Delegates at the Church of Scotland's General Assembly voted to freeze the fees parishes are required to pay to the Kirk's head office, which one minister claimed had turned churches into "tax collectors", picking the pockets of pensioners.

The challenge to the hierarchy came as the Assembly also agreed to back sweeping reforms of church structures aimed at safeguarding its future.

During discussion of a Radical Action Plan which had been demanded by last year's General Assembly, The Rev Dr Karen Fenwick, of Lowson Memorial Church in Forfar led a rebellion over the 'Ministries and Mission' fees, which largely go to pay the stipend and pension of the local minister.

Since the introduction of austerity in the UK, these charges have risen by nearly a quarter, the Rev Dr Fenwick said.

"Last year they rose by nine per cent and six per cent the year before. But stipends and pensions haven't risen by nine per cent," she added.

The burden of paying these fees - which can be up to around £50,000 per year for a parish, depending on its income - overwhelms other local fundraising, she argued.

"It comes at a great cost. Fundraising which used to support our local mission is now going solely to pay ministries and mission. We have changed from being fishers of men to being tax collectors."

The biggest givers in most congregations are pensioners, she added. "We are being asked year on year to go and pick the pockets of our pensioners. I don't know what more they can give."

The Kirk was taking a principled stand against policies which increase poverty such as the Unversal Credit benefit, while imposing a 'temple tax' on congregations she claimed.

The call for an immediate freeze on ministries and mission increases was resisted as it risked contradicting an indicative budget already passed by the Assembly on Saturday. But several other speakers supported the Rev Dr Fenwick's call. Rev Scott Rennie of Queens Cross, Aberdeen, said: "We need a system that will support the poorest churches and communities but we also need a system that does not disincentivise churches that do well."

A compromise saw the assembly back a freeze on fee increases from 2021, until new structures and proposals agreed under the Radical Action Plan are in place.

Archie McDowall, the Kirk's Deputy Treasurer said the decision risked adding £1.5m to the deficit the plan is designed to help claw back.

He said ministries and mission payments did not just pay minister's stipends but contributed to other costs including training, the General Assembly, legal support and safeguarding.

"The decision means that congregations with reducing income will continue to benefit from reducing contributions while those with increasing income will see their contributions frozen," he said, describing it as a challenge, rather than a problem.

The Assembly was supportive however of the action plan put forward by the Assembly Council which will bring about a major shake-up of the Church of Scotland as a whole and put it on a stable footing for the future.

Measures backed by the Assembly will see the creation of a £20-25 million growth fund, and rule changes to allow the church to take new forms to suit local needs across the country.

There is to be a particular emphasis on engaging the under 40s and to tackle the shortage of ministers, while the Kirk will look at selling redundant buildings to free up funds.

In combination with the changes agreed on Monday, which include a 20-30 per cent cut in staffing costs at the Church of Scotland's Edinburgh headquarters and a reduction in the number of presbyteries from 43 to 12, the intention is to place the Kirk on a fresh footing as it wrestles with falling attendance and income and a growing deficit which reached £4.46 million last year.

Even the presbyterian model of Church governance is up for grabs, with the Assembly supporting a proposal by the Rev Gordon Kennedy for a commission to be set up to review the effectiveness of presbyteries, reporting back by 2021.