Church of Scotland General Assembly: May 18–24
Written by the Rev. Ian Ross-McDonald, General Secretary, Life and Mission Agency
Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, addressed the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland this morning, May 22, 2019. An address by the highest elected political official in the land at a meeting of the General Assembly is just one difference between the General Assemblies in Scotland and Canada. While there are a few more traditions to observe when the Church of Scotland meets in Assembly (more bowing, gowns, trumpets, parades, dukes and members of the Royal Companion of Archers) the General Assembly in Scotland is less formal in many ways with significantly less procedural wrangling, far fewer speeches, no amendments to amendments, much more humour and more casual voting.
Sturgeon thanked the Church and said that Scotland cherishes the role of the Church of Scotland in its national life. And she went on to praise the church “for the enormous and highly valued contribution that the Church of Scotland makes to communities across our country, and indeed around the world.” She spoke about the historic role of the General Assembly in Scotland, which acted as a surrogate parliament in the country for centuries, wherein education, the wellbeing of people and other matters of social concern in the nation were debated and addressed by the church.
The First Minister expressed appreciation to the Assembly for the church’s role in Scottish society, “…even when—or perhaps particularly when—you are saying things that are uncomfortable for governments to hear.” She went on to commend the church for helping to encourage robust and vigorous debate from different perspectives but always in a form of dialogue that was respectful and constructive. “The manner in which the Assembly conducts itself is a model of how big issues can be debated in a way which builds consensus rather than creating division,” she said.
In an increasingly polarized circumstances in the world she noted that kindness, dignity and compassion were values as important to the ministers in government as to ministers of religion serving in parishes.
And when the First Minister of Scotland was finished speaking, she did not rush off but sat down and for a little while listened to the church consider the report of the Church and Society Council (roughly equivalent to Justice Ministries of the Life and Mission Agency) and it debated and adopted motions about climate change, ridding single-use plastic water bottles on all church properties, encouraging good local political decision making, gender justice, and concern about violence against women and children. In doing so, the First Ministers witnessed the church fulfills, to some measure at least, the sentiments expressed by Scottish theologian Lesslie Newbigin who said that “the church exists not for itself and not for its members but as a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom of God.”