Simon Barrow

The Kirk faces a challenging future

By Simon Barrow
June 2, 2011

The speeches, reports and ceremonies are over. But where does the Church of Scotland – not the established church, but still a national one – now sit within a changing Scottish national settlement, following the formalities of its 2011 General Assembly? The answer is heavily bound up with sex, money, identity… and culture.

One of the big headline stories in the media last week, as the decision-making body of the Kirk gathered in Edinburgh, was the news that the Presbyterians see hanging out with Kasabian and the Chemical Brothers at a music festival in the Highlands this summer as "the perfect opportunity for the younger generation to find out more about the Kirk".

Well, yes, the sceptics say. But what would happen if the attendees of a rock festival turned up at an average Church of Scotland parish on a Sunday? Not, they suggest, that this is likely to happen to any significant extent.

This little thought experiment illustrates the massive and expanding culture gap between the growing number of non-adherents (especially the young) in Scottish society, the formalities of church deliberation (as seen on the Mound last week), and much of what goes on in local congregations.

Wrangling over organisation, forms of ministry, the fine points of doctrine and who to keep in or outside the Kirk's lovingly constructed walls is staple fare at a General Assembly. And to be fair, the issues matter. But they do not resonate more widely.

Likewise, theological commissions excite few outside the pool of specialists who vie to populate them. But two of these many-limbed beasts will be caught up in future headlines after last week’s proceedings.

The first concerns an ongoing debate about partnered gay people in membership and ministry within the Kirk. The second is an apparently more obscure affair involving religious perspectives on possible changes to the Treaty of Union, if the Scottish people opt for a changing relationship with the UK.

In twenty years time, that second commission may prove to be even more significant than the first. But sex sells, and the sharpest exchanges are around that issue. The Kirk’s vote boldly tilted towards the acceptance of ministers living in same-sex relationships, and the blessing of such life-long relationships.

A moratorium on further gay appointments before a further report in 2013, which was simultaneously adopted, will not satisfy those most opposed to change. The tide is moving against the conservatives. They will fight tenaciously, with inevitable cost and casualties. But there is hope, too.

While the Assembly sexuality debate was seen by some observers as ‘bland’, it also illustrated the capacity to handle deeply divisive questions with a mature containment of rancour. This small victory for Christian charity and unity over vituperative politics indicates an important survival instinct – and a faith one, too.

The Kirk continues to experience a decline in numbers and money. Income is stable, but spending higher. Proposals for re-sizing presbyteries were firmly rejected by those gathered on the Mound – showing that essential structural change will be tough.

Meanwhile, unpaid ministry is on the increase. The demands on the Church’s social care, praised lavishly by Rabbi Julia Neuberger, may also rise in straitened economic times. All kinds of challenges lurk around the corner.

In a culture whose strong Christian cultural roots are moving in plural, secular directions, however much some may resist this, the real issue for the Kirk is ‘what kind of church for what kind of nation?’ The debate about national identity following the recent Scottish parliamentary elections only deepens that question.

The Church of Scotland needs flexibility and the ability to change style without losing substance in order to sustain itself. On the evidence of the 2011 General Assembly it gets a six out of 10 for effort. But will that prove sufficient? Inherited church, if it is to be fit for the Gospel in the 21st Century, needs to display far more ‘emergent properties’. And by that, we do not mean buildings…


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, and attended several sessions of the 2011 Kirk General Assembly. This article is adapted from one that appeared as an op. ed. In The Scotsman newspaper on 28 May 2011 (

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