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The Church of Scotland ( ), known informally by its Scots language name, The Kirk, 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 Reformation of 1560. Its current pledged membership is about 10% of the Scottish population - though according to the 2001 national census, 42% of the Scottish population claim some form of allegiance to it (see Religion in Scotland).

Position in Scottish society

The 2001 Census
Religion Percentage of Population
Church of Scotland 42.4%
No Religion 27.5%
Roman Catholic 15.9%
Other Christian 6.8%
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 984 active minister, 1,179 congregations, and its official membership at approximately 489,000 comprises about 10% of the population of Scotland. However, in the 2001 national census, 42% of Scots identified themselves as ‘Church of Scotland’ by religion. The Church of Scotland Guild, historically the Kirk's women's movement, is still the largest voluntary organisation in Scotland.

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 Englandmarker). Under its constitution, which is recognised by acts of Parliamentmarker, the Kirk enjoys complete independence from the state in spiritual matters.

The British monarch (when in Scotland) is simply a member of the Church (she is not, as in England, its Supreme Governor). [27318] The monarch’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 19th century.

Governance and administration

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 (of which the Kirk currently has over 40). The supreme body is the annual General Assembly, which meets each May in Edinburghmarker.


The chairperson of each court is known as the 'moderator'—at the local level of the Kirk Session, the moderator is always a minister, normally the parish minister who is ex officio member and Moderator of the Session; 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.


At a national level, the work of the Church of Scotland is chiefly carried out by "Councils", each supported by full-time staff mostly based at the Church of Scotland Officesmarker in Edinburgh. The Councils are:
  • Church and Society Council
  • Ministries Council
  • Mission and Discipleship Council
  • Social Care Council (based at Charis House, Edinburgh)
  • Support and Services Council
  • World Mission Council

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.

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 Parliamentmarker in 1997. Indeed, from 1999-2004 the Parliament met in the Kirk's Assembly Hallmarker in Edinburghmarker, whilst its own building was being constructed. The Church of Scotland actively supports the work of the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office in Edinburgh.

Other Church agencies include:
  • Assembly Arrangements Committee
  • Committee on Chaplains to HM Forces
  • Church of Scotland Guild
  • Committee on Church Art and Architecture (part of the Mission and Discipleship Council)
  • Ecumenical Relations Committee
  • General Treasurer's Department
  • General Trustees (responsible for church buildings)
  • Legal Questions Committee
  • Panel on Review and Reform
  • Principal Clerk's Department
  • Safeguarding Office (child protection)
  • Stewardship and Finance Committee

Church offices

Flag of the Church of Scotland
The Church of Scotland Officesmarker are located at 121 George Street, Edinburghmarker. 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 Finlay A. J. Macdonald.


While the Church of Scotland traces its roots back to the earliest Christians in Scotland, its identity was principally shaped by the Scottish Reformation of 1560. At that point, the church in Scotland broke with Rome, in a process of Protestant reform led, among others, by John Knox. It reformed its doctrines and government, drawing on the principles of John Calvin which Knox had been exposed to while living in Genevamarker, 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, King James believed that Presbyterianism was incompatible with monarchy, declaring "No bishop, no king". and by skillful manipulation of both church and state, 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 judgement of his father, he began to upset this by moving into more dangerous areas. Disapproving of the 'plainness' of the Scottish service he sought to introduce the kind of High Church practice in use in England. The centre piece of this new strategy was the Prayer Book of 1637. Although this was devised by a panel of Scottish bishops, and not that already in use in England, as is so often assumed, Charles' 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 at 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 for twenty years, not only declared the Prayer Book unlawful, but went on to abolish the office of bishop itself. The Church of Scotland was then established on a Presbyterian basis. Charles' 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 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.

Older square-shaped logo of the Church of Scotland
Episcopacy was reintroduced to Scotland after the Restoration, the cause of considerable discontent, especially in the south-west 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, excluding what became the Scottish Episcopal Church.

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 British Parliamentmarker passed the Church of Scotland Act 1921, finally recognising the full independence of the Church in matters spiritual, and as a result of this, and passage of the Church of Scotland (Property and Endowments) Act, 1925, 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 (which emerged from a split in the Free Church of Scotland in 2000).

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.

Theology and practice

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 psalm 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) 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 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 Churchesmarker and the Conference of European Churches.

Current reform

In common with many larger denominations, the Church of Scotland faces many current difficulties. Since the 1950s its membership has continued to decline, now being less than half what it was then. In 2008 the membership dropped below ½ million. The Church faces financial strains and 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 1400 ministers serve about 480,000 members, and a considerably higher number of adherents.

Since the Reformation, one of the church’s tenets has been ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei – a ‘church which is reformed must always be reformed according to the Word of God’. 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.

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 as early as 1968, all ministries and offices in the church have been open to women and men on an equal basis. 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 non-minister to be chosen since George Buchanan, four centuries before. In May 2007 the Rev Sheilagh M. Kesting became the first female minister to be Moderator.

Current issues

As with many other churches (especially in Western Europe and North America), there is a division in the Church of Scotland on how the issues surrounding homosexuality should be addressed. While the church has traditionally adopted a 'hate the sin but love the sinner' approach, in recent years some within the church have pushed for actual homosexual behaviour to be accepted as not sinful. This division of approach is illustrated by widespread opposition to an attempt to install as minister an openly homosexual man who intends to live with his partner once appointed to his charge.In a landmark decision, the General Assembly voted on 23rd May 2009 by 326 to 267 to ratify the appointment of the Reverend Scott Rennie, the Kirk's first openly practising homosexual minster. The decision was reached on the basis the Presbytery had followed the correct procedure. Mr Rennie had won the overwhelming support of his prospective church members at Queen's Cross, Aberdeen but his appointment was in some doubt until extensive debate and this vote by the Commissioners to the Assembly. The General Assembly later agreed a morotorium on the appointment of further practising homosexuals until after a special commission has reported on the matter.
See: Ordination of homosexuals. As a result of these developments, a new grouping of congregations within the Church was begun "to declare their clear commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy", known as the Fellowship of Confessing Churches.


The following publications are useful sources of information about the Church of Scotland.
  • Life and Work - the monthly magazine of the Church of Scotland.
  • 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 0-86153-246-5
and which has now replaced the venerable
  • Practice and Procedure in The Church of Scotland edited by the late Rev. James Taylor Cox, D.D. published by The Committee on General Administration, The Church of Scotland, 1976 (sixth edition) ISBN 0 7152 0326 6
  • Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae - published irregularly since 1866, contains biographies of ministers.
  • The First and Second Books of Discipline of 1560 and 1578.
  • The Book of Common Order latest version of 1994.


  1. Reports to the General Assembly 2008 Legal Questions Committee Statistical Returns Appendix IV
  2. ]
  3. Member Churches, accessed 7 July 2009

See also

History and concepts

Ministry and congregations


Documents and resources


Bodies to which the Church of Scotland is affiliated

Other bodies


External links

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