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17th June 2019

The 2019 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which is an annual gathering of about 600 ministers and elders from across the church, took place in Edinburgh from 18-24 May. The new moderator of the Church of Scotland, who will be in office until next May, is the Right Rev Colin Sinclair, who is the minister of Palmerston Place Church in Edinburgh. If you have never been to one of these gatherings, the General Assembly is always a busy week. However, this year there was an air of anticipation that the Church needs to change!

Among the outcomes of some of the debates which took place was the acceptance of 3 significant reports which have the potential to radically reshape the Church of Scotland, at every level. Last year the General Assembly instructed a review of the workings of the Church. And this year, the report from the Special Commission on Structural Reform was approved. The overall thrust of the plans is devolution of decision-making and resources from the central offices in Edinburgh to reorganised regional and local structures, with an emphasis on equipping churches for mission in their local context.

Essentially, what the General Assembly decided was the following. Up to £25m to be spent on projects aimed at church growth, with particular emphasis on establishing new churches in communities where none is present. The hope to establish 100 new worshipping communities. Recognising that there are fewer people under 40 years of age regularly coming to worship, there is to be a focus on engaging with these age groups.

Over the last decade or so the costs of mission and outreach for the whole Church, with new employees and administration, has grown, while the number of people contributing to the Church has levelled off. Therefore, the cost of central administration is to be cut by up to 30%, with four administrative councils being merged into two.

Currently local churches are gathered into groups called Presbyteries. There are 43 Presbyteries across Scotland, each undertaking similar administrative and oversight roles. This number is to be reduced to about 12, which should free a lot of ministers from administrative jobs to minister to the people. However, with the number of practising ministers set to decrease, as a significant number reach retirement age, there will be the development of local networks, as congregations work closer together to share the good news of Jesus. Along similar lines, Kirk Sessions will be reduced in size and focused on leadership and local decision-making.

One of the biggest challenges to the Church of Scotland is that, having gone through unions with other church denominations about 100 years ago, and with the joining together of local churches, there is a surplus of church buildings. Therefore, a Land and Buildings Plan, focussing on 'well equipped spaces in the right places', is being established. In the future, any money realised from sale of redundant buildings is to be shared between congregations. This, in itself, should help local churches do more for the people in Jesus' name.

As the Church looks to reform itself, there will be improved training and support for all ministry and leadership roles. And, significantly, the General Assembly is to be made smaller. To accompany all of this reformation, which the General Assembly believe the Holy Spirit is guiding us to, congregations are being encouraged to enter into a season of 'prayer and preparation' from September to December. This is good news.

From the days of the initial reformation in 1560, the Church of Scotland has always sought to reform itself; bringing new from old. Sometimes reform has been slow, at other times it has been quick. And depending how old you are you will know how the church has changed in your lifetime. These new changes will give the church a new structure and new motivation. However, we still have the same God-given mission: in the power of the Holy Spirit, we share the knowledge and love of God through Jesus, God's Son, with the people in our community and the wider world.

I hope that, haven taken time to read this, you will see some changes which encourage you to return, or continue, to worship God and be blessed to receive and recognise the very many graces that God gives us.

Yours in Christ.