IT was good to read in The Herald yesterday that the Church of Scotland may at long last open up the way it chooses its leader.
At present the Moderator of the Kirk's General Assembly serves for only one year (though there is no specific reason why he or she cannot be re-elected to serve for longer). The Moderator's main, and very demanding, duty is to moderate the General Assembly, which meets in Edinburgh every May.
On the very first day of office, the Moderator has to take charge of the assembly. Some moderators are clearly nervous and intimidated by this, the most demanding of their duties. Even confident, assured moderators can baulk at the scale of the (unnecessary) pomp and tradition that attends the assembly. The proceedings are often complex and legalistic and most moderators need constant advice. It's a daunting task and it's ludicrous that it is the first thing they have to do. Some cynics think this suits the real powers in the Kirk (the clerical mandarins who work in the Kirk's grandiose headquarters at 121 George Street, Edinburgh) just fine. They can retain control.
Many moderators enjoy their year in office. They end it full of confidence; by then they are relishing the authority of the role. But by now it is too late for them to make an impact. Just when they are getting into their stride, they are removed. And too often the Moderator looks like a figurehead, not a leader of an organisation that is crying out for leadership. But Kirk constitutionalists will tell you at the Moderator is technically not a leader anyway.
Far, far more needs to change if the Kirk is going to modernise and adapt so that it can confront the vast problems it faces. The General Assembly is a grand occasion; far too grand and far too expensive, in my view. Most of the several hundred who attend (they are called "commissioners") are middle-aged, elderly or very elderly indeed. To be frank, sometimes they do not understand the proceedings; they don't always know what they are voting for, or against. This is not surprising for the proceedings tend to be obscure and cumbersome. The language used is often archaic.
The assembly needs to be less formal, more friendly and more available to ordinary Kirk members. It should be peripatetic, moving round Scotland, convening at weekends say two or three times a year. There should be far less pomp and ceremonial. The office of Lord High Commioner (the monarch's official representative) which serves no useful purpose at all, should be abolished. It smacks of undue deference in a democratic church which can be at its best when it is truculent, not deferential.
Meanwhile the grand HQ in the centre of Edinburgh should be sold. Far fewer people work there now than a few years ago. Indeed it is half empty. The Kirk could easily be administered from modest rented accommodation in somewhere like Stirling or Perth.
None of these suggestions are new. I know because I made them, and many more, in a book that was published 10 years ago called Outside Verdict. It was commissioned by a fine Moderator, Andrew McLellan. It generated much controversy. The impact was gratifying – but short-lived. There was much discussion around Scotland – Andrew and I took part in a series of "roadshows" – but the national debate soon fizzled out.
My ideas were predicated on the notion that the Kirk was and should continue to be the national Church of Scotland. Candidly, I now wonder whether it has the energy, the will and the resources to fulfil that role.
Perhaps, more realistically, it should be a loose federation of congregations, engaged and committed at local level. Some of these congregations, big and small, can and will achieve much. Right now, as a national body, the Kirk cannot cohere. It has lost its way. It can't even speak to the people of Scotland any more; the Catholic Church is much better at that.