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A brief summary of proceedings, from Mike Goss, will be posted after each day. Thanks to Mike for this.

Day 1 - Saturday 21st

Days 2/3 - Sunday 22nd and Monday 23rd

Day 4 - Tuesday 24th

Day 5 - Wednesday 25th

Day 6 - Thursday 26th

Thursday is Chaplains’ Day, when the uniformed ranks of Armed Forces Chaplains gather to be celebrated by the Assembly.  It’s an easy section of the agenda, as Chaplains, and the service personnel and their families supported by them, are warmly appreciated by the Assembly.  This year particular emphasis was again laid on the need for more Chaplains and especially Reserve Chaplains with the growing use of Reservists in the Forces.  The Committee was instructed to work on the format of the Armed Forces Covenant to which the General Assembly can subscribe next year.

Following an address by the Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Jonathan Woodcock OBE, the Assembly moved on to the report of the Mission & Discipleship Council.  For the past four years this has been ably led by Rev Colin Sinclair, who has done a powerful job in turning the Council round from a difficult place.  Colin spoke about the resources produced by the Council, and the work done on the Invisible Church.  He noted the tragic statistic that 20% of our congregations have no children’s work going on at this time.

A Notice of Motion had been printed in the Daily Papers to instruct the promotion of congregational learning and awareness of the issues transgender and gender non-conforming people experience.  This could have been seen as a means of starting another liberal/evangelical ding-dong, but instead was supported across the spectrum as an important means of providing pastoral care to a particularly vulnerable group of people, in spite of the Convener’s reluctance to add to the Council’s workload.

It was a long report that stretched on into the afternoon, with many comments and questions, along with quite a few extra sections to the deliverance.  Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions were encouraged to make use of the wide variety of resources produced by the Council; funding is to be offered by Sessions and Presbyteries to help young people attend the National Youth Assembly.

Finally Colin was allowed to finish his term of office and hand on to Rev Norman Smith, who should receive the support of our prayers for a continually challenging post.

After the report of the National Youth Assembly, with predictable calls for youth delegates to be given voting powers, the report of the Theological Forum finished another long day.  Rev Professor Ian Torrance made a defence of his position on restricting who can preside at the Lord’s table.  Rev Professor Andrew McGowan took up his anxiety about the lack of an evangelical voice on the Forum and was given a guarantee that the Convener would work out a strategy with him.

Rev David Torrance attempted to get the Assembly to instruct the Forum to depart from the intention of bringing a report on Same Sex Marriage to next year’s Assembly in order to give the Church some breathing space, but this was defeated by 230 votes to 131 – the low numbers indicating the decline in attendance by 6 pm, as the Session of Assembly was closed.

Wednesday morning began with the arrival of the bones of the Archbishop of Canterbury – fully clothed in flesh and bone, and very animated.  The Most Rev Justin Welby was welcomed into the Assembly Hall and invited to sit at the reporting council’s table for the duration of the Report of the Ecumenical Relations Committee.  I couldn’t help wondering, as the debate wore on, whether the ‘honour’ weighed a little heavily on the poor man!

What the Archbishop had to say was well worth listening to – a significant emphasis on Jesus Christ at the heart of our worship and witness; the challenge of what do we do now; noting that doctrine is not sufficient – but it is essential.  In a strong bid to mend fences, Justin took personal responsibility for the earlier rift with the Scottish Episcopal Church over the Columba Declaration, and made a fulsome apology.

It was encouraging to hear such a prominent – and eloquent – Church leader speaking of the importance of unity and witness to the one Lord Jesus Christ, to hear of him recognising the sufferings of the persecuted Church, and stating that in Christ we have the good news that is the only way.

It was inevitable, after several warm speeches in favour, that the Columba Declaration would be approved and, to my mind, this presents us with greater opportunities for standing together with evangelicals South of the border in mission and service.

Other Church relationships were not so positive.  It was noted early on that talks with the Free Church had ceased in 2009, and the Moderator of the United Free Church gave warning that we should not underestimate the difficulties we face in relationships since last year’s decision on Civil Partnerships.

We then faced a long debate before lunch on the matter of the Council Secretaries.  In spite of substantial concerns expressed on the floor of the Assembly, a motion to set up a Committee to report to a meeting of the Commission of Assembly on the governance and management issues was eventually (and narrowly) defeated in the face of assurances of proper processes and secure means of management in the future.

The Safeguarding report was on sure ground – questions for clarification, but everyone wants this to work, and to work well, but we were part way through the afternoon before the Ministries Council brought its report.  Commissioners are getting into the habit of making long speeches in the process of getting to a question, which prolongs matters before we can get into the deliverances.

In spite of a positive message on the Tomorrow’s Calling programme, it is clear that the whole church is concerned about falling numbers of Ministers over the next few years.  A lot of time was spent on the concept of Hub-style ministry, which could be a significant way forward for congregations in multiple linkages.

Substantial new pieces of work were agreed with the establishment and noting of Ministerial Development Review and Continuing Ministerial Development, which should provide support and supervision for our Ministries from Ordination to Retirement.

A move was made to re-open the question of manse provision, which was defeated, but it is clear that the issue of ensuring manse standards are maintained will be revisited – probably through the General Trustees.  Other issues, regarding Guardianship and pulpit supply were also considered and some taken forward.

It was a long day, finally ending just before six with the passing of a number of Acts without argument and by the end of the day the Convener seemed to be worn out.  We should pray for those who have to carry the responsibilities of our major Councils in the face of difficult issues.

Newspaper headlines were full of statements that Gay Marriage had now been approved by the General Assembly – while a long way from the full picture, it indicates the kind of confusion about the Church’s position as far as wider society is concerned.  Many Ministers will be having to seek to explain the Church’s decision to their congregations on Sunday, and Elders, Ministers and Deacons to the Kirk Sessions on which they serve.

Please pray for them – and for the many members who will be wrestling with the issue in their own lives and wondering how to answer the questions of folk outside the Church or in other denominations.  CFS will continue to speak up for Biblical truth and the reformation of the Church in the public arena and in the life of the Church.

Sunday afternoon saw the Heart & Soul event in Princes Street Gardens – thousands gathered once more, a lot of good Christian witness, and the opportunity to meet up with friends while wandering among the exhibitions.  Speaking personally, I find this a massive improvement on the Garden Party and a much better way to show-case the life of the Church in the heart of the city.

Following Communion on Monday morning, the Assembly moved on to the World Mission Council report.  Congregations were encouraged to send a representative to a conference on the theme of care for creation planned in collaboration with others.  This should be a serious issue for involvement from all wings of the Church.

The report was punctuated with contributions from delegates and visitors from around the world, particularly on the tragedy of South Sudan, where a glimmer of hope can be seen at this time.  A delegate from Lebanon spoke of the torture and killing of Christians in his homeland.  The Assembly also encouraged congregations and presbyteries to hold a 24th of the month event to learn about, and pray for, the work of partners in the Holy Land.

The work of CrossReach – the Social Care Council – was the next report, highlighting the work that had been done to get close to balancing the budget, but also the need for more than a million pounds to meet the costs of the National Living Wage from October.  It is clear that this work is hugely respected by the whole Church, and the scale of the care provided is larger than any other social care agency in Scotland, second only to entire state sector as a whole.

Monday closed with the report of the Panel on Review and Reform.  Some discussion on the possibility of broadening out those who might preside at sacraments was met with initial rejection by Rev Prof Iain Torrance, Convener of the Theological Forum, but several speeches and motions later in the debate clearly showed that the Assembly expected the Forum to be much more open-minded in its consideration of the issue.

The main work of the Panel continues to be the Path of Renewal process which it hopes will bring change to the way congregations and ministries work throughout the Church over a period of many years.

Tuesday always used to be Church and Nation Day, and it is still the day for the Church and Society Council’s report, the last to be given by Rev Sally Foster-Fulton as she completes her term of office as Convener and focuses on her new job heading up Christian Aid Scotland.  But, in the background, has been some business left over from Saturday’s Council of Assembly report, and talk away from the Assembly Hall has included the question of two new major church appointments.

Earlier this year a nomination was made for the position of Secretary to the Council of Assembly, to take up the post following the retirement of Pauline Weibye, who has done an excellent job as the first holder of this post.  That meant that the individual's post as Secretary of the Ministries Council would fall vacant, and a recent announcement was made that a particular individual would be appointed to this role.  This individual is in a close personal relationship with the new Secretary to the Council of Assembly and questions have arisen about line management and conflict of interest issues. There has been a lot of discussion among the various Conveners and other Commissioners since this became apparent.  In order that every aspect of this process is done, and seen to be done, in a proper manner, there will now be a debate on Wednesday morning, with a new commission being proposed to see how this can be sorted out.

Returning to Church and Society, the Assembly spent a substantial time debating the corporal punishment of children, and, after stories about jeely jars and smacking and lengthy debate on the rights and wrongs, the Council’s motion seeking to recognise that corporal punishment of children is violent and damaging to mental and physical health was narrowly approved.

On Climate Change, an attempt by the Rev Dr John Cameron to discard the broad scientific consensus on man-made effects on climate change was roundly thrown out, but there were a number of difficult discussions, trying to work out the details of disinvestment from fossil fuel companies and how best to influence these companies.  A motion on fuel poverty led to a plea for more urgent upgrading of poorly insulated and heated manses.

After lunch a group of school children and their teacher and head teacher were welcomed and presented with the Stevenson Prize for Religious Observance – this is a significant continuing encouragement of partnerships between Chaplains and schools.

The session concluded with the report from the Guild, which was encouraging but uncontroversial, and the report of the Iona Community Board, looking for funding for major work at Iona Abbey.  Afterwards, a public meeting was held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women to the Eldership – noting that 54% of Elders are women, and the recent Church Census showed that 54% of those attending churches are women – a neat match.

Saturday began with the Rev Dr Russell Barr’s installation as the new Moderator.  After the opening ceremonies, the first business was the Assembly Arrangements Committee.  This included the trailing of a major overhaul of Assembly business and moving the date to the second week of June – not without concern for some academic communities, but it was good to be able to welcome the engagement with the wider Church in this process.

In the absence of Elaine Duncan, David Laing presented the excellent Bible Society report, focusing on the need to bring God’s Word to every one through translation, distribution and engagement. The aim was for all to have a bible in a language they can understand, in a format they can access and at a price they can afford.

The Returns to Overtures report focussed on the Overture amending the Ministers and Deacons in Civil Partnerships Act.  There was an excellent opening speech from the Rev Prof Andrew McGowan outlining our Biblical, Theological and Confessional roots, and others also spoke strongly in terms of being true to Christ and the Scriptures.  The Very Rev Dr Bob Thomas from Australia highlighted the division this proposal would bring from his own denomination, and others also pointed to the damage this process was doing to our ecumenical relationships.

The debate, however, was abruptly brought to an end and a vote was held – out of approximately 610 voting commissioners present, the vote was For: 339 and Against: 215, meaning that the Act permitting Ministers and Deacons to be in a Same Sex Marriage was approved.  A call for dissent was made and arrangements were made to allow people to record their dissent.

The change to the Act does not alter the Church’s position that Ministers are not allowed to conduct or solemnise same sex marriages. The Theological Forum is likely to bring a report to the 2017 General Assembly around the whole issue of the theology of same sex marriage.

That was only the morning session.  After lunch the Council of Assembly gave its report.  A new set of Roadshows was agreed to discuss the future of the Church, its ministry and its discipleship – this will be an important process with which we should all seek to engage.  There were serious warnings about the finances of the Kirk, with the note that income has stopped rising, and that this is not expected to be a blip – but that the shortage of Ministers will enable us to adjust future budgets to fit.

The Legal Questions Committee brought a number of new pieces of legislation to Assembly, but the most contentious was the Registration of Ministries Overture, which sought to provide a kind of licencing of different kinds of ministry in the Kirk – Parish, Chaplains, OLMs, Deacons, and Retired Ministers.  This Overture seeks to recognise the need to make sure that people are adequately equipped to return to Parish Ministry if they have been away from it for a period of time. There was a lot of concern about creating different ‘classes’ of Minister, but overall Assembly passed the Overture.

The notes in the attached PDF have been prepared as a prompt and an indication of many of the key points which will come up during the General Assembly. They should help us navigate the “Blue Book” and should be regarded as a helpful addition to it. We are grateful for the work which has gone into preparing this summary.

Each section of the Blue Book is listed under the day on which it will be discussed and certain salient points are highlighted with the appropriate deliverance or report number being given.

We would seek to participate fully in the Assembly and it is important that we are seen to do so – not being, or perceived as being, a negative voice from the sidelines. We should take every opportunity to commend and affirm the many good things which are taking place within the church.

Our contributions should be clear, succinct (so as not to try the patience of Assembly), gracious and they should express the principles that Covenant Fellowship Scotland believes God wishes to see demonstrated in the life, work and worship of the Church of Scotland.

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