RADICAL reforms to the Church of Scotland should see the number of presbyteries slashed, central councils merged and new steps taken to decentralise power, a prominent Kirk figure will declare tonight.

Rev Dr Doug Gay, Principal of Trinity College and Lecturer in Practical Theology University of Glasgow, will offer his thoughts on the future of the church in the last of three 2017 Chalmers Lectures at Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral.

Mr Gay will talk about the need to rebalance the Kirk’s federal structure for the sake of mission, but will also warn that in the next 13 years it will have to close unsustainable churches, manage others that are in decline and enable them to grow again, and support the development of growing churches.

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The 46 Scottish presbyteries - a body of Church elders and ministers - should be pared down to just 12 regional, he will say while also observing that “too much power, resource and initiative” is held centrally and that the church, “which asks too much of too many to too little effect,” is excessively bureaucratic.

Mr Gay will say that radical reform is needed to offer “more effective support” to the work of local congregations and that the best way of doing this is through streamlined and more responsive presbyteries.

“Since 1975, we have had 46 Scottish presbyteries, which vary in size from well over 100 to less than 10 charges," he will say. "It’s not uniform, it’s not at the same level - but there is a high level of dissatisfaction across the church with how presbyteries work.

“Because many of them don’t work particularly well at the moment, its hard to imagine giving them more power or more functions and many of them are too small to cope with that.” The presbytery planning process in recent years had further exposed the pressures on congregations, straining the bonds between them.

Each of the new regional presbyteries would have stronger regional leadership and be equipped with substantial devolved financial responsibility for enabling ministry within their boundaries.

Mr Gay will also say tonight that in major institutional reform of any body, “some things will have to be done, which will prove to be very difficult for some of the individuals affected, but which are done in the hope that they will be for the good of the institution as a whole.”

Mr Gay told The Herald: “There has been a long period of decline for the Church, which has been difficult in lots of ways. It has affected lots of congregations, but nationally, the church has been struggling with a shortage of ministers for some time now.

“A lot of work is beginning to try to change that, but the way things are going, if we don’t draw in enough new ministers in the next five years or so, that will force a lot of very difficult decisions on the church. Already, attempts are being made to ration ministers and share them across the country.

“The question is to how give support to local congregations across the country, some of which may be struggling and unable to find a minister. I have been giving thoughts to how the church could address this shortage but I’m also, I suppose, asking some big questions about the overall structure of the church and whether it is set up as well as it could be for facing some big challenges over the next 10 years.”

Asked whether the church had the option of doing nothing, Mr Gay said: “As I said in the first lecture, somebody said to me that there’s no place left to hide. I think this is a time when we have to face up to the fact that the numbers are looking very challenging, in membership decline and the shortage of ministers. Doing nothing is not an option. We have to rise to these challenges.”

* Tonight’s lecture will be broadcast live at churchofscotland.org.uk