General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

Last updated

Entrance to the Assembly Hall from New College. The spire of the former Victoria Hall is seen in the background. Entrance to the Assembly Hall, New College Quadrangle, Edinburgh.jpg
Entrance to the Assembly Hall from New College. The spire of the former Victoria Hall is seen in the background.

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. [1] It generally meets each year and is chaired by a Moderator elected at the start of the Assembly.


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.


The General Assembly Hall (pictured in 2013) The General Assembly Hall (geograph 3676638).jpg
The General Assembly Hall (pictured in 2013)
Statue of John Knox outside the Assembly Hall John Knox statue outside the Assembly Hall on the Mound, Edinburgh.jpg
Statue of John Knox outside the Assembly Hall

General Assembly meetings are usually held in the Assembly Hall on the Mound, Edinburgh. This was originally built for the Free Church in the 19th century. Before this, from 1845 to 1929, the General Assembly had met in the Victoria Hall (the Highland Tolbooth Kirk) at the top of the Royal Mile, a purpose-built meeting hall and church whose 72-metre (236 ft) spire towers above the present Assembly Hall. When the Church of Scotland merged with the United Free Church of Scotland in 1929, the Mound premises were chosen as the Assembly Hall for the reunited Church of Scotland. Today the former Victoria Hall building is in secular use as The Hub. [2] [3] Earlier General Assemblies had taken place in different churches in Scotland's major burghs. [4]

The Church of Scotland 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. Prior to each Assembly, a minister or elder is nominated to serve as Moderator for that year. At the start of the Assembly the Moderator is duly elected, although the election is considered a formality.

The Moderator presides from the Moderator's chair. Alongside him/her, the clerks to the Assembly and other officials are seated. 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.


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.

The Assembly decides the Law of the Church. Thus each Assembly may amend the Law of previous Assemblies. This is moderated and controlled by means of the "Barrier Act" which forces the General Assembly to take account of the views of all Presbyteries if the proposal is one which is far reaching, and thus referred to Presbyteries and subsequently the next General Assembly.


The General Assembly meeting in Edinburgh in 1787 General Assembly at the Tron Kirk, Edinburgh.jpg
The General Assembly meeting in Edinburgh in 1787

Each Presbytery has to nominate Commissioners annually and these are chosen in rotation from the ministers and elders in the Presbytery's bounds (area). Elders who are commissioned need not be members of the Presbytery. In addition each Presbytery may appoint 'youth representatives' who are young people in the congregations of the presbytery. Youth representatives are also appointed by the 'Youth Assembly'. Youth representatives have the status of corresponding members of the Assembly.

Those elders who have, in the past, served as Moderators of the General Assembly are generally commissioned by their presbyteries in addition to the normal number of commissioners. They have, due to their experience in the Church, a heavy influence on the deliberations of the Assembly, which some commissioners and a range of Kirk members, find to be controversial.

The General assembly appoints 'corresponding members' who may speak and propose motions but may not vote. Apart from youth representatives these are guest commissioners from a wide range of partner churches around the world, and any of the Church of Scotland's Mission Partners (overseas workers) who may be resident in Scotland during the Assembly.


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", which the Assembly is invited to approve, reject or modify. Presbyteries may put business before the General Assembly in the form of "overtures" which are debated and may be made into the Law of the Church.

Judicial functions

As a judicial body, the Assembly usually delegates most of its powers to the "Commission of Assembly" or to special tribunals. The General Assembly acts as a Court, and in matters spiritual cannot be appealed to any higher court. This is set out in the Acts Declaratory and the Church of Scotland Act 1921.


The Assembly elects a Moderator to preside (see also the list of previous Moderators). The King 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:

See also

Related Research Articles

Presbyterianpolity is a method of church governance typified by the rule of assemblies of presbyters, or elders. Each local church is governed by a body of elected elders usually called the session or consistory, though other terms, such as church board, may apply. Groups of local churches are governed by a higher assembly of elders known as the presbytery or classis; presbyteries can be grouped into a synod, and presbyteries and synods nationwide often join together in a general assembly. Responsibility for conduct of church services is reserved to an ordained minister or pastor known as a teaching elder, or a minister of the word and sacrament.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Church of Scotland</span> National church of Scotland

The Church of Scotland is the national church in Scotland.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ordination of women in the Church of Scotland</span>

The Church of Scotland was one of the first national churches to accept the ordination of women. In Presbyterianism, ordination is understood to be an ordinance rather than a sacrament; ministers and elders are ordained; until recently deacons were "commissioned" but now they too are ordained to their office in the Church of Scotland.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alexander Webster</span>

Alexander Webster was a Scottish writer and minister of the Church of Scotland, who served as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1753. After his service as Moderator he was addressed as Very Rev Dr Alexander Webster.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">The Hub, Edinburgh</span> Assembly hall in Edinburgh, Scotland

The Hub is a public arts and events building in the centre of Edinburgh, Scotland. Located at the top of the Royal Mile, it is a prominent landmark as its tall gothic spire is the highest point in central Edinburgh, and towers over the surrounding buildings below Edinburgh Castle.

Alison Elliot CBE FRSE is an honorary fellow at New College, Edinburgh. She was the former Associate Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. In 2004 she became the first woman ever to be elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. An elder and session clerk at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, she was also the first non-minister to hold this post since George Buchanan in 1567.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Moderator of the General Assembly</span> Chairperson of the highest court of a Presbyterian or Reformed church

The moderator of the General Assembly is the chairperson of a General Assembly, the highest court of a Presbyterian or Reformed church. Kirk sessions and presbyteries may also style the chairperson as moderator. The Oxford Dictionary states that a Moderator may be a "Presbyterian minister presiding over an ecclesiastical body".

The Church of Scotland maintains a presbyterian polity and is thus governed by a hierarchy of bodies known as church courts. Each of these courts has a moderator and a clerk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ministers and elders of the Church of Scotland</span> Leaders of Church of Scotland congregations

A Church of Scotland congregation is led by its minister and elders. Both of these terms are also used in other Christian denominations: see Minister (Christianity) and Elder (Christianity). This article discusses the specific understanding of their roles and functions in the Scottish Church.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland</span>

The Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is the Scottish monarch's personal representative to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, reflecting the Church's role as the national church of Scotland and the monarch's role as protector and member of that Church.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland</span> Multi-purpose venue in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

The Assembly Hall is located between Castlehill and Mound Place in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is the meeting place of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Finlay A. J. Macdonald is a retired minister of the Church of Scotland. He was Principal Clerk to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland from 1996 until 2010. In addition to his rapid rise up the ranks of the Church of Scotland, Macdonald is known for fostering co-operation between the various boards and committees which administer the Church and for steering the Church smoothly through its annual business meetings.

William Currie Hewitt is a minister of the Church of Scotland and is a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (2009–2010).

The Presbytery of Glasgow is one of the 46 Presbyteries of the Church of Scotland. It dates back to the earliest periods of Presbyterian church government in the Church of Scotland in the late 16th century. The Presbytery of Glasgow currently has 125 congregations, making it by far the largest Presbytery in the Church of Scotland.

John Cairns Christie is a minister of the Church of Scotland. He was Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for 2010-2011.

Angus Morrison, is a minister of the Church of Scotland who was Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2015–2016. He had been nominated for the role a year earlier but withdrew because of ill health. He is an Honorary Chaplain to the Queen, appointed in 2006.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Drysdale (moderator)</span> Church of Scotland minister; (1718–1788)

John Drysdale FRSE was twice Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, both in 1773 and in 1784. He was Dean of the Chapel Royal in Scotland 1766 to 1788, and Chaplain in Ordinary to George III. He was brother-in-law to Robert Adam and father-in-law to Andrew Dalzell.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">West St Giles' Parish Church</span> Church in Edinburgh, Scotland

West St Giles' Parish Church was a parish church of the Church of Scotland and a burgh church of Edinburgh, Scotland. Occupying the Haddo's Hole division of St Giles' from 1699, the church was then based in Marchmont between 1883 and its closure in 1972.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Highland Church</span> Church in Scotland

The Highland Church was a Gaelic-speaking congregation of the Church of Scotland, based in Tollcross, Edinburgh. Formed by the union of St Oran's Church and St Columba's Gaelic Church in 1948, the congregation continued united with Tolbooth St John's in 1956.


  1. An Introduction to Practice and Procedure in the Church of Scotland by A. Gordon McGillivray, 2nd Edition (2006 updated text)
  2. "348-350 CASTLEHILL, THE HUB FESTIVAL CENTRE (LB27542)". Historic Environment Scotland. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  3. "Edinburgh, 348-350 Castlehill, Highland Church Of Tolbooth St John's | Canmore". Historic Environment Scotland. Archived from the original on 29 August 2018. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  4. Church of Scotland. General Assembly; Peterkin, Alexander (1838). Records of the Kirk of Scotland : containing the acts and proceedings of the General Assemblies, from the year 1638 downwards, as authenticated by the. Princeton Theological Seminary Library. Edinburgh : John Sutherland.