Future church? Ekklesia at the Kirk's General Assembly

By Simon Barrow
May 21, 2012

Along with Ekklesia associate Carla J. Roth (who has a special interest in legally-related church and society issues), I am attending the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland meeting in Edinburgh this week, both as a media representative and also in a networking capacity.

The Assembly is the Kirk's governing body. Among other things it will be hearing today (21 May) from the Church of Scotland Special Commission on the Purposes of Economic Activity - a dry-sounding body which has produced a far-from-dry report that raises major challenges about the way economics is done in a divided, ecologically damaged and crisis-ridden regional and global environment.

There is also likely to be a sharp rebuke to private loan companies, including Wonga, for their exploitation of the needs and anxieties of poor people and vulnerable families in an uncertain financial climate.

The backdrop here includes the valuable work of the Poverty Truth Commission in Scotland, which has proposed ways of handlinp policy and projects that gives priority to the perspectives and expertise of people living at the sharp end of society (http://www.povertytruthcommission.org).

The Church of Scotland, along with the Catholic Church in Scotland, is the country's largest Christian denomination. It sits in the Presbyterian tradition of Reformation Christianity, and situates itself these days as a 'national church', though it is not formally established under the Crown and state. Nevertheless, the Kirk has been seen as part of the establishment in a broader sense in some regards, though it also has a strongly dissenting heritage and a radical wing.

The Iona Community, which has a global, ecumenical following, is among the bodies reporting to the Assembly, and raising its eyes towards a range of concerns rooted in active, grassroots discipleship: what it means to be followers of Christ in a diverse, troubled, but also fast-paced and dynamic modern world.

What else will be on the agenda? The arguments over sexuality, ministers and church leaders in same-sex partnerships and related issues have unsurprisingly been part of the struggle of the Kirk in recent years, as with other Christian denominations. A major further debate on these issues is not due until May 2013, but some hardline conservatives are likely to try to keep the matter 'boiling', as they usually do.

It is expected that a very small number of Kirk ministers will resign this week, partly over these issues, and partly in an attempt to generate news stories about a 'schism' among those dissatisfied with the way the Kirk has been evolving.

Likewise, the Free Church of Scotland (a Calvinistic denomination of around 5,000 adherents that remained outside of the union with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 1900) is meeting this week, and has already made the Scottish and UK governments' receptivity to civic same-sex marriage a big concern.

However, 'schism' (a term widely used to mean any 'split' these days, though it actually has a more restricted and specific meaning in the history of early Eastern and Western credal Christianity) is not the major concern faced by the Church of Scotland right now.

Rather, the profile, financing, scale, voice and influence of the Kirk, and of other mainline, inherited denominations is questioned and challenged much more by the overall decline of the 'Christian settlement' in these islands; and the consequent need for churches to transition to a more effective way of being, believing and behaving in a society which is losing touch with (and trust in) the Christian story as a whole.

This is what we on Ekklesia refer to as the shift from Christendom to post-Christendom understandings of Christian faith. It involves the recovery of a more relational, subversive and peace-with-justice oriented understanding of church as movement first, and institution second, going back to the originating Jesus tradition and honouring the witness of Anabaptists and many other rebels throughout Christian history.

Overall, it will be interesting to see this week whether, and how, the Kirk can keep its eyes on the large concerns (economics and environment, sectarianism, global justice, Scotland's referendum debate, and 'once and future church'), rather than getting caught in the small grievances and anxieties which can often gain rather too much traction in church assemblies and gatherings.

Talking to participants here in Edinburgh so far, there is clearly a desire to do just that... but 'local difficulties' do not just melt away.

* Ekklesia's reporting and comment from the Church of Scotland General Assembly 2012, plus back stories, can be followed here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/kirkgeneralassembly


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He lives in Edinburgh.

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