General Assembly of the Church of Scotland


General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is the sovereign and highest court of the Church of Scotland, and is thus the Church's governing body.

Church courts

As a Presbyterian church, the Church of Scotland is governed by courts of elders rather than by bishops. At the bottom of the hierarchy of courts is the Kirk Session, the court of the parish; representatives of Kirk Sessions form the Presbytery, the local area court. Formerly there were also Synods at regional level, with authority over a group of presbyteries, but these have been abolished. At national level, the General Assembly stands at the top of this structure.

Meetings

The General Assembly usually meets for a week of intensive deliberation once a year in May.
Ministers, elders and deacons are eligible to be "Commissioners" to the General Assembly. Typically a parish minister would attend the Assembly once every four years, accompanied by an elder from that congregation. The Assembly also has youth representatives and a few officials.

Meetings are usually held in the Assembly Hall on the Mound, Edinburgh. This was built for the Free Church in the 19th century and became the Assembly Hall for the reunited Church of Scotland after the union of 1929. The Moderator presides from the Moderator's chair. In front of him/her, the clerks to the Assembly and other officials are seated around a table in a fenced area popularly but unofficially known as the "playpen". Behind the Moderator is the throne gallery (used by the Monarch or the Lord High Commissioner), which can only be reached through a separate stairway not directly from the Assembly Hall; this symbolises the independence of the church from the Crown in matters spiritual, whilst recognising the status of the Monarch (both constitutionally and theologically).

The General Assembly can also meet elsewhere. A meeting of the Assembly was held in Glasgow to mark the city's status as European City of Culture. When the Scottish Parliament was instituted in 1999, the Assembly Hall was used by the Parliament until the new building at Holyrood was completed in 2004. During these years, the Assembly met in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (1999) and the Usher Hall (2001); in the other years the Parliament temporarily moved out to allow the Assembly to use its own "home".

The General Assembly has its own Standing Orders. One particular example is Standing Order 54, which requires any proposal requiring additional expenditure to have been first considered by the Assembly's Stewardship and Finance Committee.

Functions

The General Assembly has three basis functions: legislative, deliberative and judicial. The ongoing administration is delegated to councils and committees, which have to report annually to the Assembly. Each is invited to send Commissioners on a rota basis, normally once ever four years. The Commissioners would be the minister of the parish plus one elder. Each Presbytery has to nominate Commissioners annually.

Legislation

The General Assembly can and does pass legislation governing the affairs of the Church. The Assembly discusses issues affecting church and society; the General Assembly is invited to "receive" reports from its committees and councils. Attached to each report are proposed "deliverances" on which the Assembly is invited to approve, reject or modify.

Judicial functions

As a judicial body, the Assembly usually delegates most of its powers to the "Commission of Assembly" or to special tribunals.

Officials

The Assembly elects a Moderator to preside (see also the list of previous Moderators). The Queen is personally represented by a Lord High Commissioner, who has no vote.

The Assembly also has "members" separate from the Commissioners - mainly officials who sit at the clerks' table:
* The Principal Clerk who advises on church law and procedure;
* The Depute Clerk who records the minutes and assists the Principal Clerk
* The Procurator, the Kirk's chief legal adviser (always QC, a senior Advocate)
* The Solicitor, who also advises on legal issues
* The Convener and Vice-Convener of the Assembly's Business Committee
* The minutes recorder, who assists the Depute Clerk


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