The Presbytery Clerk on the themes of the 2021 General Assembly
The 2021 General Assembly began on Saturday 22nd May with a small number of participants in the Assembly Hall and the vast majority of Commissioners, Overseas and Ecumenical Delegates, and Youth reps at home and on Zoom.
The outgoing Moderator, Very Rev Dr Martin Fair gave an impassioned speech on the work that the Kirk still has to do in the light of the inequalities and suffering that we see around us. It has so often been remarked upon that Dr Fair was the ideal Moderator for this strange year of a Pandemic, being a pastor to the pastors, and supporting the life of the Church in so many ways.
The Assembly installed a new Moderator, the Rt Hon Lord Wallace of Tankerness QC, Jim Wallace, an elder and former Deputy First Minister in the Scottish Executive. We look forward to welcoming the Moderator on a Presbytery visit in October of this year.
On Saturday the Assembly was also pleased to hear from the Lord High Commissioner Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge and Earl of Strathearn. His Royal Highness was supposed to serve in the role at the 2020 General Assembly, but this was cancelled due to COVID-19.
The Pandemic is never far from our thoughts and the Social Care Council report reminded us of the tremendous care and sacrifice offered by CrossReach Staff in these extraordinary circumstances. The inequalities thrown up and exacerbated by the Pandemic were also highlighted by the Faith Impact Forum report which also gave much attention to the climate emergency that we face and the ways in which we might engage with the lead up to COP26 in Glasgow this November. Disinvestment in fossil fuels remains a subject of debate but has nevertheless taken a step forward this year.
Much of the time of this online General Assembly has however been taken up with the report and supplementary report of the Faith Nurture Forum and the report of the Assembly Trustees. Agreement is now in place to aim towards 600 ministries posts plus 60 vacancies by 2025. The new Mission Plan Act has been agreed, and with guidance on its implementation due out towards the end of June, all Presbyteries are expected to begin work on new Plans from the end of June. Plans are all to be in place and agreed by the end of December 2022. As of 1 June all current Presbytery Plans are suspended, though some vacancy processes may be able to continue. Also agreed was an allocation of ministries posts to all Presbyteries. Edinburgh will see a reduction from the 2011 figure of 78.2 to 48.5.
All of this clearly means a time of change and upheaval, a reshaping of the ways in which we are church as we seek to operate in a more financially constrained environment and in a future that sees a large proportion of ministers of Word and Sacrament enter retirement. Yet there has also been stated time and again this week a commitment to ecumenical working and sharing the task of ministering to all parts of Scotland alongside our sister denominations. In this task we were much encouraged by the statements of our Ecumenical Delegates and there is clearly a real willingness to find ways to work and serve together. Also of encouragement was the commitment by the Faith Nurture Forum to offer new training modules from January 2022 that will be accessible to individuals and groups within congregations, to offer learning and training opportunities and ways for the whole people of God to better share in ministry.
One significant change for our Presbytery is that from 1 January 2022 we will be part of the new Presbytery of Edinburgh and West Lothian as our Overture to the Assembly was received and an Act uniting our two Presbyteries was agreed on Saturday. Work continues apace to work out the shape and life of the new Presbytery and we are grateful to the joint Steering group for all their work on our behalf.
After many years of discussing civil partnerships and same-sex marriage the Assembly took a step towards permitting ministers and deacons who wish to be so authorised to conduct same-sex marriages. This is subject to the Barrier Act procedure and will be discussed by the Presbytery towards the end of 2021.
Presbytery and Kirk Sessions will this year reflect upon the Report of the Special Commission on the Effectiveness of the Presbyterian Form of Church Government and there is also a plan for a larger-scale conference to help us all across the Church attend to the points raised in the report.
As I write the Assembly has one more day to go and a number of reports to be discussed. Many other issues have been to the fore this week and this is simply a brief overview of some of the Assembly’s business. One point of real encouragement was hearing the Guild report and the fact that the Guild has raised more than £638,000 for life-changing projects over the last three years. Many will find an online Assembly lacking in some of the characteristics they enjoy of gathering in person, not least the opportunity to meet and talk with old friends. However the skill, patience, and hard work of the tech team and of the ‘top table’ must surely be acknowledged in enabling an open, participative discussion on the life of the Kirk. The Assembly is in their debt.
Edinburgh Presbytery Clerk
26th May 2021