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Letters / ‘We are ready to work with local communities’

In reply to the letter from Sir John Scott of Bressay about the closure later this year of Lunna Kirk, there are a number of points that I would like to correct or clarify.

Lunna Kirk belongs to local community

Firstly, and despite the headline, our churches do not belong to local communities. Neither do they belong to the General Trustees. They belong specifically to the congregations – the members and office bearers – within these local communities. Nor were any dowries passed to the General Trustees when they received the titles. Where the titles are vested with the General Trustees, they are holding as trustees only, for the benefit of the congregation. So when a church is sold, the proceeds remain almost entirely with the local congregation.

Secondly, any teinds which were gathered in the past were not for the maintenance of the buildings, but for the providing of a minister. The General Trustees did not have a restricted buildings fund until 1979 when the Central Fabric Fund was established. This fund now disperses up to £1.5M annually to local congregations for buildings maintenance and development purposes. It is managed in a totally competent manner, as both internal and external auditors can confirm.

Thirdly, I am afraid that Sir John’s letter betrays a lack of understanding of the sheer cost of maintaining a church and its ministry. A single minister now costs £46,000 per annum (this is not their wage, but the total cost.)

Despite the much-appreciated support that the wider community has given to the church over the years, the truth is that the majority of the former parishes in Shetland have for decades been aid-receiving. This means that they could not afford to pay for their own ministers, and so the cost has been heavily subsidised by the wider Church of Scotland.

In purely monetary terms, the Church of Scotland has over the past century put far more into Shetland than it could ever have received. It does this gladly and generously.

Lastly, the decision to sell these churches was not taken by the General Trustees, but by the then Presbytery of Shetland. This Presbytery was composed of church members and office bearers from all over Shetland who could see the problems on the ground for themselves.

Church sales have not been imposed ‘from above’ but were the sad decision of a body of Shetlanders who realised that the Kirk simply could not continue as before. I have so much sympathy for all church members and friends who attended regularly, gave regularly, and are heartbroken to find that their efforts have not been enough. Had more done the same, we would not have come to this.

We are and have always been ready to work with any local communities who would like to take on these buildings.

We have said this repeatedly since the announcement of the pending closures in October 2018, and are repeating that invitation this week. I am delighted that this has been successful in four instances so far, and I hope that this may yet be the case for Lunna and others.

Rev Dr Frances Henderson
Transition minister