Legislation which could allow ministers and deacons to conduct same-sex marriages will be among the matters considered at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which opens on Saturday.
Ministers, elders, deacons and special guests will take part in a “blended” assembly for the second year running due to the pandemic, with only a small number of people at the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh and others watching online.
The Duke of Cambridge, Lord High Commissioner to the assembly, will be among those attending in-person as he addresses the opening and closing events.
During the course of the assembly, the Kirk’s Legal Questions Committee will bring forward legislation which could ultimately allow parish ministers and deacons to conduct same-sex marriages.
If the draft plan is approved by commissioners, it will be shared with all presbyteries for their consideration under the Church of Scotland’s Barrier Act 1697 and brought back to a future General Assembly.
Under the new proposed Act, ministers and deacons would be one step closer to applying for a licence to become authorised celebrants for same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Under the over-arching terms of the committee’s proposed legislation, no-one would be required to participate in the solemnisation of, or be involved in the arrangements for, a same-sex marriage unless they explicitly wish to do so.
Those taking part in the assembly will also make key decisions that will affect the future of the Kirk against the backdrop of “unprecedented challenges” caused by the pandemic, which has had a “stark” impact on finances.
A report from the Assembly Trustees states there is an £11.4 million budget deficit for 2021 and it has budgeted to draw more than £11 million from reserves this year to support the work of the church.
It notes that going forward, the church is likely to be organised around nine presbyteries, down from 43, which will be “properly resourced to become the agents who can redesign the church for mission”.
The assembly will also consider a report from the Faith Nurture Forum with proposals to reduce the number of full-time ministry posts and vacant charge levels by 2025.
The Assembly Trustees propose around 600 full-time equivalent ministries and a target of no more than 60 further vacant charges – congregations that do not have a full-time minister – at any one time, representing a reduction of around 200 posts.
The report from the Assembly Trustees states: “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 10 years.”
Lord Wallace of Tankerness QC will be installed as the next Moderator of the General Assembly on Saturday, succeeding Rt Rev Dr Martin Fair.
Speaking after he was named Moderator-designate, Lord Wallace said: “I am delighted to have been asked to take up the role and feel humbled and honoured that people have put their trust in me.
“I am both excited and daunted about the challenge of the task that lies ahead and to be honest I have had to pinch myself that this is actually happening.”
Lord Wallace, a former deputy first minister of Scotland and Liberal Democrat MSP, is a member of St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney.
The General Assembly will close on Thursday afternoon.