The Roof is Leaking

Welcome to my General Assembly blog. I hope I can update this each night to give you my impressions of each day at the GA 2019.

Saturday 18 May

A good opening day where speeches have been well received. We’ve enjoyed the humour, the eloquence and the poignant remarks made by all.

Afforded the privilege of welcoming His Grace The Lord High Commissioner to the GA (not all by myself you understand) placed me in the company of a lady I last saw 30 years ago. Jacqueline was an enthusiastic Christian when I last met her now she is a Deaconess with a vibrant and demanding ministry and heading toward being Moderator of Presbytery. Meeting her again was so unexpected and so delightful. These are among the blessings that GA brings to each and everyone of us.

The day has ended with a film showing at the Netherbow centre portraying the work of Ulrich Zwingli, a reformer in Zurich from 1519 ~ 1531. It may be a very different world we live in now yet we are clearly reminded of the power of the Gospel to change lives, nations and the world.

Actually NO. The day has ended with a G&T. And well deserved it is too.

Sunday 19 May

I don’t care much if “Follow Me” is the theme of this year’s GA. Water seems to be the overarching theme for me. Yesterday had more to do with the rain falling from the heavens and the drips of rain water coming through the roof at the Assembly halls. Maybe it’s a paradigm for the church where ageing structures are at the very least needing updated. Today however, it’s been the waters used to remind us of our baptism into Christ.

It’s an experience arranging a service to take place in a church you don’t know that’s on the opposite coast to the one you live on to be led by church leaders of significance. But I’m glad to say it went well, very well even.

I’m grateful to Rev. Peter Sutton of Edinburgh St. Cuthbert’s for the use of his church, his kind support and the photograph below. One little moment to treasure as Bishop William Nolan, Bishop John Armes and Very Rev Susan Brown guides us through the Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows.

Monday 20 May

So today was a big business day with proposals for structural reform of the charity known as the Church of Scotland. In may respect we would identify that as activity based at “121” George Street. An epic report created in just 6 months went through a number of changes for reasons of clarity and legal wording but was substantially accepted as the way forward. A new body of Assembly Trustees, an Assembly Business Committee, four councils being brought into two new bodies / groups and all to be set up by the end of this year and sooner. There’s a lot to do. Leaner, fitter and less expensive to run. The roof is still leaking but maybe not as badly as it was.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings because Structural Reform and the Radical Action Plan are designed to dovetail with each other!

Tuesday 21 May

None of us here, I think, truly realise the potential impact of the decisions made today. Apart from a few adjustments to help clarify matters or avoid unseen pitfalls 98% of the Radical Action Plan has been agreed. At times were were prepared to go further by accelerating the coming together of Presbyteries to 2021 rather than 2024. Bravely we are even going to examine whether our Presbyterian form of Church government is the right form for us today. We will always be a reformed church but what pattern of Presbyterianism we use will come up for debate.

Of course sitting here in the Assembly Hall at the end of an afternoon I can hand on heart say that not one thing has changed. Yet we have given ourselves permission to change and that in itself is liberating. The hard work will begin when we get back home taking time through the autumn months to work out how we go about change and to do so prayerfully, refocusing ourselves on reaching out in the name of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday 22 May

Old habits die hard. It is with a sense of disappointment that I say these words. After the spirit and desire for change of Monday and Tuesday the GA reverted to the old ways of doing things. OK. That was the way business was arranged so what else was going to happen. Long reports, big speeches, endless repetition of comments and over-running time. We didn’t get all the business completed (and this is the one that hurts) Ecumenical Relations Committee Report was held over to another time. At close of day there was no clear idea of how this would be resolved. Maybe, in its own way, this says all that needs to be said about the need for change.

Sunday Address 26 May

For those who might want a longer read… below is the address for Sunday morning on my return from General Assembly.

General Assembly 2019 comes to a close heralded as one the most significant GA’s in a long long time.  Of course I’m not going to be able to give you a blow by blow account, even though I sat through 19 of the 21 business sessions. This is known as diligence and it makes me sound incredibly dedicated, which naturally I am, but at the same time in order to claim expenses commissioners have to attend at least 17 of the 21 sessions. Attendance is recorded electronically at the beginning of and during each business session.  There is no escaping!!!

Only a few of you here will ever have had the opportunity to attend General Assembly and for all of its hundreds of years of history you might be sitting there thinking… when has it ever done anything for me?  When has the Assembly ever made a decision that has directly affected what we do in Westwood Church? And the answer may well be “never”.  Indeed you might say the same of that other church court – Presbytery.  Very often a congregation’s relationship with these other church bodies is distant; often awkward and seldom supportive.  Perhaps in the past these bodies, Presbytery and Assembly, have been too full of their own importance.  Being higher courts they have placed emphasis on their own authority established over hundreds of years of church history, and overlooked the importance of the local congregation.  It is in places like Westwood that church actually happens, it is here that faith is encouraged, supported, cherished and nurtured. At last, the place of the local church is being restored. The importance of grass roots church and building it up has become the focus of these higher courts.  But to do that well, a lot is having to be re-shaped.

I can describe this in just one word “mission”.  Whatever picture that word conjures up in your imagination the future of the church rests on its ability to reach out to others to work at being a living example of faith and bring others to faith in Christ.  We can no longer talk about just ‘getting some new members”.  In a world where we have lost two and three generations to the life of the church we are having to start from scratch talking about faith, what it means to live by faith, what it is we believe about God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit: where it is that prayer and service fit into the Christian life?

We cannot ignore the fact that money is a big issue within the Church of Scotland.  There are still good reserves and a big portfolio of property and yet the church of Scotland runs at a deficit, spending exceeding income by around £4.5 million last year.  The deficit was larger than that in 2018 but was offset by sale of property and other income.  It may sound good to have a lot of property and yet too often that property is a burden upon us, too expensive to heat, light and maintain.  Old property that is no longer well equipped and too often in the wrong place.  As communities have developed church buildings are often no longer in the places where people live, no longer fit for purpose.  So the drive is to provide well equipped spaces in the right places.

So what will be re-shaped.  The General Assembly will become smaller in size and its business more streamlined in part to be more effective but also to be less expensive.

In the church offices at 121 George Street Edinburgh there will be a 20 to 30% cut back in costs.  Departments will merge, jobs will go. A new trustee body will have far greater control of finances.  Those Trustees have already been elected and take up that role on 1st June. Mergers of departments will happen before the end of this year. Buildings like 121 George Street and the Assembly halls which we inherited from the Free Kirk in 1929 are desperately in need of repair, quite literally ceilings are falling in and on occasion employees at 121 have been injured by unsafe parts of a very old building falling on them.  Alternatives are being discussed.

The present situation of 45 Presbyteries will come down to around 12 so that each is big enough to provide the kind of services which support congregations, that might be anything from employment services to mission resources.  This reduction in the number of Presbyteries will happen by 2024 though I suspect it will happen well before then.  The conversations are already taking place.  In regions like Ayrshire and in Fife presbyteries are already well on the way to merging.   This may mean an end to the familiar monthly meeting of Presbytery as we try to find a new way of going about the business of helping the local congregation to thrive.  I have no doubt that Presbyteries will still have the hard task of determining which buildings we keep and which we do not.  Such decisions are painful but we simply do not have the funds to maintain buildings that clearly do not have a future and cannot be reconfigured to serve communities better.

Kirk Sessions are not going to escape change either.  Legislation will come forward to allow elders to serve for a period of years rather than for life. And rather like the new situation in Shetland where 13 parishes have become one we will likely see the creation of Trustee Elders, rather like a board of trustees who will take responsibility for running the charity side of church life and ensuring that church fulfils its charitable aims of witnessing to Jesus Christ.  

All of this restructuring will come quickly and yet it will be of no value whatsoever if parish churches like Westwood don’t rise to the challenge of re-inventing themselves.  We too have to change our focus, work out how we re-engage with our community, the people who are in need, the vulnerable, the lonely and isolated, how we share the Gospel with those who have never heard it and have never set foot inside this or any other church, and how we do that with our neighbours at Our Lady of Lourdes and Westwood Baptist, with Greenhills, Mossneuk and Stewartfield and many others because we are not in competition with them.  We all love and serve the same Lord Jesus.  Some of these things we are already working on but there is still a long way to go.

Most of what we have spoken about this morning will be furthered through the courts and committees of the church.  But what we can all do is pray.  And that is where “Thy Kingdom Come” is perfect timing as it calls upon us all to pray for family and friends.  So many of us have brought our children for baptism believing that in the celebration of that Sacrament God has gifted the Holy Spirit. The seed of faith is there but has not yet had the opportunity to blossom.  We have children and grandchildren who have never found their place within the life of the Church.  Now is the time to pray for that seed to blossom.  Join me on the prayer journey that is Thy Kingdom Come whether you come to the times set aside within Westwood Church or a more convenient time at Our Lady of Lourdes or privately at home. We can all pray for those most precious to us to find faith in Christ.