GENERAL ASSEMBLY 2017 – THEME: “ABUNDANT LIFE”

This year I was commissioned by the session of Balerno Parish Church to be their appointed commissioner at the General Assembly with a right not just to vote but to speak (a dangerous thing to give me!). I admit that it was with a slight sense of dread that I approached the week, concerned that I would find the GA to be a place of overbearing formality, haunted by falling numbers and divided by opposing theological views. What I found instead was an entirely different and encouraging perspective on the wider life of and in the Church of Scotland which I hope to share in part with this short report.

There is no doubt that formality is alive and well in the GA – a Presbyterian love of lace was all too evident from the neckties on the gaggle of moderators who started the Assembly and there was considerable pomp to welcome the Lord High Commissioner, Princess Anne, who spoke very engagingly on two occasions. The new moderator, the very Rev Dr Derek Browning, ran a tight ship during all the debates and it was clear that he would be well suited to his Morningside charge but even within that tradition, there were moments
of importance. The singing during morning worship (especially the unaccompanied psalms) never failed to move and the moderator’s sermons each day on a different Word of Life always inspired, particularly on the morning after the Manchester bombing.

The thick volume of reports that was required reading for all commissioners spoke to the amount of business that would be done during the week. All the main committees of the church present their reports and have 15 minutes to speak on them before being open for questions and comments. Every convener spoke engagingly and conveyed a sense of enthusiasm, commitment, progress and most importantly, life in the work they were doing. Of course nearly all spoke of the challenges that the church faces – falling ministerial numbers; institutional barriers; volunteer fatigue; disenfranchisement of many and the changing age profile of members. However, there was a strong sense that this was a Church that no longer was debating whether it should change – the debate had moved to how it will change to ensure that the Word of Life was being shared in Scotland (and beyond).

It is impossible to share in a short report all that was said but for me, these were some of the main highlights and messages from the work that was reported on.

The anniversary of the Balfour Declaration – The Board of World Mission challenged the church to consider its attitude to and involvement in the Palestine/Israel dilemma. There were moving contributions from the floor on how the conflict rips community and individual life apart. While there was debate on the extent to which the church can “side” with people, the message of our need to find out about what was happening and to assist in prayers and action for reconciliation, peace and justice was overwhelming. Please find out more about this – you may find  http://cos.churchofscotland.org.uk/blogs/witness-injerusalem/2016/12/05/why-is-there-a-conflict-in-israel-palestine/ a good start.

Church and Society – The breadth of work undertaken by the Church to engage with and support the society in which we live was quite overwhelming. The convener’s main question was this – do we approach others with an open hand or a clenched fist? That could inform our interactions in politics, in charity, in hospitality, in gender justice and with refugees and asylum seekers. The committee’s Speak Out initiative will help churches focus on this and I hope it is something that we in Balerno engage with in future to help continue to inform, challenge and inspire our work within our local and wider community.

Ministries Council – Again I was surprised by the breadth of work of this committee who help plan the future of ministry (not just ministers) throughout Scotland. Challenges were clear – what form of formal ministries are best suited to a changing church; how do you prioritise parishes in rural or deprived areas who struggle to find or resource ministers; how do you deal with the reality that there are not enough ministers for churches? GA agreed to a wide review of ministries with the hope that something more flexible, engaging and suitable comes to this church in need of change in a positive and hopeful way.

Theological Forum – The debate on the Report on Same Sex marriage was covered in national news and you will be aware that an overwhelming majority of GA voted to take to allow ministers to conduct same sex marriages. You may not be aware of the tightrope that was being respectfully walked by most in the debate so as to ensure a respect
and understanding for those with divergent theological views – the phrase “constrained differences” was the watchword of a long and tense session. On that basis, the legal questions committee are seeking to find a resolution that will ensure that those ministers who feel they are unable to conduct such marriages do not find themselves subject to civil or church sanction. The GA also accepted an “apology deliverance” which “invites the church to take stock of its history of discrimination at different levels and in different ways against gay people and to apologise
individually and corporately and seek to do better”.

Mission and Discipleship – The abundance of resources available to the wider church in terms of worship, strategy planning, work with young people, transgender issues and use of buildings was incredible. Have a look at their new website – http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/worship – you will be amazed, equipped and encouraged!

General Trustees – The retiring chairman challenged us with this question – do we love our buildings more than our Church? It is a challenge for each and every one of us to reflect on. Invited speakers – One of the speakers, Rev Dr Sam Wells’, the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, talk was inspirational and challenging. Everyone should try and watch it online. His firm view is that Church should be and can be a place of abundant life where as Kingdom Communities we can demonstrate the abundance, grace, love and forgiveness of God. He encourages us not to look at the problems but the talent and promise in everyone as a transformational way of moving onwards. In particular, he posed the rhetorical question: do we work with or just for others?

It was a huge privilege to be at the GA and take part in the debate and conversations around it. Balerno Parish Church is fortunate to be part of a wider Church community that, while it suffers from challenges, restrictions and frustrations, also offers a chance to be part of something bigger. The resources and support is there but most importantly for me, there is a large community of people throughout Scotland that understand, that share and that wish to grow with us as we work to build communities who know and are touched by the love of God. Please take the time to reflect on the above and ask me about all the other matters that I didn’t have space to address. And if you get a chance to go to General Assembly yourself, go – you never know what you might find!

©Ishbel Smith, 31 May 2017