THE Church of Scotland is to investigate a revolutionary overhaul of its traditions which would shake up the role of the Moderator and the General Assembly in Kirk life.
More than 700 senior Church of Scotland figures, including ministers and elders, have agreed to examine plans that would bring to an end the tradition of the annual General Assembly. Instead, it would be held once every two years. The one-year term of office of the Moderator would last for two years.
The historic assembly meets each year to debate issues ranging from social justice to selling Church buildings. This year the independence referendum is high on the agenda. For the past five years the assembly has been the focal point for critical debate on the Kirk's internal struggles over gay ordination, sparked by the appointment of the openly gay Reverend Scott Rennie to an Aberdeen church in 2009.
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The architect of the new assembly plan, Reverend Dr Ken Ross, insisted it would not undermine the key tenet of having no one person in overall charge of the Kirk for an extended period of time.
The move would also save the Church the £500,000 it costs to stage the Assembly each year, money which could then be shared among the 49 presbyteries. It would be coupled with an annual push to bring in more members as congregation numbers this year dipped just below 400,000.
The radical plan was unveiled on the opening day of this year's General Assembly in Edinburgh.
Also yesterday, the Queen raised the independence question in a letter to the event, saying she recognised the role of the Kirk in "holding the people of Scotland together" and "healing divisions". The letter was presented to the opening session, in the presence of Prince Edward and First Minister Alex Salmond.
The Queen wrote: "Throughout the history of Scotland, the Church of Scotland has played a key part in shaping the governance of Scotland and Scottish society … So in this important year of referendum we pray that whatever the outcome, people of faith and people of goodwill will work together for the social good of Scotland."
She added: "In this year in which Scotland will host the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, we commend to you those who will come from around the world as competitors and spectators.
"We are confident that the church will play its full part in welcoming, supporting and extending the hand of friendship to the diverse peoples of the Commonwealth."
First Minister Alex Salmond said: "These are typically gracious and considered remarks from Her Majesty the Queen in which she extends a warm welcome to people from around the world to come and enjoy the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
"Her Majesty is also right to highlight the importance of everyone working together for the social good of Scotland, regardless of the outcome of the referendum, which is something I heartily endorse and should be welcomed across the political spectrum."
Dr Ross, who started the debate on the Kirk overhaul, is the minister of three linked parishes in the Argyll Presbytery. He said local conferences could be held in alternate years if the General Assembly were held every two years.
He said: "It is not just to save money, it is about mission. The funds that are currently spent on the annual assembly could be used to enable presbyteries to be more mission-oriented."
He added: "Presbyterian churches in the US and South Africa about 10 or 12 years ago moved to every second year and it doesn't seem to have caused any reduction in their presbyterianism."
A Church of Scotland spokesman said: "This is an example of the Church being willing to look at the best way of organising itself.
"The Assembly Arrangements Committee has been instructed, as part of an ongoing review, to consider the possibility. It will report back at the General Assembly of 2016."
The Assembly also agreed yesterday to offer Reverend Dr Angus Morrison the chance to take on the Moderator's role next year after he had to pull out this year due to ill health.
Reverend John Chalmers was appointed in his place for this year.