Page last updated at 08:55 GMT, Tuesday, 12 May 2009 09:55 UK

Kirk considers virtual ministers

Church of Scotland General Assembly
The proposal will be discussed by the Church of Scotland General Assembly

The Church of Scotland is planning to use virtual ministers in an attempt to combat a shortage of full-time clergy.

Proposals from the Kirk's Ministries Council suggest a minister could lead services in several congregations at once using video link technology.

The minister would travel between churches, leading worship from a different location each week.

The plans will be discussed at the Church's General Assembly in Edinburgh between May 21 and 27.

The Ministries Council report notes that presbyteries outside Scotland's main population centres can find it very difficult to attract full-time ministers.

There are currently about 190 vacancies across Scotland, most of which are in rural and island communities. In some presbyteries, there are more vacancies in the area than ministers.

A pilot scheme is planned for Orkney following the completion of technology trials and funding confirmation.

There are 21 congregations in Orkney presbytery, spread over more than ten islands. Initially four congregations, in Rousay, Shapinsee, Flotta and Hoy, will be linked.

Relieving pressure

The report said: "The intention is that this will allow the minister to be physically present in a different island each week, and virtually present in the other ones every week."

The Reverend Trevor Hunt, clerk of Orkney presbytery, said: "Obviously one minister can't be in four places at once.

"So the idea is that that minister would go round the islands in turn, and the service would be relayed."

Interactivity would be crucial to the project, he stressed. A local worship leader could lead prayers and singing in individual congregations which would then "tune in" for the sermon, or congregations could be linked for the whole service with readings broadcast from different locations.

"We don't want people just sitting watching TV, we want them to participate in worship," Mr Hunt said.

Other island presbyteries like Shetland as well as rural congregations in Caithness could benefit from the initiative in future.

But some ministers in remote congregations are less convinced by the proposal.

We don't want people just sitting watching TV, we want them to participate in worship
The Rev Trevor Hunt

"It is certainly something we could try," said the Reverend Murdo Smith, clerk of Uist presbytery.

"But it could lessen the incentive to find new ministers for vacant congregations. And if we take ministers away from people, they are less likely to come to church."

The Uist presbytery has eight congregations, two of which are without a minister.

"There's a perception that bigger congregations are funding the smaller ones and that it'd be better to merge them - but it's difficult to agree with that when you're working in a remote community," said Mr Smith.

"I spend so much time driving around my own parish, which is about 24 miles across, with single track roads." Trying to extend his work into other areas beyond his parish, he says, "would make ministering very difficult."

The report also suggests the introduction of a secondment scheme to relieve pressure on churches which have been without a minister for more than a year.

These congregations would be able to invite a preacher from another church for a placement of one to three months.

A transition programme is also recommended, which would train worship leaders, interim moderators and pastoral visitors so that churches will be better able to function without full-time ministers.

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