Radical Plan - I don’t think so.
Congregations should be the unit of change.
The core issues are accountability, authority and equality.
The Church of Scotland’s so called radical plan for its decades of decline turns out to be nothing more than an additional level of bureaucracy disguised as larger presbyteries. Desperate to do something, anything, the powers that be at 121 George Street with the passive concurrence of the General Assembly have decided to create lesser 121 George Streets for each geographical area parallel to pre-Reformation dioceses. That is the extent of their imagination. It is mind-numbingly unimaginative, boring and wrong.
The unit of radical reform should be the congregation. This would preserve the integrity of the Reformation and further its direction rather than re-establish a provisional hierarchy leading to a re-established hierarchy in the future.
When the Church of Scotland’s bureaucracy at 121 George Street increased exponentially in the second half of the twentieth century and management theories and practices were adopted, church became business and power became centralised. Financial controls were ever more top down. This extended to congregations paying for the salaries of ministers even when they did not have a minister, some with little prospect of ever having a minister again. It is against the law of the land to demand payment for services not offered.
Under the proposed new administrative arrangements central financial controls with be shared with the larger presbyteries. The structure will remain top down. This should be reversed. Accountability should become bottom up. Congregations raise funds through offerings sanctified by prayer. They should have a larger role in allocating funds and accounting for their use. Many millions of pounds have been spent by 121 George Street over recent decades which have never been transparently exhibited. Detailed figures are not given to Commissioners at General Assemblies. Neither are they published. It is not embezzlement that is being alleged. It is cavalier spending of other people’s money. Higher than necessary salaries and pensions, hidden expenses, extravagant appointments, fanciful substitute ministerial roles, consultancy fees, costly failed outreach and mission experiments, vanity projects, one way ecumenical overtures, non-essential hospitality and foreign travel for the very few are just some of the ways in which large monies have been squandered.
As the Church of Scotland continues to decline in numbers and financial resources diminish this needs to change. But what is going to happen? Large presbyteries will require large sums of money. There is almost wholesale covering up of the real costs of the proposed large presbyteries. Start-up budgets will increase exponentially over the years to come. Top down accountability will continue. 121 George Street will change little. Large presbyteries will add further financial burdens to congregations and they will not have the means of accountability for these expenditures. In distinction from ecclesiastical power structures in other denominations the Church of Scotland should continue the Reformation exercise and include congregations in the means of accountability. This would be radical.
The Church of Scotland is not democratic. It has its own collective form of hierarchy. But authority has too often been authoritarianism requiring obedience without sufficient questioning and discussion. Procedures are subtle but relentless. There is mutual defensiveness between General Assembly Conveners and Moderators. Moderators do not require Committee Conveners to answer questions fully and transparently where that is sought. Probing inquiries about 121 George Street do not get very far. Second and third questions are discouraged and little ongoing debate is allowed. Some Commissioners are actually crushed and excluded.
At Presbytery level decisions are made by the Clerks and Business Conveners together or in committees and Presbytery meetings pass with little debate about anything substantive. Over the years congregations have expressed dissatisfaction at the seeming distance and perceived indifference of Presbyteries to some of their requests, wishes, wants and needs. There are complaints of lack of consistency and of common sense especially in relation to freedom to call a minister. As in General Assemblies there are few second and third questions and those seeking information and explanation are made to feel that they are troublemakers and therefore unwelcome. The technique ‘silence equals approval’ is very suspect. It promotes an atmosphere of sullenness which pervades so many Presbytery meetings. Moderators cleverly move from one item to another and intervene to limit discussion. Elders can be equally authoritarian especially at 121 George Street. Some much enjoy their exercise of influence and power.
This is authoritarianism. It is a relic of bygone times. A more Christian system of authority for the twenty first century and for the remainder of the life of the Church of Scotland is necessary. The example that guides is Jesus washing his disciples feet (John 13 : 1 - 17). ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you’ (verse 15). The underpinning principle is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 20 : 25 - 28. ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’.
How would this work in practice? It could begin with a change of attitudes. It could de-formalise. It could move beyond quasi-legalistic procedures to more humane and simplified rules. It could end adversarial means of reaching decisions in favour of seeking consensus. It could all be relaxed and made more Christian in ethos, atmosphere and in relationships. Instead of authoritarianism there would be an aspiration to service following Jesus. There is a great spiritual arrogance attached to the way the Church of Scotland operates. It has to change.
The guiding principle should be equality. This is not manifested in the way Presbyteries, General Assemblies and 121 George Street work. The postures of ministers detract from equality, especially at General Assemblies. Equality is the byword of the times. Culturally there is much false equality where things are called equal when they manifestly are not. Equality is an ideology which is used to evaluate and qualify all aspects of contemporary social living leading to absurdities. However, equality is something that could be used to gauge the conduct of Church of Scotland proceedings in order to favour members of congregations and their representatives more fully.
It must be very clear to anyone that the re-establishment of pre-Reformation hierarchies is the opposite of movement towards equality. How can this be happening? There must be some kind of racial memory which goes back five hundred years. There is an old old saying attributed to various people ‘Presbyterianism is no religion for a gentleman’. It seems that some ministers who reach positions of influence are embarrassed and ashamed of being Presbyterian. Others wish for organic unity with episcopal churches. Surely one of the longer term goals of the formation of large presbyteries is ecumenical integration. Some elders want business style management. The problem here is lack of depth of faith understanding leading to the secularisation of the Church. A new regard for people in pews is required. They can longer just be considered as pay and pray fodder. They pay the piper and they should call the tune. Assumed hierarchies can dissolve themselves. The principle of equality can be applied at every level. It can be articulated and practised and this will fulfil the direction of the Reformation. This would be part of a radical plan.
The sentiments described above have long been felt and expressed by members of the Church of Scotland. They have largely been ignored. Now instead of listening to them, a new hierarchy is to be formed, the opposite of what members really want. In 2005 I conducted and published a research membership survey project called ‘Changes in Spiritual Freedom in the Church of Scotland 1980 – 2005’. It is available in the Publications section of my website.
Question 2 read ‘Should decision-making powers be redistributed back to Congregations, Kirk Sessions and Presbyteries?’ 1101 members responded to this question. 946 (85.9%) said 'Yes' and 155 (14.1%) said 'No'.
Here are some of the comments and replies to the question from church members.
‘The future of the Church lies in autonomous congregations charged with running their affairs.’
‘Kirk Sessions and members should be the driving force of the Church’.
‘Members should have a greater say in the life of the Church of Scotland.’
‘decisions by Congregations and Kirk Sessions should not be able to be vetoed by any other body in the Church’.
That was 16 years ago. My publication was ignored. The views members expressed were ignored. The formation of The Presbytery of South West Scotland and others like it tramples on the feelings of members of the Church of Scotland. They will stay silent, of course, knowing that they have little or no influence. They will become less committed and less enthusiastic. Many are elderly and have no strength for a fight. The Church of Scotland is travelling in the opposite direction to the Reformation instead of adopting a radical plan towards accountability, authority and equality.
The future should begin to treat members of the Church of Scotland no longer as children to be patronised but as adults, partners and colleagues, fellow servants of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This may not be a smooth journey. There must be added the caveat of the nominal faith of many members of the Church of Scotland and the difficulties therein. But children must become adults though the process be unpredictable at least until fruition.