The (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland plans to formulate its first-ever strategic plan for ecclesiastical buildings, subject to the approval of its General Assembly.
A special commission set up to investigate whether the Kirk, Scotland's largest Christian denomination, should stick to a system of territorial (parish-based) ministry, has instructed the Church of Scotland Ministries Council, General Trustees and Presbyteries to develop a long-term vision for the use of all existing properties.
Buildings and finance have been a major headache for many historic churches in Britain, as changing patterns of religious and non-religious adherence, including a significant long-term decline in institutional religion and the inherited structures of Christendom begin to bite hard.
The Church of Scotland also faces a large and threatening financial shortfall.
In the Kirk Commission’s report to the Assembly, the General Trustees voiced their concern about the lack of an overall strategy and the large sums of money spent on buildings which are arguably no longer fit for purpose in terms of modern needs and expectations.
The Trustees claim this is a “major risk”, and that the existing Presbytery planning process must be taken seriously with the buildings element dealt with robustly and honestly.
Church buildings feature as an important issue throughout the report, with strong opinions voiced from those inside and outside the Church of Scotland.
During the consultation sessions, many from the within the Kirk felt their building had a sense of “place” in the community, and that many locals, including non-worshippers, would identify with it.
In their submissions to the Commission, both COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) and SCVO (Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations) acknowledged that in some parishes, the church building was the only community facility, providing a lifeline to many.
The Commission cited the case of Auchtergaven and Moneydie in Perthshire as good practice, where there is a sharing of facilities within one building. This includes the church sanctuary, a health centre and other community services.
Effective use of buildings remains high on the Kirk's agenda, and during the past year, 2009/10, the General Trustees urged congregations, where possible, to make their buildings multi-purpose for the whole of the community, instead of only being used once or twice a week on a Sunday.
In a separate report to the General Assembly, the Ministries Council has indicated its interest to examine the sustainability of church manses.
Advocates of 'fresh expressions' of church and 'emerging' church are keen that the buildings issue is tackled in such a way as to release resources, prioritise areas of most need, and free up people for non-geographic mission and ministry.
They say there has been a good deal of talk about change, but not enough radical action, as the pull of the past weighs against tough and creative decisions aimed at the present and future.
The Church of Scotland insists it is willing to be bold and imaginative in this and other areas.