Edinburgh's St Giles Cathedral could be handed over to Historic Environment Scotland as part of radical shake-up by Church of Scotland

The Church of Scotland could hand over St Giles Cathedral to Historic Environment Scotland as part of a massive shake-up which will also see the number of Kirk ministers in Edinburgh slashed by 40 per cent.

By Ian Swanson
Tuesday, 11th January 2022, 4:55 am
Updated Tuesday, 11th January 2022, 8:23 am

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Proposals have been drawn up to unite congregations and establish ministry teams across the Capital, but detailed proposals on the future of church buildings are still being worked on.

The Edinburgh presbytery mission plan, now out for consultation, will affect every Church of Scotland congregation in the Capital.

St. Giles Cathedral is where John Knox was minister. Picture: Mark Scates / SNS Group

But one of the most eye-catching proposals is to unite two of the most historic churches in the city – St Giles in the heart of the Old Town and Canongate Kirk towards the foot of the Royal Mile.

The plan says: "The issue is whether the Church of Scotland requires two places of worship in the Royal Mile. The consensus is that currently it is important to retain both buildings."

But it goes on to say the insurance for St Giles is "exorbitant" and adds: "Consideration must be given to releasing the building to Historic Environment Scotland and a conversation with them is required to consider all possible options."

However, even if ownership was transferred to HES, the expectation would be that services continued.

The Queen and Prince Philip arrive at Canongate Kirk for the wedding of their grand-daughter Zara Phillips. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The Rev Dr Karen Campbell, a member of the strategy team which drew up the consultation document, said such an arrangement was not unprecedented.

“Dunblane Cathedral, for instance, is owned by HES and they have responsibility for he maintenance, but the congregation have the right to conduct weddings and funerals and Sunday services each week.

“We are not saying it should happen, we're saying it's a conversation we might want to have.”

St Giles, also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, dates back to the 14th century, was where John Knox preached and has been at the heart of much Scottish history.

The Very Rev Dr Derek Browning is Moderator of the Church of Scotland's Edinburgh presbytery

Canongate Kirk, built in 1691, is where the Queen and the Royal family worship when they are staying at nearby Holyrood Palace and where the Queen’s grand-daughter Zara was married in 2011.

The Church of Scotland has a national shortage of ministers and last year’s General Assembly therefore agreed to set a limit on the number of posts allowed in each presbytery across the country. Edinburgh is being cut from 78 to 48.5 full-time posts – ministers, deacons and Ministries Development Staff, which includes youth workers, parish assistants, community workers and others.

The reduction, which must take place by December 2025, will be achieved partly by ministers moving or retiring, but may mean in some cases that ministers in "reviewable” charges are given six months’ notice that their contract is ending.

Audits are being carried out on all church buildings to help inform discussions on which ones might close. But Dr Campbell said: “We do not see us losing that many buildings."

The document acknowledges: ”Closing too many buildings has proven in the past to lead to a reduction in membership and income.”

And it says: “The national accepted wisdom is that there are too many buildings. However, this Mission Plan proposes that where there is a clear mission imperative, then most buildings will be retained in some manner.”

But it adds buildings must be “well equipped spaces in the right places”.

"Some church buildings are not fit for purpose without a large investment outlay just to make them viable. Others are in the wrong place, and some do not comply with current building regulations. Some buildings will therefore be sold.

"And the plan also proposes “planting” new churches in major new housing developments at Cammo and Gilmerton, which may or may not involve new buildings.

Dr Campbell said: "We've learned over the years churches can exist without buildings and they can use community spaces and schools. We would want to see what was possible, but the Church of Scotland has committed to build new buildings to be where the people are.

“We have lots of buildings throughout Scotland where thee was once a community and the community went a long time ago. When you've got swathes of new homes going up it would be remiss of us not to consider planting a new congregation and even building a new building in a new area.”

She said uniting congregations would reduce the amount of admin ministers and others were required to do and free them up for other work.

A lot of churches were heavily involved in caring for the vulnerable, many worked with homeless people or elderly folk or students.

“We want to be able to do more of that and release ministers from so much admin to get on with the job of being ministers. We'll also be training our people to help in a variety of ways, Lay leadership is something we are absolutely committed to.”

The presbytery must agree its mission plan by the end of the year. Edinburgh is ahead of other parts of the country in having put its proposals out to consultation, but a similar process will be happening everywhere.

Edinburgh presbytery moderator the Very Rev Dr Derek Browning stressed that nothing had been decided at this stage.

“The Church of Scotland has for the past two or three years been looking at radical action plans.

“We are at the beginning of a process, the consultation is just being rolled out, but we have to be open-minded about what the future may look like. While it's challenging, it's also filled with lots of possibilities and opportunities."

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