Constitutions of the Kirk

The ‘Unitary Constitution’ and the ‘Model Deed of Constitution’

Kirks in the Church of Scotland have been governed largely by two constitutions: the ‘Unitary Constitution’ and the ‘Model Deed of Constitution’.

The kirks with the ‘Unitary Constitution’, known as quoad omnia (for all purposes) parishes, allow the single body of the Kirk Session and its constituent committees to oversee both civil and ecclesiastical issues, which include everything from property to pastoral care and from finance to vision for the future.

On the other hand, the ‘Model Deed of Constitution’, known as the quoad sacra (for ecclesiastical purposes), represents the separation of matters temporal and matters spiritual. Issues such as property and finance are taken care of by the Congregational Board (link), while the Kirk Session (link) is left to oversee the spiritual life of the congregation. This Congregational Board has been called by various names, as the churches in Scotland went through diverse divisions and unions: e.g. the Board or Committee of Management (in the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland) and the Deacons’ Court (in the Free Church of Scotland).

Great Union under an Act of Parliament 1921

The great union in 1929 of the Auld Kirk (the congregations which have never left the Church of Scotland) and the United Free Church of Scotland (the union of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland in 1900) brought to birth the modern day Church of Scotland. This was done under an ‘Act of Parliament’ (The Church of Scotland Act, 1921), which acknowledged that the Church was not ‘established by law’ but was established by the Lord Jesus Christ, and a nationally recognised constitution. This finally purged the Church of any interference by the State in all spiritual matters. The Schedule to the 1921 Act, the Articles Declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland in Matters Spiritual, spelt out the basis of the Church’s independence in ‘matters of doctrine, worship, government and discipline’. The Articles Declaratory also ensured that no one party or group or point of view could claim a monopoly of the truth.

Towards the Unitary Constitution

As recently as 2008, the General Assembly urged congregations, which were not already using the Model or Unitary Constitution, to review their practice and consider adopting one or the other. This was prompted by the need for local congregations to comply with the Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005, which placed upon members of Kirk Sessions, Congregational Boards, Deacons’ Courts and Committees of Management the additional responsibility of Charity Trusteeship. With this comes a far greater need for transparency and simplicity in governance. In that context, the provision of a written constitution for the congregation and a single agency responsible for governance is greatly to be desired. In order to comply fully with this burden of charity trusteeship, there has been a healthy trend towards the adoption of the ‘Unitary Constitution’. This arrangement provides the necessary written constitution, but at the same time, eliminates the possibility of Charity Trustees being constituted in separate meetings and coming to different views on matters of common interest.

The General Assembly of 2016, while not compelling every congregation to adopt the Unitary Constitution, decided that from 1st January 2017 the Delegation of Assembly would, in cases where a new constitution was requested, only issue constitutions in the Unitary form. So, it is that 2016 saw the very last issue of the Model Deed of Constitution.

Full overview on Constitutions of the Kirk

Further reading and resources