The roots of Scotland’s church reach back to the hazy origins of Christianity in Scotland. The story goes that around 400 A.D., when Scotland was still a series of independent often warring territories, St Ninian set out from Whithorn in the southwest and journeyed through Scotland converting Pictish folk to Christianity, which at that time meant the Holy Roman Church. Later in the fifth century St Columba, the Irish prince–in-exile, came to the Island of Iona on the western coast of Scotland and founded a community of monks whose mission it was to spread the Gospel through Scotland and Northern England. Scotland slowly became a Christian land.
As the centuries passed the church continued to grow. The territories of Scotland gradually formed into a sovereign nation. Along with the development of a central government in Scotland, tension grew between the new country and their English neighbor to the south.
The Scottish church followed to the Roman ways of worship instead of the Celtic which were considered pagan by the papacy. The pope did allow Scotland to be independent of England when it came to church functions, however. At this time in history, for the most part, the church was the state and the state was the church.
The Church of Scotland of today came into being during the Scottish Reformation of 1560. At that point in time the Church in Scotland broke with the Roman Church when a protestant movement was formed, led by John Knox and others. This movement followed the principles of John Calvin that Knox had learned of while exiled in Geneva after being persecuted by the Catholic Queen Mary. Scotland’s Protestant Church had evolved into a Presbyterian Church by the end of the century.
The following is the vision statement from the church’s website, it explains quite succinctly what the Church of Scotland is all about: “The vision of the Church of Scotland is to be a church which seeks to inspire the people of Scotland and beyond with the Good News of Jesus Christ through enthusiastic worshipping, witnessing, nurturing and serving communities.” http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/home
The church’s system of government is presbyterian in nature. This basically means that no one person or group is exalted over any other. No single person is the head of the faith as that job belongs wholly to the Lord God and not a mere human being; God’s creation. The teaching and rule of faith is through the Bible. The church’s governing organization is set up on a system of courts. The method of governing has been in effect since its inception and development between the years 1560 and 1690. The individual courts are overseen by committees.
Locally, within the individual parishes, the court is known as the kirk session. The local kirk session is overseen by elders and presided over by a minister. The job of the kirk is to oversee the parish and the members of the local congregation. Above the kirk is the presbytery which functions on the district level. The presbytery is made up of the ministers in the district along with an equal number of elders and members of diaconate which is a form of ordained ministry. Forty six presbyteries exist today that serve the Church of Scotland in Scotland, England, Europe and Jerusalem. Nationally it is the General Assembly, the highest court of the Kirk that is the governing authority of the church. Here, too, there is no one person in charge, rather there are 400 ministers, 400 elders and members of the diaconate to present the kirks and presbyteries who are led by an elected moderator.
The church has not always been at peace however. As in any organization of humans, schisms erupt and splits will occur. This holds true to the Church of Scotland as well though I shall not go into all of that here as there is not enough space. Suffice it to say that several offshoots of the church have risen through the passage of time; the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the United Free Church of Scotland are the major separate churches existing in Scotland at this writing.
After the Scottish and English crowns merged, several attempts were made by the king at controlling the Kirk. Theses attempts were met with vehement protests though which cumulated with the signing of the National Covenant at Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh in 1638. The Covenant gave Scotland a parliament and General Assembly that were free from interference from the ruling nobility. The King’s power was reduced, while the Kirk and Scottish nobles power was increased thus ending a century’s old tradition of divinely appointed kings. The sovereign may attend her General Assembly but not participate in the deliberations therein. The year 1690 finally saw the establishment of the reformed Presbyterian Church as the national Church of Scotland. Separation of church and state is a vital part of many countries systems of government today. The Church of Scotland is free from any interference from the government, something that the founders of the United States put in place to protect the church from the state. The Queen of the United Kingdom, while the head of the Church of England, is merely a welcomed guest at services of the Church of Scotland. Her relationship with the Scottish Church is warm and she attends services when residing in Scotland.
The founders of the Church of Scotland would recognize very little of their church if they were to see it today. There is little left from fifteen centuries ago; traditions change, beliefs evolve, people are now educated and can think for themselves. Over the years the Church of Scotland has taken different roles in Scottish history; from a small radical group to a revolutionary force to a part of the government and a major part of Scottish society. One part of the church that remains is the steadfast love of God and Country. The Church also remains true to the long held responsibility to bring the Gospel of Christ to all of Scotland.
Today there are over 600,000 church members in Scotland alone, making it one of the largest in the nation. As with many of the mainline protestant denominations the Church of Scotland has changed the laws concerning the ordination of women. In 1966, women were allowed to be ordained as elders, then two years later the right to full ordination was granted to women. In 2009 the Church of Scotland appointed its first openly gay minister, which sparked protests on both sides of the issue but the appointment was upheld.
The Church of Scotland is a Reformation church believing that reform is an ongoing process that embraces new insights about the church and it’s teachings in meeting current needs. Along with the other mainstream churches the Church adheres to the teachings of the Bible, both new and old Testaments. The Church supports the Holy Trinity doctrine as well, The God in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ if the only head of the church and the church is His “body.” God expressed His love for us through His Son and offers us reconciliation with each other and to Him. The Church also teaches that God is alongside us spiritually. The Holy Spirit gives us strength, security and peace as well as challenging our pride and our aggressive nature. There is no formal prayer book to be followed in the Church of Scotland but there is a book of resources that may be used to model worship. Hymns are an important part of the worship services, as well. All are welcome to worship in the Church without respect to belief, age or nationality. The services are normally led by a minister but can be led by elders or deacons. Services are on Sunday, the Lords Day, with preaching, prayer and singing. There are other smaller activities held during the week such as prayer groups and Bible study. Holy Communion and Baptism are held as sacraments of the Church. Custom is that Communion services are held infrequently and with great ceremony but that custom is changing as Communion Services are being celebrated more frequently at special festivals and the like. Baptism is a sacrament of the Church in which a person becomes a member of the Church. If the person is a child, family members will take a vow to involve the child in the life of the Church.
The Church’s motto is: nec tamen consumebatur (Latin) - ‘Yet it was not consumed,’ which alludes to Exodus 3:2 and the Burning Bush.