Church of Scotland

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The Church of Scotland (C of S, also known informally as The Kirk; until the 17th century officially the Kirk of Scotland) is the Christian national church of Scotland. It is a Presbyterian Church, decisively shaped by the Scottish Reformation.

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. Its official membership is about 12% of the Scottish population.

The basis of faith for 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 Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), although here liberty of opinion is granted on those matters ‘which do not enter into the substance of the faith’ (Art. 2 and 5).

The motto of the Church of Scotland is nec tamen consumebatur (Latin) - 'Yet it was not consumed', an allusion to Exodus 3:2 and the Burning Bush, though in the Vulgate this verse is phrased differently.


Position in Scottish Society

The 2001 Census:
Religion Percentage of Population
Church of Scotland 42%
No Religion 28%
Roman Catholic 16%
Other Christian 7%
No Answer 5%
Islam 0.8%
Buddhism 0.1%
Sikhism 0.1%
Judaism 0.1%
Hinduism 0.1%
Other Religions 0.5%

The Church of Scotland has around 1,400 active ministers, 1,200 congregations, and its membership at approximately 600,000 comprises about 12% of the population of Scotland. However, in the 2001 national census, 42% of Scots identified themselves as ‘Church of Scotland’ by religion.

Although it is the national church, the Kirk is not a "state church", and in this, and other, regards is dissimilar to the Church of England (the established church in England). Under its constitution, which is recognised by acts of Parliament, the Kirk enjoys complete independence from the state in spiritual matters. It is thus both established and free.

The British monarch (when in Scotland) is simply a member of the Church (she is not, as in England, its "Supreme Governor"). The monarch’s coronation 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 redistributes resources from wealthy congregations to ensure its continued presence in other parts of Scotland.

The Church played a leading role in the provision of universal education in Scotland (the first such provision in the world), largely due to its desire that all people should be able to read the Scripture. However, today it does not operate schools - these having been entrusted into the care of the state in the later half of the 19th 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 disadvantages and vulnerable groups including care for the elderly, help with alcoholism, drug and mental health problems and assistance for the homeless.

The national Church has never shied from involvement in Scottish politics. In 1919, the General Assembly created a Church and Nation Committee, which in 2005 became the Church and Society Council. The Church of Scotland was (and is) a firm opponent of nuclear weaponry. Supporting devolution, it was one of the parties involved in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which resulted in the setting up of the Scottish Parliament in 1997. Indeed, from 1999-2004 the Parliament met in the Kirk's Assembly Halls in Edinburgh, whilst its own building was being constructed.

Governance and administration

Standard of the Church of Scotland

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 the key concepts.

Courts and assemblies

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: see list). 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.

Church offices

The Church of Scotland offices are located at 121 George Street, Edinburgh, EH2 4YN. These imposing buildings - popularly known in Church circles as "one-two-one" - were designed in a Scandinavian-influenced 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 offices of the Moderator, Principal Clerk, General Treasurer, Law Department and all the Church councils are located at 121 George Street, with the exception of the Social Care Council (CrossReach). There is no "chief executive", but each Council has its own Council Secretary. The Principal Clerk to the General Assembly (since 1996) is the Very Reverend Dr Finlay A. J. Macdonald; the Depute Clerk is the Reverend Dr Marjory A. MacLean.


In 1559 John Knox returned from ministering in Geneva to lead the reformation in Scotland
In 1559 John Knox returned from ministering in Geneva to lead the reformation in Scotland

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 point, the church in Scotland broke with Rome and adopted Presbyterianism, in a process of Protestant reform led, among others, by John Knox. It reformed its doctrines and government on the Presbyterian principles of John Calvin which Knox had been exposed to while living in Switzerland. In 1560, the Scottish Parliament adopted the polity of the Church set out in the Scots Confession of 1560 and the First Book of Discipline. In 1582, with the Second Book of Discipline, full Presbyterianism became the form of church government. Over the next century or so, there was tension between supporters of Presbyterianism and Episcopacy, and bishops even were imposed on the Church at times. The 1638 National Covenant was signed by large numbers of Scots in protest at this, and was a factor in the strife between Kirk and King (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 of Faith being agreed by both. Ironically, this document remains the subordinate standard of the Church of Scotland, but was replaced in England after the Restoration.

The modern situation largely dates from 1690, when as part of the Glorious Revolution, the reformed, established, Presbyterian nature of the Kirk was guaranteed. 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. This began with the secession of 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.

However, in the 1920s, the United Kingdom Parliament passed the Church of Scotland Act 1921, finally recognising the full independence of the Church in matters spiritual, and as a result of this 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.

Some independent Scottish Presbyterian denominations still remain. These include the Free Church of Scotland (formed of those congregations which 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).

Theology and sociology

The basis of faith for 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 Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), although here 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 4th edition was published in 2005) and its Book of Common Order contains recommendations for public worship which are usually followed fairly closely in the case of sacraments and ordinances. Preaching is the central focus of most services. Traditionally, Scots worship centred on the singing of metrical psalms and paraphrases, but for generations these have been supplemented with Christian music of all types. The typical Church of Scotland service lasts about an hour, and has been characterised jokingly as a hymn-prayer sandwich, in which everything leads up to a climax in a 15-minute sermon near the end. There is normally no sung or 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 widely used in order to appeal more to contemporary trends in music, and elements from Iona Community liturgies are incorporated in some congregations. Although traditionally worship is conducted by the parish minister, lay participation in services is becoming more frequent.

In common with other Protestant denominations, the Church recognises two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion (the Lord's Supper). The Church baptises 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 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 (ultimately in the Calvinist tradition). 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 those who would term themselves conservative and liberal in their doctrine, ethics and interpretation of Scripture. (The 19th-century Scottish distinction was between 'evangelicals' and 'moderates'.) This is not quite the English concept of a ‘broad church’, but in practice it comes close to it.

The Church of Scotland is a member of ACTS (‘Action of Churches Together in Scotland’) and, through, its Committee on Ecumenical Relations, works closely with other denominations in Scotland. The present inter-denominational cooperation marks a distinct change from attitudes in certain quarters of the Church in the early twentieth century and before, when opposition to Irish Roman Catholic immigration was vocal (see Catholicism in Scotland). The Church of Scotland is a member of the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches.

Current reform

The Church of Scotland today faces many grave difficulties. Since the 1950s its membership has continued to fall – now being less than half what it was then. It faces problems of finance and the upkeep of a legacy of ancient church buildings. Until recently it also faced a shortage of candidates for the ministry – but recruitment is now significantly higher. Today, 1400 ministers serve about 550,000 members and a considerably higher number of adherents.

One of the tenets of the Church since the Reformation has been its notion of being an ecclesia reformata semper reformanda – a church which is reformed, but always in the process of reforming. Recently, the 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 necessary institutions.

As in most western denominations, the membership of the Church of Scotland is also ageing, 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 attendence in recent years.

Since as early as 1968, all ministries and offices in the church have been open to women on an equal basis. Significantly, the majority of ministers in training are now 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 following publications are useful sources of information about the Church of Scotland.

  • Life and Work - the monthly magazine of the Church of Scotland.
  • The Church of Scotland Yearbook (known as "the red book") - published annually with statistical data on every parish and contact information for every minister.
  • Reports to the General Assembly (known as "the blue book") - published annually with reports on the work of the church's departments.
  • The Constitution and Laws of the Church of Scotland (known as "the green book") edited by the Very Rev Dr James L. Weatherhead, published 1997 by the Church of Scotland, ISBN 0861532465
  • Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae - published irregularly since 1866, contains biographies of ministers.

See also

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