The announcement that St George’s Tron intends to break away from the Church of Scotland carries painful ramifications for the Kirk at a time when financial realities are biting and presbyteries are in the process of being downsized.
While rows over sexuality and other touchstone issues have led some hard-line conservative clergy and congregants to pack their bags already, the departure of a large and wealthy city centre congregation in Glasgow, the nation’s second city, is a different proposition altogether.
Questions of money and property enter the equation straight away. St George’s has controversially been withholding funds from the Kirk for some time, and the sums involved are believed to run into six or seven figures.
The issue as to whether they are entitled to walk away leaving unpaid bills is bound to be a hot one at a time of financial stringency. In addition, there is the legal issue surrounding the ownership and use of a prime site building, currently used by the church, when it finally secedes.
These practicalities entail more than fees, inconvenience and bad publicity. What some Church of Scotland’s leaders fear is that if St George’s is seen to “get away with it” in relation to breaking away with money and buildings, the precedent could lead some smaller, less wealthy congregations to follow suit.
The wider outcome is still likely to be a trickle rather than a flood. The bonds of loyalty that hold the Kirk together in times of adversity are strong and historic. But this development is more than just a little local difficulty for the personable, evangelical-leaning new Moderator and those around him.
Admittedly, the handling of this issue does not fall under his control in the devolved Presbyterian set up. But the Rt Rev Albert Bogle (Bo'ness, St Andrew’s) is seen by the public and the media as the figurehead of his historic denomination, even if strictly speaking what he Moderates is its General Assembly.
The final standoff with St George’s has been several years coming. The way it is handled will also be a signal of how the Church of Scotland sees its future, and how the debate on same-sex relations may resonate in more reluctant corners of the Kirk when it returns to the General Assembly next year.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia. An abbreviated version of this article appeared in The Scotsman newspaper on 9 June 2012.