To stem a nationwide shortage of full-time clergy, the Church of Scotland is considering the use of "virtual ministers" who would preach over a live video link to congregations that do not have a permanent minister - writes Trevor Grundy.
"Preaching by live video link to vacant congregations is one of many radical changes being proposed by the Ministries Council in consultation with the Mission and Discipleship Council," Gordon Bell, media relations officer with the Church of Scotland told Ecumenical News International.
He said the Ministries' report to the Presbyterian Church's general assembly, running from 21 to 27 May, suggests the Kirk, as the Church of Scotland is known locally, should investigate the use of video technology in churches which struggle to attract full-time ministers.
There are 21 congregations in Orkney presbytery, spread over more than 10 islands. Initially four congregations in Rousay, Shapinsee, Flotta and Hoy in the archipelago will be linked.
"The intention," said Bell, "is that this will allow the minister to be physically present in a different island each week and virtually present in other ones. We think this is not only a first for Scotland but also a first for the whole of the United Kingdom."
There are presently an estimated 190 full-time vacancies for clergy across Scotland, which has a population of 5.1 million. Under the proposal, churches would be linked by technology similar to that used in video conferencing.
As a result, a number of congregations in some of the most remote parts of Scotland would be able to take part in the same service.
If the scheme is successful, it could offer similar benefits to congregations in other rural areas which do not have a full time minister, Bell said.
The Rev Trevor Hunt, a clerk of the Presbytery of Orkney, told The Scotsman newspaper on 12 May that it is vital the congregations participate in services and not sit in their pews imaging they were watching a television programme. "I think it has potential," said Hunt.
The company involved in the plan to bring virtual ministers to different parts of Scotland is Sanctus Media Limited at Bo'ness, central Scotland, near Falkirk.
The company's chief executive officer, Neil MacLennan, told ENI: "I've visited Orkney and we're waiting to hear their decision if they want to be first in this project. The islands are not served by broadband but we'll be able to put in micro-wave transmitter links. It's an exciting project and will fill the gap caused by a shortage of clergy in Scotland."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]