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A short introduction to the Church of Scotland

The beginnings of the Christian church in Scotland can be traced to around the 5th century. At that time there was Celtic (pronounced Keltic) missionary activity with St Ninian and St Columba being the best known. The Celtic church worship style changed when Roman Catholicism came to prominence in the 11th century under King Malcolm III and Queen Margaret.

Scotland had many links with Europe and was greatly influenced during the period of the Reformation. At this time Scotland's main links were with France, the Auld Aliance, England was a common enemy. Scots were influenced by the Council of Basel in the 15th century, and by Luther, Zwingli and, Calvin and the Church of Scotland was legally established in 1560. In the 17th century, following the union of the Crowns of Scotland and England in 1603, attempts were made to make the Church of Scotland conform to the Church of England and to accept its heirarchy of Bishops and its allegiance to Royalty. This led to conflict and persecution, ending in 1690 with the Revolution Settlement establishing the reformed church in its Presbyterian form as the national church of Scotland.

In the mid 18th Century through to the mid 19th century there were considerable problems and splits in the church, in particular over the church's involvement with the civil authority. The largest split happened in 1843, when over a third of the Church seceded over freedom from civil intervention in the appointment of ministers. Most of the problems were resolved around the turn of the century with a large reunion in 1900 and the largest in 1929. Sadly, however, at each reunion there was a minority which did not accept it and this continues to this day.

The Church of Scotland's 'Subordinate Standard' is the Westminster Confession and the Head of the Church is Jesus Christ. The 16th century Scots Confession and Heidelberg Catechism came to be overshadowed by the 17th century Westminster Confession, which in turn was challenged in the following two centuries, until a late 19th century 'conscience clause' effectively reduced its doctrinal status. (These documents will be available soon under resources)

The Church of Scotland is governed by Courts. The Kirk Session oversees the local congregation and its parish. the Kirk Session consists of elders under the Moderation of a minister. There is one elder for roughly twenty members, and most are responsible for a district of the parish. Presbyteries consist of all the ministers and an equal number of elders. there used to be a higher Court called a Synod and it consisted of a proportion of ministers and an equal number of elders representative of all the presbyteries in the region, but they were discontinued a number of years ago. The annual meeting of the General Assembly consists of around 600 ministers and 600 elders, all representative of the presbyteries, with all ministers attending normally once every four years. Each of these courts has a highly developed committee structure, which may include other members of the Church, and those at national level now employ full-time staff.

Forms of worship are varied in the Kirk and varied from the formal High Kirk Tradition to the modern Evangelical style. There is a Book of Common Order, with editions in 1940, 1979 and the highly acclaimed current edition. This Book of Common Order is a guide and not a fixed liturgy. The Lord's Supper or Holy Communion is usually celebrated at either monthly or quarterly intervals, although in some areas a weekly communion is now being celebrated. Worship on the Lord's Day consists of singing Psalms and Hymns, Prayers, Scripture Readings and a Sermon.

You can find out more about the Church of Scotland by clicking on the index below.

Courts of the Church
The Kirk Session
The Presbytery
The General Assembly
The Moderator of the General Assembly
The General Assembly Boards and Committees
Membership of General Assembly Boards & Committees
Full-time Staff
Names of General Assembly Boards and Committees
Church of Scotland Statistics


Like other branches of the Universal Church, the Church of Scotland can trace its beginnings to the dawn of Christianity and particularly to the first evangelising journeys of St.Ninian and St. Columba in Scotland, in the fifth and sixth centuries respectively.

The emergence of the Kirk as a distinctive national church with special responsibility for the spiritual welfare of all the people dates from the Reformation of 1560, after which the present system of Presbyterian government was gradually evolved.

Today the Church of Scotland is the Established or National Church of Scotland. Its establishment, however, is quite different from its sister National Church south of the border, the Church of England.

It also accepts responsibility to provide religious services for the people of every part of Scotland.


In accordance with its Constitution, drawn up and approved by the Church itself and recognised by Parliament, the Church of Scotland enjoys complete independence from the State in spiritual matters. It is therefore both an "established" and a "free" Church. This description has to be borne in mind when comparing the religious situation in Scotland and England. South of the border the national church is the Church of England with a very different form of establishment. Other English non-conformist denominations are described as "Free Churches", a category in which the Church of Scotland is erroneously included because of its position as a "free" Church. Though very different in organisation (Presbyterian and Anglican) and in the nature of their establishment, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England are the two national churches of the United Kingdom.

While the Sovereign has no formal place in the Church of Scotland - Jesus Christ is its sole king and head - she is represented every year at the General Assembly by a Lord High Commissioner, appointed by the Queen on a recommendation from the Prime Minister. The Queen has occasionally attended the Assembly in person, but the normal practice is for the Lord High Commissioner to be present and to report personally to her on the proceedings after the Assembly.

The role of the Sovereign or her representative at the Assembly is purely formal. He or she neither opens or closes the Assembly and takes no part in the proceedings other than delivering addresses at the opening and closing sessions.

Courts of the Church:

In the Presbyterian structure of church government, authority is vested in church courts, as distinct from an episcopal hierarchy of bishops and archbishops. At the level of the congregation the court is the Kirk Session; the next court is the Presbytery and finally the General Assembly, the supreme court. The chairperson of each court is known as the Moderator.

The Kirk Session:

The Kirk Session consists of the parish minister and a number of specially selected men and women, ordained as elders, who are responsible for the spiritual oversight of the parishioners and the organisation of the local congregation. (Elders have a pastoral responsibility for members of the congregation within their districts and share with the minister in the celebration of Holy Communion. Elders may also be called on to serve in the higher Courts and Committees of the Church.)

Many congregations also have Financial Boards, known variously as Congregational Boards, Deacons' Courts and Committees of Management, with responsibility for the financial affairs of the congregation.

The Presbytery:

The next court is the Presbytery, which is responsible for a geographical area made up of a number of parishes. It consists of all ministers within the area entitled to membership of Presbytery plus a number of elders, there being at least one for every congregation. Members of the Diaconate in certain posts are also members of Presbytery. This court has wide powers of oversight and ensures that the Word of God is purely preached within its area, the Sacraments administered and Church business conducted according to procedures determined by the General Assembly.

The General Assembly:

The Supreme Court is the General Assembly which meets in Edinburgh in May every year and consists of approximately one quarter of the ministers of the Church plus an equal number of elders, together with some members of the Diaconate, all "commissioned" by Presbyteries, amounting to some 1,200 commissioners not "delegates".

The Moderator of the General Assembly:

The Assembly is presided over by a Moderator elected on the nomination of a special committee. Since all ministers in the Church of Scotland enjoy equal status, the moderator is not "head of the Church", but technically "primus inter pares", that is first among equals.

Though the Moderator's technical function as chairperson of the Assembly ceases with the close of the Assembly, the Moderator carries through in the succeeding 12 months an extensive programme of visits to Presbyteries to encourage ministers and congregations in their work and witness. In recent years it has also become traditional for Moderators to undertake overseas tours to see the work of missionaries working with partner Churches and to visit Scots Servicemen and women at home and abroad. The office is the highest honour the Church can bestow on a Minister.

The General Assembly Boards and Committees:

While the principal work of pastoral care, evangelism and Christian education is the responsibility of local ministers and Kirk Sessions, they are helped in that work and enabled to share in the extension of it beyond their own parish by Boards and Committees of the General Assembly who undertake such activities as mission work at home and overseas, Christian education and social care.

Membership of General Assembly Boards and Committees:

Membership of these Boards and Committees is drawn from ministers, elders and members of the Church with special knowledge, expertise or interest in particular types of work.

Board and committee members serve for a limited period, normally four years, attending regular meetings usually in the Church offices in Edinburgh.

Each Board or Committee appoints a chairperson, known as the Convener, who reports annually to the General Assembly on the work of his or her Board or Committee.

Full-time Staff:

The ongoing work of most of the Boards and Committees is conducted by staff in the Church offices under the supervision of several permanent secretaries. Other staff such as deacons and deaconesses, youth and social workers, are also directed from the Church offices. The Board of World Mission deploy staff overseas in partnership with other Churches abroad.


The financing of the work, including the payment of ministers' stipends, comes mostly from the voluntary givings of church members. Every congregation is given a target figure of the sum required to pay its share of all the various activities.

Names of General Assembly Boards and Committees:

The main General Assembly Boards and Committees are as follows:-

Board of Ministry
Board of National Mission
Board of World Mission
Board of Social Responsibility
Board of Parish Education
Committee on Education for the Ministry
Board of Communication
Board of Practice and Procedure
Assembly Council
General Trustees
Church and Nation Committee
Panel on Doctrine
Panel on Worship
The Guild
Board of Stewardship

Church of Scotland Statistics:

Number of Church Members at 31 December 1998 641,340
Number of Elders 44,388
Number of Congregations 1,603
Number of Charges * 1,279
Number of Ministers serving Charges 1,153
Number of Presbyteries in Scotland 46

"Charge" is the term used to describe the pastoral responsibility of one minister. A "charge" may include two or more congregations.

The Church of Scotland's relationship with the Crown and State could be described as being acknowledged legislatively by Parliament in the Articles Declaratory, in particular Articles IV and VI. The Church is free from the State but recognised by it and acknowledged to have territorial responsibility. The relationship is symbolised in the presence at every annual General Assembly of an observer sent by the Sovereign, who brings the greetings of the Crown but cannot participate in the proceedings.

© Iain Morrison 1999