The Revd Nigel Uden, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, shares insights from the range of voices at the Church of Scotland’s Assembly
At the end of May, I attended the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Its welcome, hospitality and inclusion were remarkable, and, as on previous occasions, I am deeply grateful. I was privileged to bring the greetings of the ecumenical guests.
Richard Scott – Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, and Her Majesty’s Lord High Commissioner to the Assembly – described it as a ‘milestone Assembly’ for several reasons. Some reasons were due to domestic Church of Scotland matters – with which I will conclude this blog – but others arose from the contributions and experience of voices from other parts of the world.
Sylvia Haddad, from Lebanon, represented the Joint Christian Committee for Social Service (JCCSS). Over several decades, JCCSS has been offering educational and vocational training for Palestinian refugees in Beirut. As its chairman puts it: ‘For 71 years Palestinians have been waiting to go home.’ Until that day comes, JCCSS strives to ensure their opportunities are maximised.
The Rt Revd Alwin Samuel, Bishop of Sialkot, Pakistan, spoke of Christians’ vulnerability in a majority-Muslim state. The price of steadfast witness to Christ in such places reminds one of the Bible’s challenging injunctions – to be ‘faithful unto death’ (Revelation 2:10).
From Mozambique, the Revd Paulo Mucapele Joao addressed the Assembly in Portuguese that was all the more passionate for its understatement. We learned of the long-term impact of Cyclone Idai, and of the tiny dent that overseas aid will make in reconstruction costs. At the same debate, the Revd Sharon Hollis, from the Uniting Church in Australia, spoke of climate change and its devastating effect upon the Pacific islands. She echoed Mr Joao’s cry, that the climate crisis is literally killing communities. Conflicted as we all are, the Assembly agreed that the world is in a climate and ecological emergency, but differed from the United Reformed Church’s Mission Council in deciding that it is not yet the time to urge disinvestment from fossil fuel companies.
My own intervention in the debate emphasised the impact upon Mission Council’s deliberation of the voices from URC Youth and its Assembly, where the key word was ‘urgency’. Throughout the Assembly, the Church of Scotland’s young people were like our own – informed, participative and quietly vehement. Mindful that, at its best, the church is a community of all ages, the Kirk’s youth seek a participative place not just in debate but also in decisionmaking. I have witnessed to the significant contribution and difference that the inclusion of URC Youth makes to our own (URC) decisionmaking bodies.
There was an overwhelming mood for change in the Church of Scotland. The whole week was dominated by the call to be renewed in our following of Jesus Christ. The Moderator gave thoughtful reflections each morning, offering commissioners profound insight on what following Jesus is about, for individuals and as denominations.
The opening days of the Assembly received a report from the Revd Prof David Fergusson, who chaired a special commission that offered a radical action plan (RAP). It faces head on the Kirk’s declining membership, reduced ministerial numbers and financial constraints, and looks for a structure and governance that are better for today. The RAP’s aspiration is ‘to liberate the local church to be as effective as possible; build the capacity of the church at regional level to support local churches; and to streamline the national structures of the church, fulfilling tasks and functions which cannot sensibly and reasonably be undertaken locally or regionally’.
In his closing address, the Moderator quoted Machiavelli: ‘There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nothing more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to institute a new order of things’. He then went on to observe that ‘the pain of not changing is worse than the pain of doing so.’ As we had sung earlier in the week, so we concluded with the Scottish Paraphrase 48 (Romans 8): ‘Each future period [God’s love] will bless, as it has bless’d the past; He loved us from the first of time, he loves us to the last.’
Almost without exception, the Assembly’s business was profoundly similar to that of the URC’s. Differences of scale do not remove similarity of circumstance. We have much to learn from each other, and from our overseas partners. It only serves to emphasise the ecumenical imperative, so stressed in the Kirk’s RAP, and so central to the URC’s identity. We also have much to gain from renewing our trust in the One who ‘died but rose again, triumphant from the grave’. The One who ‘pleads our cause at God’s right hand, omnipotent to save’. (Words from Paraphrase 48)
Nigel Uden, 3 June 2019