Kirking ceremony is church's prerogative, insists presbytery

The four centuries-old ceremony of "Kirking of the Council" is a matter for the church rather than Highland Council, Inverness Church of Scotland Presbytery insisted this week.

Organisation of the ancient kirking service, and an invitation - in bygone days a strict obligation - to civic dignitaries to attend, is clearly the prerogative of the minister of the city's oldest church, Inverness Old High, members agreed.

They voted unanimously to recommend that Old High St Stephen's congregation continue its invitation to Inverness City Committee to attend the annual kirking ceremony, one of the few such events remaining in Scotland.

And they strongly urged "the continuation of this important Christian tradition and link with the past in the Old High Church".

The presbytery's church and community committee has over the past month fast-tracked research on the issue, with the help of former depute Inverness provost and local historian Sheila Mackay.

It has confirmed that the ceremony - to mark local politicians' affirmation to serve God and their fellow citizens - dates back to 1602, shortly after the Reformation reached the Highlands.

The issue arose in the wake of Provost Bob Wynd's unilateral decision last month to suspend the kirking ceremony for the remainder of the current council's tenure of office, which ends in May 2011.

Provost Wynd, who during this year's ceremony refused to read the Scripture lesson chosen by interim moderator the Rev Douglas Clyne, and instead delivered a message on the need for "inclusivity", stirred up a storm of protest after revealing his intention to suspend the ceremony for the rest of his term of office, without consulting either fellow councillors or Mr Clyne.

The city committee, many of whose members have criticised the provost's action, has since agreed to set up a working group to consider proposals for future kirkings.

The group will include the provost and three other members, including city manager David Haas.

Rev Peter Donald, Crown Church, commented: "The working group is purely a council group, and doesn't involve the church.

"I just offer the comment that while I think the council is fully entitled to proceed down this line, it is the prerogative of the church to pray for those in government and to invite the secular authority into the church.

"The church must be very careful about selling out theologically to an approach that loses the Christian distinctiveness of what we do."

Presbytery clerk Rev Alastair Younger, St Columba High, remarked: "It seems there's quite a delicate issue with regard to the kirking of the council.

"By its very name and history it has been the prerogative of the established church to invite political representatives of the community to attend the kirking."

Mr Younger recalled that when he had come to Inverness 31 years previously, he had been invited to a meeting in the town house by the incumbent provost, who assured him there was a mutuality between the church and the local authority.

"In my view," he added, "the prerogative lies with the church and no-one else. The structure of this service is a matter for the church and the content of this service is a matter for the church.

"The matter of ecumenism may well be incorporated into proceedings if it's seen to be seemly by the church, but the idea that we might have a minister, an atheist or whatever in the pulpit gives us a wee problem.

"Ministers or elders could be called to account if a service is outside the parameters of what's considered normal.

"We have to be very careful here. While we may be willing to listen to others, the church is responsible for worship, the structure of that worship and the invitations to attend such a ceremony."