It was not what I expected of a General Assembly, though I ought to have known that this gathering of the Church of Scotland would be an experience to always remember. Who will ever forget the lively music of tropical Steel Pans working up the gathering to rhythmic movement, lively unaccompanied singing or a 92 year Elder’s passionate speech on the deadliness of tobacco?
The Church of Scotland take welcome and hospitality seriously, which meant that we were reasonably well briefed, enjoyed “top of line” hospitality and were well taken care of. It was, however, another matter trying to discern the timings of business and when exactly the “breaks” were going to be. After day two the pattern became evident!
From the ceremony of the Keys at Holyrood House, the opening ceremony in the main hall of General Assembly, the address of the Lord High Commissioner, and the Sunday communion service, to the letter from Her Majesty and the debates, it was evident that this was an Assembly of a State Church steeped in a special history and with rites and rituals as a consequence of such a relationship. As a relative newcomer to the United Reformed Church my experience of the Church Scotland General Assembly has made me more conscious of the fact that we are a very small Churc and has helpd me to better locate the story of the national Synod of Scotland of the United Reformed Church within this context. I also need to note that I met many who are very appreciative and thankful for their Church’s partnership with the United Reformed Church (National Synod of Scotland). We are even mentioned in some of the reports, though there is that small matter of recognising David Livingstone’s Congregational roots!
I was impressed by the quality of the reports, the robust conversations and time given to ebates, the scale of the Church of Scotland engagement in mission and ministry, social justice engagement and the breadth of their partnership with the Reformed family at home and across the world. As with other Churches across the British Isles, hot topics included finances, pensions, sexuality, the nature of ministry and some theology! The fact that some of us had to work through the specific use of terms such as “deliverances, overtures, motions, counter-motions and petitions did not detract from our ability to follow the debates and even participate in some of these. I must note that I find the idea of “synchronised feet tapping” on the wooden floor to show the General Assembly’s acceptance of a “deliverance” fascinating! This literal “voting with the feet” (on some of the business) got me thinking further as to ways those of us who cannot use our feet well (or at all) may be able to participate in the tapping. The method did speed up the handling of business!!! And even more impressive is the “electronic” voting mechanism that efficiently gives instant voting outcomes!
The Rt. Revd Lorna Hood, moderator of the General Assembly did an excellent job, especially during the marathon session on “same-sex relationships and ministry”. This was where I thought that the Consensus Decision Making process (Church of Scotland style) would have enabled a more efficient process. I am sure the current work being done on Consensus by the Panel on Review and Reform would take this into consideration! The moderator is also an excellent preacher whose sermons tapped in on both the liturgical moment (Pentecost) and the mood of the General Assembly to offer words of assurance/hope, as well a calling on all to share of their faith deeply and confidently as they listen and hear each other’s distinctive voice.
I was delighted to see and hear the Church of Scotland in Trinidad Steel Pans. They journeyed across the warmer Caribbean Trade Winds, and in spite of the “cooler and damper” context, got the General Assembly rocking with familiar and unfamiliar tunes to a standing ovation. God must have a sense of humour to take me to Scotland to connect with “home” in Caribbean style. And then to discover that the minister in charge of the group is an old classmate from the theological college in Jamaica whom I have not seen for years!
A fixed feature at the Church of Scotland General Assembly over the years is the Heart and Soul event – an annual outdoor celebration of Christian life and worship from across Presbyteries and congregations. This was held from 1pm to 6.00pm at the Princess Street Gardens and culminated with worship. This “Kirkentag” (to borrow and adapt the German equivalent) is a brilliant idea bringing together over 5000 people! It was certainly Pentecost in the heart of Edinburgh: a lively and great witness of the Church. This, for me, was business proper!
I have met a host of wonderful, generous and committed people from Scotland and beyond. I left feeling excited by the many signs of hope around and impressed by the faithful, daring and pragmatic steps that the Church of Scotland is taking as she continues in the dance of faith and faithfulness of the Jesus way of full life for all. Let us continue to hold our sisters and brothers in our prayers!
I can hear your “tapping feet” agreeing to this!