised that some 2,000 people

have been involved in consultation events, personal discussion and email correspondence in the

plan’s development.

She referred back to the previous debate on lessons from Africa, saying she was struck by references

to “confidence” and “culture”. She believed that this draft plan would help the Church of Scotland

membership to feel more confident and to make decisions that are culturally appropriate to

Scotland.

The plan’s key objectives (“Worshipping God – Inspiring Faith – Connecting People”) were supported

by eight overarching goals: four designed to be enabling of people in the life of the local

congregation and four indicating ways in which the national bodies can support both the regional

and local church in terms of resources.

The Convenor concluded that “there is much to be done if we accept this strategy, but contrary to

what we might believe, the workers are not too few”.

Turning to questions, the Convenor concurred with the Very Revd Dr Derek Browning that much of

the plan is based on what is already being done in the Church.

One 35-year-old Elder asked how many of those who participated in the roadshows were between

25 and 40, and why “fellowship” had not been highlighted as important. “I miss fellowship with

others in my age-group in the Church”, she said.

The Convenor said there probably weren’t very many consulted in the 25-40 age group, though the

National Youth Assembly was consulted. She also said that just because the word “fellowship”

wasn’t used doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Another commissioner asked about the phrase: “People

will show deepening spirituality”. He asked how this might be measured. “Not everything that is

important is measurable but may be seen in the way we live out our lives”, the Convenor replied.

Another commissioner asked why measurable actions had not been identified in the plan. The

Convenor replied that the Council was not presenting an action plan, nor was the strategy a fait

accompli. It would need working out in terms of measurable actions. It would be up to the working

arms of the Church to decide how to enact the priorities.

A range of questions were asked about details considered to be absent from the plan: about specific

areas of work; about timescales; about benchmarking; about specific theological emphases; about

the difficulty for many of attending day-time meetings; and about the needs of small rural

congregations that simply struggle to stay above water.

Turning to the deliverance, the Revd Robert Allan brought forward a counter-motion comprising five

new sections, the first of which read: “Instruct the council to return to the General Assembly of 2019

with a radical action plan for 2019-2022 to achieve much needed reform within our Church.”

He argued that to accept the draft strategic plan would be to put another nail in the life of the

Church of Scotland. He said there is distrust of Church structures within the Church as well as out of

it; and the Council should be challenging the assumption that the Church changes slowly, not

accepting it. “We need structures lean and fit for purpose”, he said. “How can we change the world

if we can’t reform ourselves? What we need is a plan for radical change.”

The Principal Clerk advised the Assembly that if the opening section of Mr Allan’s counter-motion

was accepted then all the sections brought by the Council would fall. In that event, the following

sections of Mr Allan’s counter-motion would be examined one by one.

A former Moderator rose to say that he’d rarely read a report from any committee that had caused

him so much disappointment. He described it as “building castles in the air” and believed it was

depriving the Assembly of the ability to make decisions. “We need meat on the bone,” he said.

Other commissioners questioned the lack of detail – one of them summing it up as too much “what”

and not enough “how”. A plan stretching over a decade invites inertia; we need to act sooner, he

said.

The Revd Prof David Ferguson wanted to support the first part of Mr Allan’s counter-motion,

believing this would strengthen the hand of the Council of Assembly, allowing it to come back with

practical and structural measures; while the Revd Neil Dougall felt that commissioners were

struggling to work out just how change is effected in a Presbyterian organisation. There is a desire

for everyone to have their say, he said, but how would they get the radical change that Mr Allen had

called for? The Assembly is good at pulling things apart, he argued, but not good at crafting

something back together again. “We haven’t got a lot of time”, another added.

Drawing this section of the debate to a close, the Convenor reminded commissioners that it is up to

the Assembly to instruct a council what to do. If radical change is desired, she said, then radical

change can be proposed. However, radical proposals require radical decisions. Would an Assembly in

a future year be prepared to take those decisions? She added that work is already being done on

implementation and that if kirk sessions and presbyteries chose to use the Council’s plan in a radical

way, then “all power to them”.

In an electronic vote, 130 voted to proceed with the Council’s plan as in the report; 439 voted for Mr

Allan’s counter-motion.

The Assembly turned to the additional sections of Mr Allan’s counter-motion. However, a number of

commissioners were concerned that they were now being asked to vote on detailed proposals which

they had not had the opportunity to study in detail. In the light of this, the Assembly accepted the

Principal Clerk’s advice that Mr Allan’s sections and other related materials should be taken up at a

later point in the week’s business.

With this, the Assembly moved to a discussion of the work being undertaken in relation to the

Church’s national offices.

Options brought forward to the 2017 Assembly were still on the table:

 Basic repair and maintenance

 Refurbishment

list end

 Relocation

list end

One commissioner was concerned at the lack of speed on this issue, the money spent so far, and the

amount proposed for possible work in the future. Another commissioner urged the Council to look

urgently at the relocation option and not to confine its search to the city centres of Edinburgh,

Glasgow, Stirling or Perth. A deacon agreed, and said that downsizing and reducing our carbon

footprint would send positive messages to the wider world. The convenor responded to these and

other questions by restating that the Council had come to this year’s Assembly expressly because

there is a lot more work to do.

The Assembly accepted this remaining section of the Council of Assembly report and the session

closed with the singing of the blessing, “May the God of peace go with us”. With this, and the

Moderator’s own blessing in their ears, commissioners dispersed, to return tomorrow morning for

the report of the Ministries Council.


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