GA2020 to discuss finances, buildings and mission

People must not underestimate the challenges facing the Church of Scotland, the Assembly Trustees have warned.

They said failing to take action to reform is a "recipe for slow decline" and realistic presbytery planning would determine the shape and health of the Church over the next five to 10 years.

Rt Rev Dr Martin Fair

The stark warning is contained in a report being considered at the Church of Scotland's first remote General Assembly, which will be streamed live on October 2-3. Watch the livestream

Commissioners will take part in the proceedings online against a backdrop of fears that the Church's total annual income, which is around £105 million, could potentially fall by an estimated £20 million this year due to COVID-19. Commissioners, corresponding members and youth reps can sign-in to the General Assembly Hub.

Proceedings in the General Assembly Hall in Edinburgh will be chaired by Rt Rev Dr Martin Fair, Moderator of the General Assembly, with only urgent business to be considered during the short two-day event.

HM The Queen will not be represented by a Lord High Commissioner this year, but she will instead send a letter to the General Assembly.

Reports will be presented by councils and committees including the Faith Impact and Faith Nurture forums which between them are expected to reduce expenditure by £4 million by 2021.

The agenda has been slimmed down due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions but commissioners will be able to engage with discussions and vote online.

Reductions in charges, buildings and ministries

The Assembly Trustees, appointed by the General Assembly in 2019 to oversee radical reforms, are seeking approval for congregational Ministry and Mission contributions to be set at £38.1 million in 2021, an 18% reduction on the previous year.

They are also asking the Assembly to instruct Presbyteries to exercise "robust" oversight which will prepare the Church for revising down the number of charges, buildings and ministries across Scotland.

The Assembly Trustees have called for "realistic predictions" on the number of ministries that are needed and can be afforded in order to structure the local Church for mission and growth.

"Doing nothing is a recipe for slow decline, however, acting radically with foresight and focus could allow us to experience the growth that we long for and pray for," the report said.

Funding for partners and new projects under review

The Assembly Trustees are calling for approval to examine the implications and changes that would be required to unify the work of the Church under a single "Forum" and bring a report to the General Assembly in 2021.

They said they have taken the "difficult decision" to put the Church's new Growth Fund on hold for the time being in light of financial uncertainties.

"But there are sound reasons for instituting a system which would make some element of funding available for the local church for pilot schemes, and we are in the process of putting this in hand," the report concluded.

Commissioners are being asked to approve a call to review the costs of funding work with partner organisations in Scotland.

The Assembly Trustees said they have reached the view that action is needed because of the requirement to "focus on our priorities and reduce costs".

However, the Faith Impact Forum is urging the Church to continue its long-term support of Christian Aid in addressing the development and humanitarian needs of some of the poorest people across the world.

Measures to mitigate income losses

The Assembly Trustees noted that work on deciding the future of the Church's national offices in Edinburgh has been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report said that a voluntary exit scheme for central service staff has produced an annual saving of £700,000.

A spokesman for the Church of Scotland said: "The COVID-19 health crisis has affected income streams for all charities and the Church of Scotland is no exception.

"With church buildings closed over the last six months and activities curtailed, there is the potential for reductions in contributions from our congregations as well as in our trading activities and investment income which we rely on to carry out our vital work.

"To respond to the financial challenge facing us, a range of mitigating actions have been taken to maintain the income levels as far as possible, reduce our costs and accelerate our plans for structural reform."

Chief Officer David Kendall will address the General Assembly to discuss progress in building the future operational plan and streamlining work within the central offices.

Over the past year the chief officer has introduced strict financial accountability measures and has overseen the development of a Faith Action Plan to guide the prioritisation of the work undertaken by staff in the Faith Nurture and Faith Impact Forums.

Five marks of mission

In a summary paper, produced at the request of the Assembly Trustees, the Theological Forum considers the merits of the Five Marks of Mission – a definition of Christian mission that emerged from the Anglican Communion in the 1980s

They are:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

The Theological Forum summary states: "We are strongly persuaded that concern for social justice, reconciliation and the environment are essential parts of that mission, alongside evangelism, discipleship and pastoral care.

"Not only because we see them as part of God's mission to the world, but also because we cannot with integrity proclaim the Good News of the kingdom, or teach, baptise and nurture new believers while offering too narrow a hope for that kingdom.

"We affirm the Five Marks of Mission as a helpful vision statement for Christian mission, and a useful definition of mission to guide the Church of Scotland today."

Other proposals under consideration

Each of the 10 reports contains proposals which will be up for discussion including:

  • Youth representatives to the assembly to be chosen by the Faith Nurture Forum (Legal Questions)
  • Approve priorities for work of Faith Nurture forum (Faith Nurture)
  • Transfer the work of the Committee on Church Art and Architecture to the General Trustees (Faith Nurture)
  • Create a strategy for the Church to move to zero carbon emissions by 2030 (Faith Impact)
  • Reaffirm that racism is a sin and that black lives matter and to report back on the legacy of slavery (Faith Impact)
  • Develop minimum standards for church buildings (General Trustees)