The General Assembly: a guide to what goes on
The General Assembly is the supreme court of the Church, and is its annual national business meeting. It has the power to make laws and set the agenda for the coming months or even years for the administrative councils, committees and departments of the organisation.
The Assembly was first held in 1560, the year of the Scottish Reformation which marked the beginning of the Protestant Church of Scotland as we now know it, and takes place each year at the Assembly Hall on the Mound - an imposing 19th century building in the heart of Edinburgh which was home to the newly reformed Scottish Parliament from 1999 until 2005. Learn more about our history.
The procedures and terminology used at the Assembly can seem daunting to those who are new to it, or even to seasoned commissioners, but it is an exciting time for the Church, providing a buzz of activity in the build up to the week-long event. Many who attend or watch or listen online to the live worship, speeches and debates are profoundly touched by the strength and warmth of fellowship within the Kirk at all levels of its organisation.
The General Assembly comprises around 850 commissioners who are ministers, elders and members of the diaconate (a form of ordained ministry) from across the Church's 48 presbyteries, which also include England, Europe and Jerusalem. Visitors are also invited from partner churches and denominations from around the world.
Chairing the daily business is the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. When the Moderator has to be absent from the debating chamber, a former Moderator will take the chair.
While the position of Moderator Designate is announced early each year, it is up to the Assembly to approve the appointment. Moderators can be male or female and ordained ministers, deacons or elders. The Moderator Designate for 2013 to 2014 is the Rev Lorna Hood.
The Lord High Commissioner, or Queen's Commissioner, is appointed by the Queen as her representative at the General Assembly and attends daily business as an observer. The Lord High Commissioner for 2013 will be the Right Honourable James Alexander Douglas-Hamilton, Baron Selkirk of Douglas, PC, QC.
Reports, deliverances and debates
The Assembly's reports are printed each year in what is known as the Blue Book. Each resolution for action in these reports is called a deliverance and the commissioners have the right to debate and amend these deliverances prior to voting on them. Sometimes the debates can be complex with many votes taking place about one issue, even down to the minutia of how a deliverance is worded. As the deliverances dictate how the Church of Scotland will operate, debates are an important part of business and enable commissioners to vote as their conscience tells them.
Getting to grips with Assembly terminology
One of the most confusing aspects of the General Assembly can be the range of legal language and Church terminology used. Here are some of the main terms you are likely to hear during the week:
The report: this provides the overview from each council or committee about their work over the past 12 months, and highlights future plans and direction. This report is officially delivered with a speech to the Assembly by the convener or chairman, prior to approval being sought on the report's deliverances. Sometimes the Assembly will also ask a council or committee to report back on a specific subject, or set up a committee or commission to consider an issue of importance to the Church.
Deliverances: each report to the General Assembly contains a number of deliverances which commissioners vote to approve, amend or reject according to personal conscience. These deliverances set the agenda and direction for each council or committee over the coming year and can change or establish new Church law.
Motions: commissioners can propose motions from the floor of the Assembly about the report currently being discussed. Motions, like deliverances, are for commissioners to approve or reject and are offered as an alternative to the original deliverance proposed in the report. Motions belong to three categories:
- Counter-motion: counter-motions are brought by commissioners from the floor. They are contradictory proposals to the deliverance. As there can be more than one counter-motion to each section of the deliverance, no vote is taken on them until the whole discussion is closed and all counter-motions have been brought before the Assembly.
- Amendments: are proposed deletions, alterations or additions which are not substantially different from the original deliverance contained in the report. In effect therefore the original deliverance is more or less acceptable but the commissioner proposing it will have a comparatively minor change to 'improve' it.
- Addendum: this is a form of amendment but differs slightly in that the proposer fully accepts the original deliverance with no changes as far as it goes but wants it to go further with an addition. An addendum does not change the meaning of the deliverance but just adds a slight section, normally by just a word or sentence. Sometimes an addendum adds a whole new section to the deliverance, without changing the wording of any existing part of it.
Overture: this is a method by which one court of the Church (for example a presbytery) brings a matter before another (e.g. the Assembly). Once the matter has been introduced, it is debated just like the reports - already described above. Overtures are printed in the Order of Proceedings booklet.
Petition: this is a mechanism by which any individual or group can bring before the Assembly a matter that affects them personally, asking the Church to take action. When their business has been introduced and questions asked of them, the petitioners take no further part in the debate, and the Assembly can dispose of the matter in any way it wishes.
Keep up to date with what's going on
If you are not attending to the Assembly, you can still keep in touch with what's going on. You can connect to our webcast site to watch it live, see archived highlights, or listen to a summary of the day's proceedings.