THE Kirk is set to introduce online baptism for the first time as the clergy seeks new ways to address the needs of worshippers in a digital age.

A landmark report backing the plans will be presented to 730 delegates, known as commissioners, at the Church of Scotland's annual gathering on The Mound in Edinburgh next week.

The document will also include proposals to allow "access to the sacraments while not being physically present in the congregation".

The plans are still at an early stage and will require further research and debate before any change, but they are expected to attract interest at the assembly.

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It is hoped the plans will spark a debate about how to engage more with parishioners while also inviting suggestions for executing baptisms remotely through the internet.

Norman Smith, vice-convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council, described the plans as forward-thinking.

"Most people live out their Christian faith not in church buildings," he said.

"We are responding to where we find ourselves in society in a positive and engaging way.

"It shows that the Church is not behind the times."

Theological and legal experts will discuss how the physical acts of sacrament such as baptism could be carried out if adopted.

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Rev Smith, minister in Granton, Edinburgh, said: "They are the questions that have yet to be addressed and we are yet to have a discussion."

The move to embrace online audiences comes amid an acceptance by the church that the "nature of membership and belonging to the Church of Scotland is becoming more and more blurred".

"As fewer people join up in the traditional sense and as they make choices which include ever greater interaction with the Church through online access and social media, questions arise about online membership and even about access to the sacraments while not being physically present in the congregation," the Kirk report said.

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"There are no easy answers to some of the questions which are already being asked, but, in a world where the fastest growing communities are being fostered online, the committee believes that now is the time to open up a wide ranging discussion on these contemporary developments.

"The committee proposes that this research be done jointly with the Mission and Discipleship Council and the Theological Forum."

The Kirk is looking for new ways to reach people as membership numbers continue to drop and technology plays an increasingly important role.

Joining the Church begins with baptism, one of the two sacraments recognised by the Church of Scotland, the other being the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

Former Moderator Very Reverend Albert Bogle has spearheaded a separate project taking the holy message to the spiritual superhighway with religious apps for the first online congregation and has 1700 now using the website Sanctuary First.

Online worship is popular in the US where evangelical churches have used the internet to stream services and religious messages, will provide a new sphere for prayer.

One Scots minister who has been drawing in an audience for his church sermons which are also put online is Rev Martin Fair at Arbroath St Andrews who has had large numbers tuning in from as far away as Brazil.

Other innovative ways to extend the Church's reach included creating the post of arts minister, part of a £1m push that comes as figures show membership is down from 380,163 in December 2014 to 352,912 last year, and the number of ministers reduced from 811 to 786.

The General Assembly runs from May 21-27.