General Assembly calls for more "radical" strategic plan

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has rejected the proposed strategic plan for the next decade, opting instead to order the Council of Assembly to return in 2019 with a more “radical plan.”

Sally Bonnar
Sally Bonnar, convener of the Council of Assembly, presents the 10-year strategic plan

Sally Bonnar, convener of the Council of Assembly introduced the strategic plan, Worshipping God, Inspiring Faith, Connecting People, saying it was the result of two years of work and a widespread grassroots consultation that had involved more than 2,000 church members across Scotland.

“Words which emerged here from people include change, fluidity, uncertainty, constant shifts. An impression of a constantly and rapidly changing landscape.

"This is not a comfortable position for the church where mechanisms for change are slow and thoughtful. In terms of challenges, none of these will come as a surprise to any of you.”

The plan, aimed to chart a course for the church for the next 10 years and to address the most pressing challenges facing the church including: reduced numbers in church congregations, missing generations of churchgoers, a dramatic fall in income, and the need to let go of surplus buildings.

During the sometimes volatile debate Rev Robert Allan brought a counter-motion calling for “a radical action plan for 2019-2022 to achieve much-needed reform within our church.”

Mr Allan criticised the strategic plan saying: “To agree to this plan would be to put another nail in the coffin of the institutional church…

“What we need is urgent, radical action. We have had 60 years of decline and it will be worse in 10 years.”

Outgoing Moderator Very Rev Dr Derek Browning added his voice to the debate, calling the report, “very thick on gloss and very thin on substance”, and saying he had “rarely read a report from any Council of this Assembly that has caused me so much disappointment…

“My fear is if the current plan proposed by the Council goes ahead this thin and insignificant plan will disappear back into the Council of Assembly and decisions about the future direction of the Church will be made by the Council and not this Assembly.”

The Convener, in response, said she had much sympathy with what had been said and agreed that the Church needs radical change. However, she believed rapid change is hard to achieve because of the complexity of Church views and structures.

Commissioners voted 439 to 130 in favour of Mr Allan’s amendment, meaning the Council of Assembly will now work to propose more radical reforms to be achieved in a shorter time.

Mr Allan’s other proposals, which include a suggestion that reforms be based on the 2017 Chalmers lectures by theologian Rev Dr Doug Gay, and proposals from five other commissioners were discussed on Wednesday.

The General Assembly passed Rev Robert Allan's proposal to:

"Instruct the Council to work collaboratively with other Councils, Committees and Presbyteries to bring proposals to the General Assembly of 2019 for structural change, consulting with the Rev Dr Doug Gay about the ideas contained in the recent Chalmers lectures and with other appropriate persons with expertise in the reform of institutions and structures, to enable a Church structure that is lean and fit for purpose to lead reform."

Other motions also passed instructed the Council of Assembly to:

  • Bring forward proposals to the General Assembly of 2019 that will allow more funds for mission work... and to reform the Ministry and Mission allocation process
  • Instruct Presbyteries to create robust, imaginative and courageous Presbytery Plans, to reduce the number of charges, create ministry hubs, enable new pioneer and new church planting opportunities, and new reformed pathways into ministry
  • Instruct Kirk Sessions to work with Presbyteries to reflect on the state of decline of the national Church and in particular how that affects the Church locally and determine what their vision and mission is for the next three years
  • Instruct the Council of Assembly and the Mission and Discipleship Council to include the views of elders younger than 40 in the radical action plan
  • Instruct the Council to clarify in the Annual Report and Accounts how councils and committees make savings and reduce spending to balance the budget

Commissioners also considered the future of the national offices at 121 George Street, voicing concerns about the cost of the consultation, the delay in making a decision, and the expense of an Edinburgh based headquarters. However they agreed to instruct the Council of Assembly to continue its work and return with a recommendation in 2019.