Abbey Church of Scotland

North Berwick

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Church of Scotland

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This is a brief history of the Church of Scotland. You can find further information on the Church of Scotland's website.

The modern Church of Scotland is reformed and presbyterian. The history of how it grew into its present shape begins more than 1,500 years ago.

The Early Years

About 400AD, St Ninian began the first large-scale Christian mission to Scotland from Whithorn in the far south-west, converting many Pictish people to the new faith, long before Scotland was a single country. The great heroic figure of the early story is St Columba, the Irish prince-in-exile, who crossed to the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland later in the fifth century. He established a community of monks who spread the Gospel far and wide through Scotland and the north of England.

The Middle Ages

In the centuries that followed, as Scotland began to find its identity as a nation, and hundreds of years of tension with her English neighbours to the South began, the Church adopted the Roman, not Celtic, practices of work and worship. Saintly figures like Queen Margaret encouraged and supported its work and influence, and the papacy allowed Scotland to be independent of England for church purposes.

The Reformation

The Reformation in Scotland came to its head in the 1560s, and was modelled on John Calvin's Geneva. His pupil John Knox is famous for head-to-head debates with Mary, Queen of Scots, the Catholic Queen who returned from France and tried to remain loyal to the Roman system. By the end of the 16th century, the Protestant Church of Scotland had developed into a Presbyterian Church, with a system of courts (today the General Assembly, presbytery and kirk session), and a strong tradition of preaching and Scriptural emphasis.

The Covenanters

Anyone reading Scottish history comes to realise what a key player the Church of Scotland has been since it was reformed in the 16th century. It was not all plain sailing from then on, however, especially after the crowns of Scotland and England were united in 1603. Attempts by Charles I and Charles II to control the Kirk (to use the Scots term) met with protest, including the signing of the National Covenant at Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh in 1638.

Many years of struggle continued amongst factions with different views. Known as the Covenanters they continued to proclaim their faith, even resorting to holding open-air services.

A National Church

The succession of William and Mary to the throne in 1688 changed the situation, and the Revolution Settlement of 1690 finally established the reformed, presbyterian Church as the national Church of Scotland. The monarch even today has a special relationship with the Church of Scotland and renews that every year by sending a representative to attend the General Assembly.

Disruption and Reunion

Controversy and division were common in the Church between 1750 and 1850, when there was considerable concern about the Church's relations with the State, particularly over intervention in the appointment of ministers. The largest division was the Disruption of 1843, a major split which saw about one third of the Kirk break away to form what came to be the Free Kirk.

The next 90 years were spent removing the causes of division, and reuniting several churches, all of them presbyterian, so that today the Church of Scotland is the largest Protestant church in the country, with a number of very small churches alongside it, representing those who chose not to find their way into the union process. 

The Church of Scotland Today

The process of reunion gave the Church of Scotland an opportunity to resolve once and for all how it wanted to govern itself and how it wanted to relate to the state. Little remains of the Church's previous establishment, but it retains a strong sense of a national responsibility to bring Christ's Gospel to the whole of Scotland. It is free, therefore, from civil interference in spiritual matters. In a millennium and a half, the Church has been at different times a tiny, radical outside force, a revolutionary movement, a strand of government and a partner in civil society. It has been supportive and critical, protective and destructive.

Today the Church of Scotland lives in the creative tension of serving a nation, offering the ordinances of religion and also providing a prophetic Gospel voice through parish ministry and national engagement of many kinds.

How we are organised

The Church of Scotland's governing system is presbyterian which means that no one person or group within the Church has more influence or say than any other. The Church does not have one person who acts as the head of faith, as that role is the Lord God's. Its supreme rule of faith and life is through the teachings of the Bible.  


Church of Scotland government is organised on the basis of courts, mainly along lines set between 1560 and 1690. Each of these courts has committees, which may include other members of the Church, and at national level employ full-time staff.  

At a local level, the parish, the court is a Kirk Session. Kirk sessions oversee the local congregation and its parish, and consist of elders presided over by a minister.

At district level, the court is a presbytery. Presbyteries consist of all the ministers in the district and an equal number of elders, along with members of the diaconate (a form of ordained ministry, usually working in a complementary role in a ministry team in both parish and industry sector contexts). There are 46 presbyteries across Scotland, England, Europe and Jerusalem.

At national level, the court is the highest court of the Kirk, the General Assembly. The General Assembly consists of around 400 ministers, 400 elders, and members of the diaconate, all representing the presbyteries. 

The Kirk and the State

The King is not the supreme governor of the Church of Scotland, as he is in the Church of England. The sovereign has the right to attend the General Assembly, but not to take part in its deliberations. The Oath of Accession includes a promise to "maintain and preserve the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government".

The King maintains warm relations with the Church of Scotland, where he worships when in Scotland, and from which the chaplains of the Royal Household in Scotland are appointed.

The Church of Scotland (the Kirk) is not State-controlled, and neither the Scottish nor the Westminster Parliaments are involved in Kirk appointments.

The Kirk’s status as the national church in Scotland dates from 1690, when Parliament restored Scottish Presbyterianism, and is guaranteed under the Act of Union of Scotland and England of 1707.

In matters of doctrine, government, discipline and worship, the Church of Scotland is free of State interference, operating under a constitution largely contained in the Articles Declaratory which were recognised by Parliament in 1921.

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