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Submitted by Eric Smith on 9th June 2016

GA 2016 CoverAs Session Clerk in my own congregation, I was asked to report on the General Assembly - what follows are my personal reflections:

General Assembly week is a very busy week and it can also be quite intense. It is the opportunity to discuss and debate with the wider church on a number of topics. It is also a time when you can feel rather powerless as you see overtures and deliverances proposed, seconded, discussed and carried. Some you will welcome and others you will believe to be wrong.

The General Assembly of 2016 was no exception.

The church infrastructure is made up of Councils and Committees and each of these brings a report to Assembly – very briefly, I want to mention the main points from these reports.

The whole nature of Assembly was raised initially by the Assembly Arrangements Committee – location, timing, membership, frequency – the result was that a move to June is being considered and that the default position for the Blue Book will be electronic although print will always be available.

The Scottish Bible Society reported highlighting the continued need for the Bible – the life cycle of translation, production, literacy work, distribution, engagement and advocacy and the need for people to have “language they can understand, a format they can use, a price they can afford”.

The Council of Assembly reported on an overview of the Church with clear messages being heard about the pressures on income overall, the loss of membership (one average congregation per week) and the pressure on a reducing number of ministers. Local Church Review, the replacement for the quinquennial visitation was commended. A motion was proposed and passed regarding the capping of senior officials’ salaries, working at 121 George Street. Regional roadshows are being organised in 2017 for people to have their say.

The Legal Questions Committee brought forward a number of amendments and new acts including the Vacancy Procedure Act and the need for good Parish Profiles. The unitary constitution was to be the only way forward for new congregations or congregations changing their constitution – concern that not all trustees are involved in all decisions. No compulsion to change at present.

The main, and most emotive, discussion was about changes around registration of ministers – the replacement of the practising certificate – many were concerned that they would become “2nd class ministers” if they were not in parish ministry. The Convener was at pains to point out that this was not the case but that the changes were designed to help ministers stay current in church procedures and practices.

The World Mission Council had the theme of Care for Creation – focusing on the effect that our stewardship of the earth, or lack of it, was having on many Christians across the world. The “Build a House” project in Nepal was mentioned with 10 houses built so far and infrastructure work going on.

Representatives from various churches across the world spoke, including from South Korea where there is a long-term, ongoing, prayer ministry for folk in North Korea.

Another major focus across the world also picked up by Church and Society Council, was gender-based violence – particularly against women and particularly in India. It sometimes feels like we are part of a social or political organisation – it is good to refocus on why we are doing this – to honour and glorify God.

The Social Care Council reported on the great work which continues to be done by the Church of Scotland under CrossReach. The main pressures here are financial with the National Living Wage imposing a further £1m plus burden.

Consideration of the increasing incidence of dementia was noted and “Dementia Friendly Congregations” are to be considered going forward.

The Panel on Review and Reform considered how the ministry will be shaped in the future – congregations largely still look for a full-time minister but this is increasingly hard to deliver – OLMs are being more widely used.

The issues of how Elders could help were raised and a discussion on administering the sacraments was very lively. It was agreed overall that ministers may have to give up certain things and elders take on others. The panel was encouraged to take the lead in the ministry of the church – the word preached, discipline exercised and sacraments administered – don’t leave it all to the Theological Forum.

The Church and Society Council asked us to imagine a fairer more equal country and world and raised a number of issues which they felt needed to be addressed to achieve this.

Distancing from fossil fuel use, the abolition of parental rights to smack a child, were included (very narrow resultant vote).

Participation in the political process was encouraged and, rather controversially, encouragement to remain in the EU was highlighted.

The Ecumenical Relations Committee welcomed the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Columba declaration leading to closer ties with the Church of England was debated fully and accepted. There was an acknowledgement of the difficulties in relationships with the Presbyterian Church of Ireland and the United Free Church caused by recent Assembly decisions.

Safeguarding was highlighted as essential – we are well in control of this but ongoing vigilance will always be required – watch out for complacency.

There was a short discussion on the Named Person legislation but no real concerns expressed – perhaps surprisingly.

The Ministries Council reported on the Hub model of ministry and it is clear that this could potentially be the way forward for many areas across Scotland – practically how will this work? That is yet to be seen. A deliverance was moved and accepted encouraging Falkirk Presbytery to consider this for the Larbert area.

The Mission and Discipleship Council covered a wide range of topics and resources designed to support ministers and elders in their work – likening their job to “starting the swing going so that others can keep it swinging”.

Items about material for transgender and gender non-conforming communities, about immigrant congregations, the 2018 Year for Young People dominated the debate.

The National Youth Assembly reported on Engagement, Activism and Change in Climate Justice, Child Exploitation and Intergenerational Working (with the Guild).

The final topic I want to highlight, I have left for last, simply to avoid it dominating thoughts during this feedback – the issue of Same Sex Marriage. The Overture which had been passed to Presbyteries under the Barrier Act was brought back for approval and, despite clear scriptural reasons for not doing so and a number of contributions around the damage it was doing and would do to relations with other churches, it was approved by 339 to 215. Dissent was moved and recorded.

Later in the week an attempt was made to postpone the planned report on the Theology of SSM, which is due to come to Assembly in 2017, for pastoral reasons and to give the church a chance to focus on mission. This was defeated so we await next year’s Assembly with yet another SSM item preparing to dominate our work.