Church of Scotland

Church of Scotland
Church of Scotland
Logo of the Church of Scotland.png
Modern logo of the Church of Scotland
Classification Protestant
Orientation Calvinist
Polity Presbyterian
Associations Action of Churches Together in Scotland
Churches Together in Britain and Ireland
Leuenberg Agreement
World Alliance of Reformed Churches
Conference of European Churches
World Council of Churches
Geographical areas Scotland
Founder John Knox
Origin 1560
Separated from Roman Catholic Church
Separations Scottish Episcopal Church (definitive separation 1689); Free Church of Scotland (separated 1843); incorporated the United Free Church of Scotland in 1929
Congregations 1,200
Members 489,000

The Church of Scotland, (Scottish Gaelic: Eaglais na h-Alba, Scots: Kirk o Scotland) known informally by its Scots language name, the Kirk, is a Presbyterian church, decisively shaped by the Scottish Reformation.

The Church of Scotland traces its roots back to the beginnings of Christianity in Scotland, but its identity is principally shaped by the Reformation of 1560. Its current pledged membership is about 9% of the Scottish population—though according to the 2001 national census, 42% of the Scottish population claim some form of allegiance to it (see Religion in Scotland).


Position in Scottish society

The 2001 Census

Religion Percentage of Population
Church of Scotland 42.4%
No Religion 27.5%
Roman Catholic 15.9%
Other Christian 6.8%
No Answer 5%
Islam 0.8%
Buddhism 0.1%
Sikhism 0.1%
Judaism 0.1%
Hinduism 0.1%
Other Religions 0.5%

The Church of Scotland has around 984 active ministers, 1,179 congregations, and its official membership at approximately 464,000[1] comprises about 9% of the population of Scotland. Official membership is down some 65% from its peak in 1957 of 1.32 million.[2] Note though that in the 2001 national census, 42% of Scots identified themselves as ‘Church of Scotland’ by religion. The Church of Scotland Guild, historically the Kirk's women's movement, is still the largest voluntary organisation in Scotland.

Although it is the national church, the Kirk is not a "state church", and in this, and other, regards is dissimilar to the Church of England (the established church in England). Under its constitution, which is recognised by acts of Parliament, the Kirk enjoys complete independence from the state in spiritual matters.

The British monarch (when in Scotland) simply attends Church (she is not, as in England, its Supreme Governor).[3] The monarch’s accession oath includes a promise to "defend the security" of the Church of Scotland. She is formally represented at the annual General Assembly by a Lord High Commissioner (unless she chooses to attend in person). The role is purely formal.

The Church of Scotland is committed to its ‘distinctive call and duty to bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry’ (Article 3 of its Articles Declaratory). In practice this means that the Kirk maintains a presence in every community in Scotland – and exists to serve not only its members but all Scots (the majority of funerals in Scotland are taken by its ministers). It also means that the Kirk pools its resources to ensure a continued presence in every part of Scotland.

Religion in Scotland
Flag of Scotland.svg

Church of Scotland
Roman Catholic Church
Free Church of Scotland
Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)
United Free Church of Scotland
Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland
Associated Presbyterian Churches
Scottish Episcopal Church
Baptist Union of Scotland
Action of Churches Together in Scotland
Scottish Reformation
Bahá'í Faith

The Church played a leading role in the provision of universal education in Scotland (the first such provision in the modern world), largely due to its desire that all people should be able to read the Bible. However, today it does not operate schools—these having been effectively transferred to the state in the later half of the 19th century.

Governance and administration

The Church of Scotland is Presbyterian in polity and Reformed in theology. The most recent articulation of its legal position, the Articles Declaratory (1921), spells out the key concepts.

Courts and assemblies

As a Presbyterian church, the Kirk has no bishops, but is rather governed by elders and ministers (collectively called presbyters) sitting in a series of courts. Each congregation is led by a Kirk Session. The Kirk Sessions in turn are answerable to regional presbyteries (of which the Kirk currently has over 40). The supreme body is the annual General Assembly, which meets each May in Edinburgh.


Each court is convened by the 'moderator'—at the local level of the Kirk Session normally the parish minister who is ex officio member and Moderator of the Session. Congregations where there is no minister, or where the minister is incapacitated may be moderated by a specially trained elder. Presbyteries and the General Assembly elect a moderator each year. The Moderator of the General Assembly serves for the year as the public representative of the Church—but beyond that enjoys no special powers or privileges and is in no sense the leader or official spokesperson of the Kirk. At all levels, moderators may be either elders or ministers. Only Moderators of Kirk Sessions are obliged to be trained for the role.


The Burning Bush emblem of the Church of Scotland, above the entrance to the Church Offices in Edinburgh

At a national level, the work of the Church of Scotland is chiefly carried out by "Councils", each supported by full-time staff mostly based at the Church of Scotland Offices in Edinburgh. The Councils are:

  • Church and Society Council
  • Ministries Council
  • Mission and Discipleship Council
  • Social Care Council (based at Charis House, Edinburgh)
  • Support and Services Council
  • World Mission Council

The Church of Scotland’s Social Care Council (known as CrossReach) is the largest provider of social care in Scotland today, running projects for various disadvantaged and vulnerable groups: including care for the elderly; help with alcoholism, drug, and mental health problems; and assistance for the homeless.

The national Church has never shied from involvement in Scottish politics. In 1919, the General Assembly created a Church and Nation Committee, which in 2005 became the Church and Society Council. The Church of Scotland was (and is) a firm opponent of nuclear weaponry. Supporting devolution, it was one of the parties involved in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which resulted in the setting up of the Scottish Parliament in 1997. Indeed, from 1999-2004 the Parliament met in the Kirk's Assembly Hall in Edinburgh, whilst its own building was being constructed. The Church of Scotland actively supports the work of the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office in Edinburgh.

Other Church agencies include:

  • Assembly Arrangements Committee
  • Committee on Chaplains to HM Forces
  • Church of Scotland Guild
  • Committee on Church Art and Architecture (part of the Mission and Discipleship Council)
  • Ecumenical Relations Committee
  • General Treasurer's Department
  • General Trustees (responsible for church buildings)
  • Legal Questions Committee
  • Panel on Review and Reform
  • Principal Clerk's Department
  • Safeguarding Office (child protection)
  • Stewardship and Finance Committee

Church offices

Flag of the Church of Scotland

The Church of Scotland Offices are located at 121 George Street, Edinburgh. These imposing buildings – popularly known in Church circles as "one-two-one" – were designed in a Scandinavian-influenced style by the architect Sydney Mitchell and built in 1909-1911 for the United Free Church of Scotland. Following the union of the churches in 1929 a matching extension was built in the 1930s.

The offices of the Moderator, Principal Clerk, General Treasurer, Law Department and all the Church councils are located at 121 George Street, with the exception of the Social Care Council (CrossReach). Each Council has its own Council Secretary who sit as a senior management team led by the Clerk to the Council of Assembly (in effect the Chief Executive). The Principal Clerk to the General Assembly is the Rev. John Chalmers.


In 1559 John Knox returned from ministering in Geneva to lead the reformation in Scotland

While the Church of Scotland traces its roots back to the earliest Christians in Scotland, its identity was principally shaped by the Scottish Reformation of 1560. At that point, the church in Scotland broke with Rome, in a process of Protestant reform led, among others, by John Knox. It reformed its doctrines and government, drawing on the principles of John Calvin which Knox had been exposed to while living in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1560, the Scottish Parliament abolished papal jurisdiction and approved Calvin's Confession of Faith, but did not accept many of the principles laid out in Knox's First Book of Discipline, which argued, amongst other things, that all of the assets of the old church should pass to the new. The 1560 Reformation Settlement was not ratified by the crown for some years, and the question of church government also remained unresolved. In 1572 the acts of 1560 were finally approved by the young James VI, but the Concordat of Leith also allowed the crown to appoint bishops with the church's approval. John Knox himself had no clear views on the office of bishop, preferring to see them renamed as 'superintendents'; but in response to the new Concordat a Presbyterian party emerged headed by Andrew Melville, the author of the Second Book of Discipline.

Melville and his supporters enjoyed some temporary successes—most notably in the Golden Act of 1592, which gave parliamentary approval to presbyterian courts. However, King James believed that Presbyterianism was incompatible with monarchy, declaring "No bishop, no king".[4] and by skillful manipulation of both church and state, steadily reintroduced parliamentary and then diocesan Episcopacy. By the time he died in 1625, the Church of Scotland had a full panel of bishops and archbishops. General Assemblies, moreover, met only at times and places approved by the crown.

Charles I inherited a settlement in Scotland based on a balanced compromise between Calvinist doctrine and Episcopal practice. Lacking the political judgement of his father, he began to upset this by moving into more dangerous areas. Disapproving of the 'plainness' of the Scottish service he sought to introduce the kind of High Church practice in use in England. The centre piece of this new strategy was the Prayer Book of 1637. Although this was devised by a panel of Scottish bishops, and not that already in use in England, as is so often assumed, Charles' insistence that it be drawn up in secret and adopted sight unseen led to widespread discontent. When the Prayer Book was finally introduced at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh in the summer of 1637 it caused an outbreak of rioting, which spread across Scotland. In early 1638 the National Covenant was signed by large numbers of Scots, protesting at the introduction of the Prayer Book and other liturgical innovations that had not first been tested and approved by free Parliaments and General Assemblies of the Church. In November 1638, the General Assembly in Glasgow, the first to meet for twenty years, not only declared the Prayer Book unlawful, but went on to abolish the office of bishop itself. The Church of Scotland was then established on a Presbyterian basis. Charles' attempt at resistance to these developments led to the outbreak of the Bishops' Wars. In the ensuing civil wars, the Scots Covenanters at one point made common cause with the English parliamentarians - resulting in the Westminster Confession of Faith being agreed by both. Ironically, this document remains the subordinate standard of the Church of Scotland, but was replaced in England after the Restoration.

Older rectangular logo of the Church of Scotland.

Episcopacy was reintroduced to Scotland after the Restoration, the cause of considerable discontent, especially in the south-west of the country, where the Presbyterian tradition was strongest. The modern situation largely dates from 1690, when after the Glorious Revolution the majority of Scottish bishops were non-jurors, and in response Presbyterian government was guaranteed by law, excluding what became the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Controversy still surrounded the relationship between the Church of Scotland's independence and the civil law of Scotland. The interference of civil courts with Church decisions, particularly over the right to appoint ministers, led to a number of groups seceding. This began with the secession of 1733 and culminating in the Disruption of 1843, when a large portion of the Church broke away to form the Free Church of Scotland. The seceding groups tended to divide and reunite among themselves — leading to a proliferation of Presbyterian denominations in Scotland.

However, in the 1920s, the British Parliament passed the Church of Scotland Act 1921, finally recognising the full independence of the Church in matters spiritual, and as a result of this, and passage of the Church of Scotland (Property and Endowments) Act, 1925, the Kirk was able to unite with the United Free Church of Scotland in 1929. The United Free Church of Scotland was itself the product of the union of the former United Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the majority of the Free Church of Scotland in 1900.

Some independent Scottish Presbyterian denominations still remain. These include the Free Church of Scotland (formed of those congregations which refused to unite with the United Presbyterian Church in 1900), the United Free Church of Scotland (formed of congregations which refused to unite with the Church of Scotland in 1929), the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (which broke from the Free Church of Scotland in 1893), the Associated Presbyterian Churches (which emerged as a result of a split in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in the 1980s) and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) (which emerged from a split in the Free Church of Scotland in 2000).

Stained glass showing the burning bush and the motto "nec tamen consumebatur", St. Mungo's Cathedral, Glasgow.

The motto of the Church of Scotland is nec tamen consumebatur (Latin) - 'Yet it was not consumed', an allusion to Exodus 3:2 and the Burning Bush.

Theology and practice

The basis of faith for the Church of Scotland is the Word of God, which it views as being ‘contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament’. Its principal subordinate standard is The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), although here liberty of opinion is granted on those matters ‘which do not enter into the substance of the faith’ (Art. 2 and 5).

The Church of Scotland has no compulsory prayer book although it does have a hymn book (the 4th edition was published in 2005) and its Book of Common Order contains recommendations for public worship which are usually followed fairly closely in the case of sacraments and ordinances. Preaching is the central focus of most services. Traditionally, Scots worship centred on the singing of metrical psalms and paraphrases, but for generations these have been supplemented with Christian music of all types. The typical Church of Scotland service lasts about an hour, and has been characterised jokingly as a hymn-prayer sandwich, in which everything leads up to a climax in a 15-minute sermon near the end. There is normally no sung or responsive liturgy. However, worship is the responsibility of the minister in each parish, and the style of worship can vary and be quite experimental. In recent years, a variety of modern song books have been widely used in order to appeal more to contemporary trends in music, and elements from alternative liturgies including those of the Iona Community are incorporated in some congregations. Although traditionally worship is conducted by the parish minister, participation and leadership by members who are not ministers in services is becoming more frequent, especially in the Highlands and the Borders.

In common with other Protestant denominations, the Church recognises two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion (the Lord's Supper). The Church baptises both believing adults and the children of Christian families. Communion in the Church of Scotland today is open to Christians of whatever denomination, without precondition. Communion services are usually taken fairly seriously in the Church; traditionally, a congregation held only three or four per year, although practice now greatly varies between congregations. In some congregations communion is celebrated once a month.

Theologically, the Church of Scotland is Reformed (ultimately in the Calvinist tradition) and is a member of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. However, its longstanding decision to respect "liberty of opinion on matters not affecting the substance of the faith", means it is relatively tolerant of a variety of theological positions, including those who would term themselves conservative and liberal in their doctrine, ethics and interpretation of Scripture. (The 19th century Scottish distinction was between 'evangelicals' and 'moderates'.) This is not quite the English concept of a ‘broad church’,[citation needed] but in practice it comes close to it.[citation needed]

The Church of Scotland is a member of ACTS (Action of Churches Together in Scotland) and, through its Committee on Ecumenical Relations, works closely with other denominations in Scotland. The present inter-denominational cooperation marks a distinct change from attitudes in certain quarters of the Church in the early twentieth century and before, when opposition to Irish Roman Catholic immigration was vocal (see Catholicism in Scotland). The Church of Scotland is a member of the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches. The Church of Scotland continues to foster relationships with other Presbyterian denominations in Scotland even where agreement is difficult.

God's Invitation

While the Bible is the basis of faith of the Church of Scotland, and the Westminster Confession of Faith is the subordinate standard,[5][6] a request was presented to a General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for a statement explaining the historic Christian faith in jargon-free non-theological language. "God's Invitation" was prepared to fulfil that request. The full statement reads:[7]

God made the world and all its creatures with men and women made in His image.
By breaking His laws people have broken contact with God, and damaged His good world. This we see and sense in the world and in ourselves.
The Bible tells us the Good News that God still loves us and has shown His love uniquely in His Son, Jesus Christ. He lived among us and died on the cross to save us from our sin. But God raised Him from the dead!
In His love, this living Jesus invites us to turn from our sins and enter by faith into a restored relationship with God Who gives true life before and beyond death.
Then, with the power of the Holy Spirit remaking us like Jesus, we – with all Christiansworship God, enjoy His friendship and are available for Him to use in sharing and showing His love, justice, and peace locally and globally until Jesus returns!
In Jesus’ name we gladly share with you God's message for all people – You matter to God!

It was approved for use by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May 1992.[8]

Current issues

The Church of Scotland faces many current difficulties. Since the 1950s its membership has continued to decline, now being less than half what it was then. In 2008, membership dropped below 500,000. The Church faces a £5.7 million deficit, and the costly upkeep of many older ecclesiastical buildings. In response the church has decided to 'prune to grow', reducing ministry provision plans from 1234 to 1000 funded posts (1075 established FTE posts, of which 75 will be vacant at any one time) supported by a variety of voluntary and part time ministries. At the same time the number of candidates accepted for full time ministry has reduced from 24 (2005) to 8 (2009),[9] threatening viability of the Kirk's theological training colleges.[10]

Since the Reformation, one of the church’s tenets has been ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei – a "church which is reformed must always be reformed according to the Word of God".[citation needed] Recently, the General Assembly produced its "Church without Walls" report (2001) which embodies an ethos of change, and a focus on the grassroots life of the Church rather than its institutions.

The membership of the Church of Scotland is also aging, and it has struggled to maintain its relevance to the younger generations. The Church has made attempts to address their problems, at both a congregational and national level. The annual National Youth Assembly and the presence of youth delegates at the General Assembly have served as a visible reminder of the Church’s commitment.[citation needed] The Church's National Youth Assembly has grown in prominence and attendance in recent years.

Since as early as 1968, all ministries and offices in the church have been open to women and men on an equal basis. However, it was not until 2004 that a woman was chosen to be Moderator of the General Assembly. Alison Elliot was also the first non-minister to be chosen since George Buchanan, four centuries before. In May 2007 the Rev Sheilagh M. Kesting became the first female minister to be Moderator.

There is a division in the Church of Scotland on how the issues surrounding homosexuality should be addressed. While the church has traditionally adopted a "hate the sin but love the sinner" approach, in recent years some within the church have pushed for actual homosexual behaviour to be accepted as not sinful. This division of approach is illustrated by widespread opposition to an attempt to install as minister an openly homosexual man who intends to live with his partner once appointed to his post.[11] In a landmark decision, the General Assembly voted on 23 May 2009 by 326 to 267 to ratify the appointment of the Reverend Scott Rennie, the Kirk's first openly "practising" homosexual minster. The decision was reached on the basis the Presbytery had followed the correct procedure. Rennie had won the overwhelming support of his prospective church members at Queen's Cross, Aberdeen, but his appointment was in some doubt until extensive debate and this vote by the Commissioners to the Assembly. The General Assembly later agreed upon a moratorium on the appointment of further "practising" homosexuals until after a special commission has reported on the matter.[12] (See: Ordination of homosexuals) As a result of these developments, a new grouping of congregations within the Church was begun "to declare their clear commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy", known as the Fellowship of Confessing Churches.[13] In May 2011, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted to appoint a theological commission, with a view to permitting practicing homosexuals to be ordained as ministers. The theological commission will report to the General Assembly of 2013. Meanwhile, openly homosexual ministers ordained before 2009 will be allowed to keep their posts without fear of sanction.[14] This currently is the source of strain between the traditionally "liberal" and "evangelical" members of the Kirk. Many Evangelicals are challenged by the present situation but feel called to remain within the Kirk.

Life issues

The Church of Scotland is pro-life on abortion, stating that it should be allowed "only on grounds that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve serious risk to the life or grave injury to the health, whether physical or mental, of the pregnant woman."[15]

The Church of Scotland also opposes euthanasia: "The General Assembly has consistently stated that: 'the Christian recognises no right to dispose of his own life even although he may regard those who commit or may attempt to commit suicide with compassion and understanding rather than condemnation'. The Church has frequently stressed its opposition to various attempts to introduce legislation to permit euthanasia, even under strictly controlled circumstances as incompatible with Christianity." The Church is associated with the Care no Killing organization in "Promoting more and better palliative care./ Ensuring that existing laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide are not weakened or repealed during the lifetime of the current Parliament./ Influencing the balance of public opinion further against any weakening of the law."[16]

The Kirk strongly disapproves the death penalty: "The Church of Scotland affirms that capital punishment is always and wholly unacceptable and does not provide an answer even to the most heinous of crimes. It commits itself to working with other churches and agencies to advance this understanding, oppose death sentences and executions and promote the cause of abolition of the death penalty worldwide."[17]


The following publications are useful sources of information about the Church of Scotland.

  • Life and Work - the monthly magazine of the Church of Scotland.
  • Church of Scotland Yearbook (known as "the red book") - published annually with statistical data on every parish and contact information for every minister.
  • Reports to the General Assembly (known as "the blue book") - published annually with reports on the work of the church's departments.
  • The Constitution and Laws of the Church of Scotland (known as "the green book") edited by the Very Rev Dr James L. Weatherhead, published 1997 by the Church of Scotland, ISBN 0-86153-246-5

and which has now replaced the venerable

See also

History and concepts
Ministry and congregations
Documents and resources
Bodies to which the Church of Scotland is affiliated
Other bodies


External links

Coordinates: 55°56′59″N 3°11′42″W / 55.94972°N 3.195°W / 55.94972; -3.195

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Church of Scotland — n the Church of Scotland the state church in Scotland …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • Church of Scotland — ► NOUN ▪ the national (Presbyterian) Christian Church in Scotland …   English terms dictionary

  • Church of Scotland —   [ tʃəːtʃəf skɔtlənd], Schottische Kirche …   Universal-Lexikon

  • Church of Scotland — St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh Die Church of Scotland (schott. gäl.: Eaglais na h Alba, dt.: Kirche Schottlands) ist die Nationalkirche in Schottland. Im allgemeinen, informellen Sprachgebrauch wird sie „the Kirk“ genannt. Sie ist nicht, wie… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Church of Scotland — the official Church in Scotland, started by John Knox and Andrew Melville in 1560, and officially accepted in 1690. It does not have bishops like the Church of England, and the members of its clergy are called ministers, rather than priests. Both …   Universalium

  • Church of Scotland — Église d Écosse Drapeau de l Église d Écosse L Église d Écosse (Church of Scotland), est l Église nationale d Écosse. C est une Église presbytérienne résultant de la Réforme écossaise de 1560. Voir aussi …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Church of Scotland — noun The national Presbyterian church of Scotland …   Wiktionary

  • Church of Scotland — noun the national (Presbyterian) Christian Church in Scotland …   English new terms dictionary

  • Church of Scotland — noun (singular) the state church in Scotland …   Longman dictionary of contemporary English

  • Church of Scotland — …   Useful english dictionary

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