The Church of Scotland, or Kirk, is part of the Catholic or Universal Church. It follows the Presbyterian tradition and emerged from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
However, the origins of the Kirk can be traced further back, to the first stirrings of Christianity in the British Isles with the arrival of St. Ninian and St. Columba among others.
St. Ninian set up his Candida Casa (White House), the first Christian settlement north of Hadrian’s Wall, at Whithorn in 397 AD. St. Columba arrived on the island of Iona in 563 AD and made it the base for his missions to the mainland and other islands until his death some 34 years later.
Our roots in the Reformation go back through John Calvin to Martin Luther, even though it was not until 1560 that the Reformation in Scotland was completed. The first Scottish Protestant martyr, Patrick Hamilton, was burned at the stake in 1528, only eleven years after Luther launched his attack on the Roman Catholic Church.
As in other parts of Europe, the Reformation was brought about by spiritual, intellectual, political, social and economic factors – and by excessive power and corruption amongst the clergy.
In Scotland the movement for reform found its popular leader in John Knox, a follower of the French Reformer, John Calvin. Knox spent much of his life in exile on the continent and in England before returning to Scotland to lead the Reformation there.
Many characteristics associated with the Church of Scotland today – its emphasis on the Bible and preaching, the simplicity of its worship, and the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers – stem from the influence of John Knox and others upon the development of the Church in the years following the Reformation.
As a Presbyterian Church, the Church of Scotland gives substantial place in the running of its affairs to its elders, ‘lay’ people ordained to serve. The Kirk Session, the body of ordained elders within a congregation, meets regularly and is responsible for the spiritual and temporal matters of the congregation. The Minister presides over Kirk Session meetings as Moderator.
Presbyteries are regional units of Church government, comprising Ministers and elders from congregations in a given area, which meet regularly to make decisions upon the running of the Church and its business. There are 47 Presbyteries in all, including one for England and another for Europe. There is no hierarchy, or any permanent position of leadership, in a Presbytery. Everyone has an equal say and business is conducted on the basis of achieving the greatest possible consensus.
Kirk Sessions and Presbyteries are “courts” of the Church, each with its own area of decision-making responsibility and authority. The supreme court of the Church of Scotland is the General Assembly, which meets annually in Edinburgh to decide upon matters related to faith, practical areas of Church policy and the use of resources. Around 800 delegates, known as commissioners, attend the General Assembly as representatives of the parishes and Presbyteries.
Meetings of the General Assembly are chaired by the Moderator of the General Assembly, who leads daily worship, rules on points of order, and signs documents on the Assembly’s behalf. The role is an honorary one, held for a period of 12 months. After the Assembly, the Moderator’s remaining time in office is mainly spent travelling as a Church representative in Scotland, other parts of the British Isles and overseas.
Women became eligible for the eldership in 1966 and for the Ministry in 1968. All Ministers are equal in status, irrespective of years of service or appointment held. The Moderator of any decision-making body, whether the General Assembly, Presbytery, or Kirk Session, is primus inter pares – first among equals.
An Auxiliary Ministry was established in 1980, following the example of some Partner Churches in Africa. Auxiliary Ministers are trained and ordained ministers who work on a part-time and non-stipendiary basis.
Deacons, who can be men or women, are not ordained, but are specially-trained employees who assist Ministers with pastoral care in a parish or elsewhere. Since 1990 they have also been able to participate in Kirk Session and Presbytery meetings.
Readers have authority to preach the Word but are not ordained to celebrate the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.