GA 2021 – Reforming The Kirk BLOGPOST I: Ecclesial Ethics, Polity Reform + Responses to Decline

We Left It Too Late

The Kirk is now deep into a process of radical institutional reform from which I think there is no going back. Those of us who were mentored in various ways by the wise, gracious and visionary Peter Neilson, will remember his talks distilling insghts about cycles and processes of innovation, change and adaptation. As he feared we would, we have left it too late. I already knew that when I gave The Chalmers Lectures and published Reforming The Kirk (RTK) in 2017. I remember saying to folk and perhaps even wrote in an article in Life and Work that I felt we had just passed the point when the fear of not changing had overcome the fear of changing. The confirmation of that was the way my interventions were received as well as the level of support then attracted by the Radical Action Plan and Special Commission proposals. Further evidence can be found in the speed with which changes have already been introduced.

We have left it too late, not in the sense that everything is now doomed to fail (that’s not ours to judge) but in the way that when institutions delay change until it can’t be avoided, that change typically becomes more difficult to implement and to stomach. The delay is often achieved through various forms of denial as the 2021 Report on Presby Gov. acknowledges:

Some will argue that the Church has broadly been living in denial about how things really are, and it was well said that the report of the Special Commission in 2019 simply told us, but more pointedly, what many already knew but had not acknowledged about what needed to be addressed within the Church of Scotland at every level.

Shock Therapy

We have been working through a process in which denial gave way to acceptance, this resulted in decisive action accompanied by strong apprehension, which in the past year is now turning to shock. This GA in 2021 will be the one in which the implications of what has been happening to us and what we have agreed to do about it will finally hit home and hit hard.

(If we mix some metaphors – the Kirk is the patient who has been unable to get in shape until a gastric band was fitted and has been treated for years by a changing group of consultants unable to agree on diagnosis, prognosis or a treatment plan. This is the post-op year when the old psychological expectations about appetite and diet confront the newly restructured capacity.)

I may be underestimating this, but I doubt that the shock of this year’s GA has been hugely augmented by the year of lockdown, although that has obviously been deeply distressing and unsettling. I think this would always have been the year when reality bit us in the bum and didn’t let go.

Over the past ten years, Fiona Tweedie has become a friend and I have tried to be an encourager to her and a champion of the importance and value of her ministry to the Kirk. There are some things we only get to see by means of statistics.

The killer stat this year, which only crystallises trends and figures we have been given for a series of years, is this:

The figure for all ministry posts in just under five years’ time (2025) to which we estimate we should work is in the region of 600 ministries in addition to no more than 60 vacant Charges. This paid-ministries figure presents a reduction of around 20% on the advisory figures which were produced by the Ministries Council in 2018. Whilst this is a significant reduction it takes account of the fact that it has been calculated that in 2020, 40% of all current Full Time Ministers of Word and Sacrament were over the age of 60 with significant numbers, maybe as high as 60%, projected to retire over the next ten years.

Almost none of that is new, but its implications were being kept at bay. This is the year when the shock of having to adjust to that reality is finally widely felt across the Kirk. I will return to this below.

Central Structures

I still feel clear that a leaner and more effective central spine for the church was important – I don’t mourn the loss of the old Councils – which I think taken together were too often silo-ised, competitive, ineffective and wasteful. In their scale and separateness they belonged to an era which is gone. As I wrote in RTK I was always in favour of a single agency with multiple departments model. I think that may yet come and the decision to stop at two but with a single head of Faith Action makes little sense to me, apart from it being a psychological defence against too much change. So the cuts to the central structures seem necessary to me (which is not the same as denying that valuable things were lost). The Trustees and Chief Officer who feel powerful already, now need to learn how to work with a new array of powerful presbyteries and an assertive GA (which can put them in their place if necessary) and we need to work on tuning and calibrating those ‘federal’ relationships in the coming months and years.

Federal Presbyterianism

I will do a separate post about the new larger Presbyteries, but for now I want to note their importance in governance terms in terms of their place within a federal structure. So far what we have done has:

  • significantly increased the power of the Trustees and through them the Chief Officer

  • diminished the power of the central Councils/Forums

Presbytery Reform is one of the last two potentially crucial adjustments in what is a major recalibration of the federal equilibrium of our type of Presbyterianism. Of the previous 40+ presbyteries, too many were struggling to keep their heads above water to be much able to play a part in overall governance patterns. With the 9 (I am surprised it has gone as low as this – always imagined 10-12) which are coming, this will change. The aim is for adequately resourced presbyteries, who will each represent a significant area of Scotland (+furth) and a significant number of congregations, who are more able to work within their bounds and to have influence beyond them. The aim is for them to be more powerful and effective within our structures, with a power shift out and down through the system. Here I want to consider some key relationships:

  • Presbyteries > Trustees

A federal structure with a more purely geographical character would have drawn most of the trustees (say 9) from the presbyteries and supplemented them with folk who had other gifts, skills and experience. The Special Commission…Effectiveness touches on this in their report. If the Presbyteries-Trustees relationship is not to be characterised in this way by representation (and I leave that as an open question) then it needs to be intentionally strengthened by liaison. In our new Zooming world, this can easily happen online. It will be good for the Trustees, I believe, to be regularly confronted with the visible and audible presence of the new Presbyteries; to have to both listen and explain themselves to them.

  • Presbyteries > GA

In recent memory GA’s have been dominated by the reporting of national Councils and committees. In future, it’s worth considering whether the new Presbyteries should have more of a presence and relationship to the GA. Not so much ‘reporting’ as they are not remitted by the GA in the same way, but presenting and sharing good news, needs and concerns. Even if not all 9 report every year at “the GA”, I think we should explore how this might enrich our life as a national church.

  • Presbytery > Presbytery

Finally, not everything needs to change at Crewe or go via the Mother Ship. In the new era, let’s hope that ‘presbytery shall speak unto presbytery’. There are interesting possibilities for bilateral, trilateral etc relationships between those who have common concerns and challenges e.g. rurality; urbanity;

[I could go on into World Church relationships, presbytery twinning etc. but don’t have much to add to that although I think it’s very worthwhile.]

Money, Power and Ethics

If Presbytery Reform is one of the last two potentially crucial adjustments, the other major factor in shifting the federal equilibrium of the Kirk is how we raise and spend money. This is what I don’t think The Special Commission…Effectiveness really addressed adequately. As I argued in RTK, It is rarely possible to map power in any institution without also following the money. To be Presbyterian at all, implies at least a minimal degree of mutual accountability and solidarity across a whole system, within a tiered hierarchy of courts. But there are multiple ways in which this can be incarnated. The principle of ‘subsidiarity’, prominent within Roman Catholic Social Teaching, is about thinking which powers belong at which levels, with a degree of presumption towards the family and the local. If you start from there, the burden of proof will always be on those who want to devolve power upwards in a federal system, not on those arguing to keep it devolved.

I did explore this in RTK and this was one of the areas which I think was less engaged with, so I want to try again here because it seems important to me, not least in terms of institutional ethics. If to be presbyterian requires solidarity and mutual support, how do we exercise this? I argued that in our history, the post Disruption challenge of creating a new national denomination from scratch (The Free Church) had required an enhanced degree of centralised bureaucracy which then lived on in the post 1929 united denomination. This meant that we had become used to living with one form of Presbyterianism, which was not the only possible form. And here is the crucial point for me: this is particularly important when it comes to responding to institutional decline.

I say this because it goes right to the heart of how we manage the rationing of scarce resources. If we operate within a single national pool + share system, then we have to try to apply our ethical considerations at a national level. In secular policy making re health for example, this is the point at which people will say there should not be ‘a postcode lottery’ for access to drugs or procedures. In times of investment, this means that gains should be distributed equitably and in times of austerity, that cuts should be distributed equitably.

Given our relatively centralised system in the Kirk, I think this is the mindset we all instinctively bring to how we address the challenges of decline. However, my concern is that for us as a Church there are particular problems which come with that as unintended consequences and unhelpful limitations. So we need to think these through wisely.

It helps to start by considering a different iteration of Presbyterianism which may take different decisions about the allocation of money and resources. In RTK, perhaps unhelpfully, I called this a more ‘Darwinian’ form and it might help to rephrase that as a more devolved or decentralised form. A key question has to do with whether a local congregation which can pay for a minister should be allowed to call a minister, if they can find one and if their presbytery is willing to ordain or induct the individual concerned? In order for this not to be simply congregationalism (which for me is not a threat, spectre or inferior option, but simply an alternative form of polity) the minimal requirements would be:

  • no ordination or induction could take place without the presbytery concurring

  • some mechanism for solidarity within a larger synodical or denominational area would have to be in place

A maximally devolved and minimally managed form of Presbyterianism would therefore see all local churches which could afford a minister be free to advertise for one so long as they met some minimal threshold for contribution to a wider solidarity fund. Limitations on that freedom would take the following forms:

  • lack of money would mean either an appeal to the wider church for financial support and subsidy, or a shift to part-time/fractional ministry, voluntary sharing with other local churches, or a tent-making ministry perhaps with housing attached.

  • lack of trained ordainable or inductable personnel

Why not do it this way?

I think this is a real question for reasons I will explain. But if we consider the objections to this being implemented, we are straight back into our postcode lottery argument. For the Kirk, we have seen this happen in the past with remote and island parishes displaying higher levels of vacancies. So the main objection to doing it this way would be that wealthier areas would simply hoover up a disproportionate share of the ministers, leaving poor communities without ministers in a way which would be ethically unacceptable. Even if we were then to introduce an acceptable solidarity fund, it’s still likely that larger, wealthier charges closer to our larger cities would attract most applicants. If we take that objection seriously, as I think we should, this should make us more sober in our lofty talk about “call” lest we place the blame for this postcode lottery at the door of the Holy Spirit! To accept this as a serious objection is to accept that ministers behave in rather predictably ‘worldly’ ways in applying for jobs. Once again, statistics will shine a light where simply accepting a series of individual call narratives at face value might conceal the dynamics at work!

If we add in to this scenario not just economic inequality but an acute shortage of ministers, then a less regulated option begins to look even worse. So we might be saying by now, thank goodness for the Disruption, for us all being in this together and our ability to implement a proper ‘national plan’!

Why not do it the way we are planning to?

As things stand, we are working within a centralised structure which has since the 1970s been ‘readjusting’ the allocation of resources on a national level. In doing this, it was working within a cushion of ‘overchurching’ across much of Scotland, which was a legacy of the Disruption and left significant scope for rationalisation. Although this was often painful for individual congregations, still left a fairly comprehensive network of charges in place. That cushion is now largely gone, although anomalies still exist in some local areas, where you could argue there are too many churches but all of them are relatively strong.

The next round of cuts is going to be extremely difficult for the Kirk to absorb and it will come as a significant psychological shock to many members, who (despite warnings over the past decade) have not yet understood the extent to which “their kirk” or “their minister” was at risk. It will also continue to reshape the role of MWS away from its traditional pattern, in ways which risk being more stressful for ministers and less satisfying for congregations. There is a high probability that the system will both ‘run hot’ and to mix metaphors ‘be stretched thin’.

So here is the dilemma that I hope some of you as conversation partners can address more adequately than I am managing to.

The response to decline by way of our current modes of central rationing, implemented in detail at presbytery level – may be the easiest to countenance in terms of institutional and denominational ethics but they may be the most damaging to overall outcomes across the denomination as a whole.

The danger of our current approach – and this is identified as one of the large scale systemic risks in the Trustees report – is that the systemic shock of our attempts to ration reduced resources fairly may accelerate an established cycle of decline: leading to reduced membership, reduced numbers of young people, fewer vocations and a further cycle of even more severe cuts as soon as 2025.

Sadly, there is no easy way through this. (Of course we need to listen for what the Spirit is saying to the Churches, but I am also heartily sick of a certain kind of pious take on this, which simply doesn’t recognise that even if we embraced that person’s theological take in full, we would still have to make strategic institutional decisions. In my experience those who give these takes mostly stop after throwing shade on those who are not as sound or prayerful as them and refuse to actually say what they want to happen, now, in the church as it is.)

There is no easy solution and there is no silver bullet. The reason for mapping these two alternatives in contrast to one another, is to try to show that whichever is operative, it is likely to have to mitigate its own weaknesses and studying the alternative may help us to identify those weaknesses and mitigations. In the next post I try to set out some thoughts on how we can do that and be open to a more differentiated set of responses to decline.

Doug Gay 24.5.2021

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