Scotland’s churches have a ‘major role in welcoming strangers’ (From HeraldScotland)

The Princess Royal has praised the Church of Scotland‘s General Assembly as a place for “reasoned debate” in her opening address at the annual event.

Her remarks come ahead of a debate at the assembly later this week which could move the Kirk a step closer to allowing ministers to perform same-sex marriage.

Princess Anne is serving as Lord High Commissioner at the assembly, representing the Queen at the annual gathering of the Kirk.

In her opening address, she said: “The importance of the General Assembly has been reasoned debate and that reasoned debate is in quite short supply at the moment.”

She noted the number of church attendees are falling, after a report found the number of regular churchgoers in Scotland has dropped by more than half in the past 30 years to 390,000 last year, but said the need for spiritual leadership is “greater than ever”.

She said churches in Scotland have “a major role to play in welcoming strangers”, a tradition she believes is “stronger in Scotland than in many other parts of the world”.

The Princess Royal’s ceremonial procession from the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where she will stay for the duration of the six-day event, to the Assembly Hall on the Mound for the General Assembly was marked by a 21-Gun Royal Salute from Edinburgh Castle.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also took part in the opening ceremony, which involved the election of the new Moderator Rt Rev Dr Derek Browning, who was installed in the role by the retiring Moderator Very Rev Dr Russell Barr.

In his retiring address, he highlighted the homeless situation in Scotland, saying the problem could be solved but for lack of “political will”.

He said: “Homelessness continues to be a stain upon our nation’s character and consciousness. There should be no room for homelessness in 21st century Scotland.

“The galling thing is that it need not be like this. All the research has been done, the causes identified as well as the policies and processes needing to be put in place to resolve it. The one thing missing is the political will.”

A key debate at this year’s assembly is Thursday’s discussion of a report asking the Kirk to apologise for its ”history of discrimination” against gay people and moving it a step closer to allowing ministers to perform same-sex marriages.

The report by the Theological Forum of the Church of Scotland proposes having a church committee research allowing nominated ministers and deacons to carry out the ceremonies, but wants to retain the ability for ”contentious refusal” from those opposed to same-sex marriage.

The report states: ”The Forum does not believe there are sufficient theological grounds to deny nominated individual ministers and deacons the authority to preside at same-sex marriages.”

The proposed major shift in policy follows controversial moves to appoint the first openly gay minister Rev Scott Rennie in 2009 and last year’s decision to allow ministers to be in same-sex marriages.