New College School of Divinity at Edinburgh University is understood to have had the lowest intake in its 167-year history this year.
Just four people, fewer than a third of last year’s 14 graduates, have applied.
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The recruitment crisis comes at a time when the Kirk is confronted with axing ministers for the first time as it faces up to the reality of a new “post-Christian society”.
The Kirk yesterday agreed to reduce numbers of ministers by up to 200 over the next four years as they retire, leaving 1000 -- and to bring in part-time unpaid ministers in the future.
New College has the highest intake of Kirk divinity scholars in Scotland. In 2008, across all years, it had 28 students. Trinity College Glasgow had just two students in total, St Mary’s College St Andrews four, Christ’s College Aberdeen eight and Highland Theological College in Dingwall three.
The reduction at New College comes as other faiths struggle to attract new recruits.
The last remaining Roman Catholic seminary in Scotland, Scotus College on the outskirts of Glasgow, closed last year after too few candidates came forward.
Fergusson said: “The number of candidates in training is at a worryingly low level. Unless there is a sudden influx we will have numbers here that are scarcely viable.”
The Kirk is reviewing the “skills that are increasingly necessary in a post-Christian society”, Fergusson said, adding: “We need more ministers. Congregations should challenge people in their midst as to whether they have a calling to the ministry.”
The Kirk, already facing a schism over gay ordination, is also struggling to keep the principle of “a minister in every parish”.
It was suggested by former moderator the Very Reverend Alan MacDonald that congregations do not give enough and should “triple their offerings” to meet shortfalls.
A third of congregations already pay for the remaining two-thirds who cannot afford ministers’ upkeep, but some parishes feel this is unfair and sustainable.
The 900 commissioners at the annual General Assembly in Edinburgh also heard alternatives to cutting numbers would include a cut of up to 25% in ministers stipends, which range between £23,000 and £30,000 depending on years of service.
Another painful option would have been to close the Kirk’s pension fund.
Ministries Council convener Reverend Graham Finch said the annual pay bill deficit was £5.7 million. This is being paid for out of reserves that are due to run dry by 2018 at present rates.
Without raiding the coffers congregations would have been charged an extra £1200 to £2400 a year.
He said there was no real alternative to the cuts.
“We need to balance our budget. And the only sensible long-term way of doing that is to reduce the number of posts for which we pay.
“To do anything other than that would be so irresponsible that people would start confusing us with banks and football teams.”
Bill McLaren, elder at Blackford Kirk, Perth Presbytery, called for the General Assembly to be cut rather than “frontline troops”.
He said: “How much does this [assembly] cost? Do we need it every year?”
History Of The New College
New College emerged out of the Disruption of 1843, when more than a third of the ministers and an estimated half of the lay membership left the Church of Scotland in protest against state intervention in the appointment of ministers. Amid the fervour aroused by the Disruption, the struggling Free Church founded New College as an institution for educating the ministry for a new Scottish Christian leadership. New College on The Mound in Edinburgh remained an independent church institution until a union in 1929 with Church of Scotland. It was not until January 1935 that the marriage of New College with Edinburgh University’s faculty of divinity was sealed.
Discrimination persists 40 years after Church approved female ordination
More than 40 years after female ordination was first allowed only a fifth of the Church of Scotland’s ministers are women, Kirk members heard yesterday.
The General Assembly heard of discrimination against women ministers to the extent that one head of a presbytery, who was not named, refused to attend an interview with a candidate for ministry because she was female.
Reverend Alison Grainger, of Acharacle and Ardnamurchan, Lochaber Presbytery, said although she was disappointed, she thought at the time it was “just one of those things”.
But she added that her stance has changed and she yesterday urged those who oppose female ordination to leave the Church.
The Western Highlands and Western Isles were identified as not having adequate representation of women.
The Very Reverend John Christie, Moderator of the General Assembly, earlier backed allowing congregations to choose their own minister.
A spokesman for the Ministries Council said it “laments the fact that there are a number of Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions who still do not have any women elders at all, and that this has remained largely unchallenged by the Church”.