The Church of Scotland (known informally as The Kirk) is the national church of Scotland, decisively shaped by the Scottish Reformation. The Church is Presbyterian in polity, and Reformed in theology. It traces its roots back to the arrival of Christianity in Scotland, but its identity is principally shaped by the Scottish Reformation of 1560 C.E.
According to the 2001 national census, 42 percent of the Scottish population claim some form of allegiance to the Church of Scotland. It has around 1,400 active ministers, 1,200 congregations, and an official membership of approximately six hundred thousand.
The Church of Scotland traces its roots back to the beginnings of Christianity in Scotland, but its identity is principally shaped by the Scottish Reformation of 1560. At that time, the church in Scotland broke with the Roman Catholic Church. This period of Protestant reform was principally led by John Knox (1514–1572). The Church of Scotland reformed its doctrines and government, adopting the principles of John Calvin (1509–1564) who had influenced Knox while he had lived in Switzerland. In 1560, the Scottish Parliament abolished papal jurisdiction and approved Calvin's Confession of Faith, but did not accept many of the principles laid out in Knox's First Book of Discipline, which argued, amongst other things, that all of the assets of the old church should pass to the new. The 1560 Reformation Settlement was not ratified by the crown for some years, and the question of church government also remained unresolved. In 1572, the acts of 1560 were finally approved by the young James VI, but the Concordat of Leith also allowed the crown to appoint bishops with the church's approval. John Knox himself had no clear views on the office of bishop, preferring to see them renamed as “superintendents;” but in response to the new Concordat, a Presbyterian party emerged headed by Andrew Melville, the author of the Second Book of Discipline.
Melville and his supporters enjoyed some temporary successes—most notably in the Golden Act of 1592, which gave parliamentary approval to Presbyterian courts. However, by skillful manipulation of both church and state, King James steadily reintroduced parliamentary and then diocesan Episcopacy. By the time he died in 1625, the Church of Scotland had a full panel of bishops and archbishops. General Assemblies, moreover, met only at times and places approved by the crown.
Charles I inherited a settlement in Scotland based on a balanced compromise between Calvinist doctrine and Episcopal practice. Lacking the political judgment of his father, he began to upset this situation by moving into more dangerous areas. Disapproving of the “plainness” of the Scottish service, he sought to introduce the kind of High Church practice used in England. The center piece of this new strategy was the Prayer Book of 1637. Though devised by a panel of Scottish bishops, Charles's insistence that it be drawn up in secret and adopted sight unseen led to widespread discontent. When the Prayer Book was finally introduced at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh in the summer of 1637, it caused an outbreak of rioting, which spread across Scotland. In early 1638 the National Covenant was signed by large numbers of Scots, protesting the introduction of the Prayer Book and other liturgical innovations that had not first been tested and approved by free Parliaments and General Assemblies of the Church. In November 1638 the General Assembly in Glasgow, the first to meet in 20 years, declared the Prayer Book unlawful and went on to abolish the office of bishop itself. The Church of Scotland was then established on a Presbyterian basis. Charles's attempt at resistance to these developments led to the outbreak of the [[Bishops' Wars]. In the ensuing civil wars, the Scots Covenanters at one point made common cause with the English parliamentarians—resulting in the Westminster Confession being agreed by both. Ironically, this document remains the subordinate standard of the Church of Scotland, but was replaced in England after the Restoration.
Episcopacy was reintroduced to Scotland after the Restoration and became the cause of considerable discontent, especially in the southwest of the country where the Presbyterian tradition was strongest. The modern situation largely dates from 1690, when after the Glorious Revolution the majority of Scottish bishops were non-jurors, and in response Presbyterian government was guaranteed by law. However, controversy still surrounded the relationship between the Church of Scotland's independence and the civil law of Scotland. The interference of civil courts with Church decisions, particularly over the right to appoint ministers, led to a number of groups seceding beginning in 1733 and culminating in the Disruption of 1843, when a large portion of the Church broke away to form the Free Church of Scotland. The seceding groups tended to divide and reunite among themselves, leading to a proliferation of Presbyterian denominations in Scotland.
In the 1920s the United Kingdom Parliament passed the Church of Scotland Act (1921), finally recognizing the full independence of the Church in matters spiritual. As a result of this act of Parliament, the Kirk was able to unite with the United Free Church of Scotland in 1929. The United Free Church of Scotland was itself the product of the union of the former United Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the majority of the Free Church of Scotland in 1900.
In Scotland today, several Presbyterian denominations are independent from the Church of Scotland. These include the Free Church of Scotland (formed of those congregations that refused to unite with the United Presbyterian Church in 1900), the United Free Church of Scotland (formed of congregations which refused to unite with the Church of Scotland in 1929), the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (which broke from the Free Church of Scotland in 1893), the Associated Presbyterian Churches (which emerged as a result of a split in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in the 1980s), and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) (which emerged from a split in the Free Church of Scotland in the 1990s).
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Although the Church of Scotland is the national church, it is not a "state church," and thus it is dissimilar to the established Church of England because the Church of Scotland enjoys complete independence from the state in spiritual matters.
When in Scotland, the Queen of England is simply a member of the Church (she is not, as in England, its Supreme Governor). The queen’s accession oath includes a promise to "defend the security" of the Church of Scotland. She is formally represented at the annual General Assembly by a Lord High Commissioner (unless she chooses to attend in person). The role is purely formal.
The Church of Scotland is committed to its “distinctive call and duty to bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry” (Article 3 of its Articles Declaratory). In practice, this means that the Kirk maintains a presence in every community in Scotland and exists to serve not only its members but all Scots (the majority of funerals in Scotland are taken by its ministers). It also means that the Kirk pools its resources to ensure a continued presence in every part of Scotland.
The Church played a leading role in the provision of universal education in Scotland (the first such provision in the modern world), largely due to its desire that all people should be able to read the Bible. However, today it does not operate schools—these having been entrusted into the care of the state in the later half of the nineteenth century.
The Church of Scotland’s Social Care Council (also known as "CrossReach") is the largest provider of social care in Scotland today, running projects for various disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, including care for the elderly, help with alcoholism, drug, and mental health problems, and assistance for the homeless. Additionally, the Church of Scotland Guild, historically the Kirks' woman's movement, is still the largest voluntary organization in Scotland.
The national Church has often been involved in Scottish politics. It has been a firm supporter of Scottish devolution, and was one of the parties involved in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which resulted in the setting up of the Scottish Parliament in 1997. From 1999–2004, the Parliament met in the Kirk's Assembly Hall in Edinburgh, while its own building was being constructed. The Church of Scotland actively supports the work of the Scottish Churches' Parliamentary Office in Edinburgh. Additionally, the Church of Scotland is a firm opponent of nuclear weaponry.
The Church of Scotland is Presbyterian in polity, and Reformed in theology. The most recent articulation of its legal position, the Articles Declaratory (1921), spells out its key concepts, which are identified below.
As a Presbyterian church, the Kirk has no bishops, but is rather governed by elders and ministers (collectively called presbyters) sitting in a series of courts. Each congregation is led by a Kirk Session. The Kirk Sessions, in turn, are answerable to regional presbyteries (the Kirk currently has over 40). The supreme body is the annual General Assembly, which meets each May in Edinburgh.
The chairperson of each court is known as the moderator—at the local level of the Kirk Session, the moderator is normally the parish minister; Presbyteries and the General Assembly elect a moderator each year. The Moderator of the General Assembly serves for the year as the public representative of the Church, but beyond that enjoys no special powers or privileges and is in no sense the leader or official spokesperson of the Kirk. At all levels, moderators may be either elders or ministers.
The Church of Scotland Offices are located in the city of Edinburgh. Their imposing office buildings were designed in a Scandinavian style by the architect Sydney Mitchell and built in 1909–1911 for the United Free Church of Scotland. Following the union of the churches in 1929, a matching extension was built in the 1930s.
The basis of faith in the Church of Scotland is the Word of God, which it views as being “contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.” Its principal subordinate standard is the The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), although liberty of opinion is granted on those matters “which do not enter into the substance of the faith” (Art. 2 and 5).
The Church of Scotland has no compulsory prayer book although it does have a hymn book (the fourth edition was published in 2005) and its Book of Common Order contains recommendations for public worship that are usually followed fairly closely in the case of sacraments and ordinances. Preaching is the central focus of most services. Traditionally, worship is centered on the singing of metrical psalms and paraphrases, supplemented by Christian music. The typical service lasts about an hour, leading up to the climax of a 15-minute sermon near the end. There is normally no responsive liturgy. However, worship is the responsibility of the minister in each parish, and the style of worship can vary and be quite experimental. In recent years, a variety of modern song books have been used in order to appeal more to contemporary trends in music. Additionally, elements from the Iona Community's liturgies are incorporated into some congregations.
In common with other Protestant denominations, the Church recognizes two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion (the Lord's Supper). The Church baptizes both believing adults and the children of Christian families. Communion in the Church of Scotland today is open to Christians of whatever denomination, without precondition. Communion services are usually taken fairly seriously in the Church; traditionally, a congregation held only three or four communion services per year, although practice now greatly varies between congregations. In some congregations communion is celebrated once a month.
Theologically, the Church of Scotland is reformed in the Calvinist tradition and is a member of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. However, its longstanding decision to respect "liberty of opinion on matters not affecting the substance of the faith," means it is relatively tolerant of a variety of theological positions, including both conservative and liberal interpretations of Scripture.
The Church of Scotland is a member of ACTS (‘Action of Churches Together in Scotland’) and, through its Committee on Ecumenical Relations, it works closely with other denominations in Scotland. The present inter-denominational cooperation marks a distinct change in attitude in certain quarters of the Church from the early twentieth century and before, when opposition to Irish Roman Catholic immigration was vocal. The Church of Scotland is a member of the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches.
The Church of Scotland, Free Church of Scotland and Christians from various denominations set up many missionary societies from the Scottish Missionary Society (1796) to the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society (1841) and the Female Society of the Free Church of Scotland for promoting Christian Instruction among the Females of India. In 1824 the Church of Scotland decided to enter the mission field. The first missionaries were sent to Bombay in 1829, to Calcutta in 1830, to Poona in 1834 and to Madras in 1837. It was decided that a key focus of the missionary strategy would be education and the creation of local schools. The language of instruction was English. Missionary efforts were considerably hampered by the Disruption of the 1840s, for approximately 25 years. A further wave of missionary activity was launched by the Church of Scotland in the second half of the nineteenth century, with missions in the Punjab in 1857, the Eastern Himalayas in 1870, Nyasaland in 1876, I'chang in China in 1878, Kenya in 1901.
Some of the more prominent missionaries include:
Robert Morrison the first Christian Protestant missionary in China; William Milne (1785 – 1822) the second Protestant missionary to China. David Livingstone (1813 – 1873) who was a medical missionary with the London Missionary Society; Alexander Williamson of the United Presbyterian Missionary Society of Scotland who went to China in 1855;
The United Presbyterian Missionary Society of Scotland sent its agents to China in 1864. Work was commenced at Ningbo, and afterwards extended to Yantai, but these stations were left, and Manchuria become the special sphere of the Society. The Rev. Alexander Williamson, LL.D., was the patriarch of the Mission, having been in China since 1855, working in various departments. He devoted himself entirely to literary work, and prepared some books of Christian history and doctrine.
The Church of Scotland faces many challenges in common with many other denominations. Since the 1950s its membership has continued to decline, now being less than half what it was then. It faces financial strains including the costly upkeep of many older ecclesiastical buildings. Recruitment of ministers was, until recently, a further concern. However, the number of candidates has increased in recent years. Today, around 1,400 ministers serve about six hundred thousand members, and a considerably higher number of adherents.
As in most western denominations, the membership of the Church of Scotland is also aging, and it has struggled to maintain its relevance to the younger generations. The Church has made attempts to address their problems, at both a congregational and national level. The annual National Youth Assembly and the presence of youth delegates at the General Assembly have served as a visible reminder of the Church’s commitment. The Church's National Youth Assembly has grown in prominence and attendance in recent years.
Since 1968 all ministries and offices in the church have been open to women and men on an equal basis. Significantly, the majority of ministers now in training are women. However, it was not until 2004 that a woman was chosen to be Moderator of the General Assembly. Dr. Alison Elliot was also the first elder to be chosen since George Buchanan, four centuries before. The Rev. Sheilagh M. Kesting was nominated as Moderator for 2007, making her the first female minister to be Moderator.
Recently, the General Assembly produced its “Church without Walls” report (2001) which embodies an ethos of change and a focus on the grassroots life of the Church rather than its institutions.
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