Voices split over future of Church

Modernisers within the Church of Scotland yesterday called for a radical overhaul of the Kirk’s ruling body, accusing it of "control- freakery".

Members warned that unless the General Assembly was reformed, far-reaching change to stave off current problems would be quashed.

Reformers want to see the Kirk run more like a business, with a managing director and an executive body with the power to make decisions between annual assemblies.

Other suggestions include a pared-down committee structure and new forms of conference-style debate at the assembly itself.

The call follows concern that the current structure is failing to deal with a raft of problems such as falling congregations and financial hardship.

And some ministers argue that assembly decisions are taken by aging commissioners who don’t like change and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

However, others insist the General Assembly has already "grasped the nettle" of reform and will continue to take the necessary tough decisions.

Last week, the Rt Rev Professor Iain Torrance, the Moderator, insisted: "We are not re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

His views were echoed by Helen McLeod, the convener of the Kirk’s assembly council, who said: "There has been radical thinking in the control of budgets, with the introduction of team ministries and on baptism.

"These are signals the Kirk is aware of the need to be more relevant to society."

But other voices insist more needs to be done.

The Rev Dr John Miller, a former moderator of the General Assembly, believes the role of moderator should be extended to end the "vacuum of leadership" in the Church.

The Rev John Munro, an Edinburgh minister, went further, arguing that the role of moderator should be removed.

He believes the Kirk’s failure to adopt proposals to form a "super-church" of the four leading Protestant denominations showed how far away it was from reform.

"We need a business-style structure which can take tough decisions quickly," he said. "Change has been talked about for 25 years, but it is not moving fast enough."

He added that radical voices were "isolated and marginalised" because of the "control-freakery" at the centre.

However, the Rev Peter Neilson, the convener of a special commission which delivered the radical Church Without Walls report to the 2001 General Assembly, said reform could be achieved through the assembly.

"Of course more needs to be done to improve debates and tackle the age profile of those taking part, but this year we have seen a genuine willingness to listen and a flexibility to introduce change. We need more of the same next year."