A Dark Moment in the Presbytery of South West Scotland

The Church of Scotland Presbytery of the South West met by Zoom on 5th December 2023. Zoom is a most unsatisfactory means of conducting a Presbytery. It is a useful mechanism to eliminate discussion, argument and confrontation. Debate is stifled by technicalities. Members are inhibited. Zoom meetings however allow the pretence of representation and accountability. In order to manage a Presbytery stretching from Kilmory on Arran to Ettrickbridge in the Borders, more and more centralisation of power has to occur. The costs and inconveniences of physical meetings are prohibitive. The costs of remaining true to Presbyterianism are even greater. Not worth paying. It has been decided.

There were aspirations for presbyteries to become less formal, less business orientated and more mission orientated. These aspects of presbytery function were to be compartmentalised in the calendar. There was even an implicit hope that presbyteries would become more humane. That did not happen on 5th December. What occurred was a transparent example of power play caused by the rejection of the Review Committee Report and the humiliation of its Convener.

The Review Committee’s Report on the first year of the operation of the Presbytery of the South West was presented by Sam Scobie, a retired businessman and elder from rural Stranraer. It highlighted issues to be admitted and addressed.
• Checks and balances do not comply with best practice.
• ‘The Committee invited the immediate past Moderator to give his thoughts and reflections on his year in office. A large number of his observations centred on communication, lack of clarity on responsibilities for services of union etc., work load of Moderator and Clerk and Zoom meetings. These issues clearly “gelled” with discussions that the Committee have had and continue to have.’
• ‘It is important that communication between the Clerk, Administrator, Committees and Presbyters is key and that responses to queries raised by Presbyters or Congregations should be dealt with in a professional manner and timeously.’
• With a Presbytery the size of the South West the committee were of the view that the present office accommodation is totally inadequate and unsuitable.
• Services of Union, Attestation of Records, Property Surveys and Local Church Reviews, if suspended, should be immediately re-instated.
• The frequency, format and venue of Presbytery meetings are not now reflecting the wishes and desires of Presbyters or Congregations.
• The committees and their remits are placing too heavy a workload on Convenors and committee members.

Rev John Pickles immediately proposed that Presbytery not receive the report on the grounds that the issues it raised had already been addressed. He was supported by Rev Graham McWilliams. Sam Scobie was no match for these ministerial tyros. The vote went significantly against receiving the report.

It was a very bad moment, typical of the spiritually dark, authoritarian behaviour of presbyteries in this age of decline, confusion and desperation. The niceties with which presbyteries are sometimes conducted, with compliments and givings of thanks (however insincere) were brutally discarded in rejecting ownership of the issues raised in the report. A factor was the weakness of Sam Scobie’s presentation. No consideration of his age and capacity was offered. No balance. No kindness. No respect. No pastoral care. The Moderator offered no mitigation or comfort to Sam Scobie. What occurred could be interpreted as near breach of the Church of Scotland’s policy on bullying. (Discipline Act 2019 Part 1 (7)).

The lack of humility, self-awareness and humanity which contributed to the treatment of Sam Scobie is indicative of a Church in which distinctive perceptions and sensitivities are unwelcome and unwanted. The Review Committee Report spoke up for the members of the congregations of the Church of Scotland who feel that they have been ignored and sidelined.

Presbytery members have the right to move that a report be not accepted. But in this case there was no kindness towards Sam Scobie. The impression was given that criticism is not welcome. A whistle-blowing Committee Report was discarded. It would have been much better to have received the Report, commented charitably on its perceived inadequacies, discussed these and thanked the convener and committee for their work.

Robert Anderson 2017

To contact Robert, please use this email address: replies@robertandersonchurch.org.uk