The Commission of Assembly met on 7 July 2020 and agreed a report from the Legal Questions Committee regarding concerns raised by Presbyteries and staff from the Faith Nurture Forum that the COVID-19 Regulations issued by the Scottish Government prevented the operation of the Vacancy Procedure Act and the related Ministers and Deacons in Civil Partnerships and Same-Sex Marriages Act.
These blockages mean that:
- A vacant congregation which has been given the right to call a minister cannot take steps to fill the vacancy
- Probationers at the end of their training cannot find their first parish
- Admissions candidates cannot be called and inducted
- Ministers who feel called to another charge cannot take that vocation forward
those who received an invitation to preach as Nominee immediately prior to lockdown have not been able to progress any further since that date
The Commission heard and agreed that this cannot be for the good of the Church nor the well-being of the individuals involved.
The Commission approved a Protocol which allows the all concerned to honour the spirit and principles of the Church's legislation and traditions while allowing Presbyteries, congregations and ministers to move forward in these exceptional times.
Presbyteries and Congregations should note that services of Ordination cannot currently take place in areas within enhanced level 4 protection.
- Is permissive - it may be used by a Presbytery to fill a vacancy but the Presbytery may instead choose to wait until the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and it can use the Vacancy Procedure Act in the normal way
- Is short-term - it is suggested that the Commission give permission for the Protocol to be followed only until the General Assembly itself can meet and make decisions on these matters
- Does not seek to make permanent changes to legislation.
The protocol was extended for use by the General Assembly of 2021 and can be used until next May when the normal in-person process is not being followed. It is recommended that the protocol continues to be used where:
- The Kirk Session consider that there are a number of members who, at this time in the pandemic, would not be willing to attend an in-person meeting due to virus-related health concerns and would, therefore, be excluded or
- There would be insufficient room in the sanctuary or hall for all those who would wish to attend because the locally preferred level of physical distancing has reduced the seating capacity to that extent
The protocol does not need to be used and an in-person congregational meeting to elect a minister can be held when all those who would wish to attend feel comfortable in doing so and the capacity of the building would allow them to be seated comfortably and safely. The decision to proceed with either a full ‘in-person' process or a process following the protocol should be discussed with the Presbytery Vacancy Procedure Committee.
Guidance for Vacancy Process for Presbytery Advisory Committees, Vacancy Procedure Committees, Interim Moderators, Kirk Sessions and Nominating Committees as well as guidance for applicants has been prepared to offer support to those involved in Vacancy process.
The Protocol (v2, 16 July 2020: amended as directed by the Legal Questions Committee)
In light of the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions it imposes on daily activities such as travelling, gathering and meeting, and with the intention of promoting the vitality and well-being of Presbyteries, Kirk Sessions, ministers and congregations, the following shall be permissible:
To enable the Church's vacancy processes still to continue so that a minister may be called to a vacant charge, and notwithstanding the provisions of the Ministers and Deacons in Civil Partnerships and Same Sex Marriages Act (Act I 2015), section 3, and the Vacancy Procedure Act (Act VIII 2003), sections 15, 21(1), 22-23, and 30-32, a Presbytery may sustain a call following a vacancy process which adheres to the following general Protocol:
Where this Protocol is to be used to any extent, the Vacancy Procedure Committee, having considered the full circumstances of the vacancy, shall make that decision and then shall inform Presbytery and the congregation(s) concerned through the Schedule A process in terms of in section 2 of the Vacancy Procedure Act (Act VIII 2003); intimation through the Schedule A process shall proceed in line with the principles noted below;
Act I 2015
Section 3: meetings of the Kirk Session(s) may take place by video-conferencing or audio-conferencing or a combination of the two, such that elders, whilst not physically present in the same location, have opportunity to hear the contributions of others and make contributions (under the direction of the Moderator) and the vote(s) may take place by such means as ensure a secret ballot (while maintaining verification of eligibility to vote) and are agreed by a majority of the Kirk Session(s) present at a meeting held by video-conference or audio-conference or a combination of the two;
Act VIII 2003
- Section 14: Electoral Register: every effort shall be made to ensure that a full and complete Electoral Register is compiled, and that persons have the opportunity to seek to have their name added and their position considered; meetings may take place by video-conferencing or audio-conferencing or a combination of the two.
- Section 15: Appointment of Nominating Committee: the Session Clerk shall seek Nominations from the congregation and shall accept responses both by email and by post or hand delivery; upon receipt the Session Clerk shall, if an election is required, contact the congregation by email and/or post/hand delivery to provide summary information regarding each person nominated and to seek votes for the requisite number of persons;
- Section 21(1): Nomination: if the candidate is not able to travel to view the buildings, opportunity shall be given through video and audio for the candidate to view, and receive full and fair detail upon any matter relating to, the whole ecclesiastical buildings associated with the charge;
- Section 22: Preaching by Nominee: public worship may be conducted by any means which enables all those entitled to vote in the election to see and hear the nominee conduct the same act of worship including by means of a live stream or through recorded media made available by any appropriate means, or by a combination of the two;
- Section 23: Election of Minister and Section 24: Ballot Procedure: the vote may take place by those physically present (if any) completing a hard copy of a voting paper and those not, completing and posting or hand delivering a hard copy of a voting paper; the arrangements made shall ensure secrecy of the ballot while maintaining verification of eligibility to vote;
- Section 30: Sustaining the Call, Section 31: Admission to a Charge and Section 32: Service of Introduction: meetings may take place by video-conferencing or audio-conferencing or a combination of the two; in the case of ordination, this may take place at a physical and quorate meeting of Presbytery at which, with due attention to hygiene, there may be imposition of hands, provided that the interaction is brief, kept to a minimum, and face-to-face interaction should be avoided; the giving of the right hand of fellowship should be postponed until regulations allow this; such physical meeting shall take place in the charge's place of worship (or as the case may be, one of them) failing which in such venue as will enable the meeting to be livestreamed;
Virtual meetings for Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions:
Both Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions may meet and vote by video-conferencing or audio-conferencing or a combination of the two;
Provided that in respect of both (1) and (2) the following principles shall be adhered to by all involved:
- Every effort shall be made to ensure that all those eligible to attend any meeting held by video-conferencing or audio-conferencing or a combination of the two, can participate fully in such meeting, in terms of joining the meeting, in hearing and contributing to the debate (in terms of asking questions, engaging in discussion and moving motions) and in voting;
- Mechanisms such as the "raise your hand" feature on Microsoft Teams, or each participant being supplied with a printed paper with a "request to speak" indicator which they can hold up to be seen by others on the video call, shall be used wherever possible to facilitate participation;
- A vote may be taken at a meeting held by video-conferencing or audio-conferencing or a combination of the two, but where a secret and/or precise ballot is requested or provided for, that shall take place by those physically present (if any) completing a hard copy of a voting paper and those not, completing and posting or hand delivering a hard copy of a voting paper, declaring for the avoidance of doubt that in the case of a congregational vote, a mixture of voting methods may be agreed by the Kirk Session(s); declaring also that arrangements shall be made to ensure verification of eligibility to vote;
- Intimations to the congregation shall take place at online worship, by placing on the website and social media if used, and by email or letter and/or by phone so as to ensure that all members of the congregation receive intimation in some form or other, declaring for the avoidance of doubt that a mixture of intimation methods may be agreed by the Kirk Session(s);
- Wherever possible active assent shall be obtained, rather than any matter proceeding on the basis of presumed consent;
- In operating Vacancy process, overriding caution shall be exercised and there shall be as little innovation as possible;
And provided further that the practical operation of the Ministers and Deacons in Civil Partnerships and Same Sex Marriages Act (Act I 2015) and the Vacancy Procedure Act (Act VIII 2003) during this period shall be in accordance with detailed Guidance, reflecting the Protocol and principles outlined above, to be issued by the Principal Clerk; for the avoidance of doubt, such Guidance may extend beyond the sections of the Acts specifically mentioned above but shall remain in line with the spirit of enabling what is stated above.