By John Ellis
The General Assembly season has arrived. Before joining Irish and Welsh Presbyterian Assemblies either side of the URC one, I have had a full week at the Church of Scotland Assembly. My Chaplain, Nigel Uden, and I had ample breakfasts looking out over Edinburgh Castle.
Long days followed and some very familiar debates unfolded, with brevity not always their most evident characteristic. The number of stipendiary ministers is falling. The average age is rising and it is hard to find volunteers for jobs. The website is excellent in theory but sometimes crashes. Maintaining ministers’ pensions presents challenges. There are not enough staff in the Edinburgh offices to do everything immediately, or even by next Assembly. There is a lively group of youth representatives. There are deeply held but different views on what the Bible implies about human sexuality.
One major difference from a URC Assembly was the various consequences of being recognised as the national Church. The most visible difference was that the Queen is represented in the Assembly. This year she chose as her Lord High Commissioner HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex. He and the Countess of Wessex played an active role in proceedings attending worship and some business sessions as well as giving two thoughtful addresses to the Assembly, hosting a reception at the Palace of Holyroodhouse (with entertainment from a pipe and drum band of 150 teenagers) and going out on visits to church and community projects around the country. These included visiting the largest Boys’ Brigade company in Scotland.
The awareness of being a national Church was also reflected in the main Assembly service being held in St Giles Cathedral, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, where it was attended by a large number of official representatives of many different aspects of Scottish society from the military to the physicians, from the universities to the politicians. In policy discussions it put debates about the deployment of ministers in a different light from URC ones, as however many or few ministers the Church of Scotland has, there is a commitment to serve every geographical corner of the land.
This year the relationship with the state had a new dimension as the Church addressed the issue of September’s referendum on independence. A large scale listening exercise had been conducted around the Church to find out what members felt were the most important values for Scotland, within or outside the United Kingdom. At Assembly the main feature was a “Respectful Dialogue” when the Moderator, John Chalmers, chaired a discussion that gave representatives of both sides a chance to state their case and for comments from Assembly members, but which deliberately did not take a vote. From comments made it would appear opinion in the Church is fairly evenly divided.
Prince Edward thought the best word to sum up his week was “illuminating” and other first timers might agree. They might also agree with him that whatever the many internal challenges facing the Church, a very clear thread that emerged repeatedly was the way in which, in so many varied urban and rural settings, the Church and its agencies were making a positive difference in the local community. He thanked the Church of Scotland for its “fantastic work”.