Moderator’s news: 2017-2018

The Revd Dr Derek Browning took his last service on 26th February before leaving temporarily to prepare for his new role as Moderator of the General Assembly.

He will use this space to report and reflect on his year in office.

26th February 2017: My grateful thanks to everyone at Morningside Parish Church for a lovely send-off this morning. The Moderatorial gown is magnificent. You will be in good hands over the next few months, and be assured of my continuing best wishes and prayers. I’ll certainly need the same from you!

1st March 2017: A mixed but special day. To Cupar Old Parish Church for the funeral service of one of the elders. A kind and generous man, it was wonderful to see a queue as people waited to go in to share in the wonderful service. At the end of the service as we left the Church we were given sunflower seeds to plant and remember the man who died. He would often say, “If you want anything in life, you’ve got to plan seeds, and nurture them.” It will be a lovely way to remember him.

Back to Edinburgh in the afternoon to meet my two chaplains who will assist me during my moderatorial year.

In the evening, to a service at Old St Paul’s Scottish Episcopal Church, to mark the beginning of Lent. Some good music and a fine sermon where we were gently but clearly reminded of the importance of recognising the faults and failings in our lives, and find ways to confess our sins. The discipline of faith requires not simply the giving up of things, but the taking up of things.

5th March 2017: I was invited to preach at Glenalmond College, Perthshire. Stunning drive through the early morning sunshine and mist to get there in time for the service. Morning Prayers are compulsory at the college. Several hundred young people present, as well as staff and a gallery full of local people for whom the college is their local church. With only seven minutes to preach, it was a challenge to come up with something that fitted the time, but would also say something worthwhile to the large congregation of teenagers. With the season of Lent upon us I took up the theme of ‘giving up’ and ‘taking up’, and talked about the importance of faith helping us look into the dark places of our lives, and the life of the world, as well as the encouragement to take the light of faith into those dark places, and making a difference for good. 

“Rabbi Yisrael Salanter used to say, “When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world didn’t change. Then I decided to change my town, but the town didn’t change. Then I tried to change my family, but my family didn’t change. Then I realised: first, I must change myself.”[i] This time of Lent is about reflection, but it has to be tied in with action. It is not enough to see what is wrong with the world and what needs to change, but to see what is wrong with us and want to change that too.

Lent is a time of aspiration: ask yourself what is possible – for us and for our world. It is about recognising that there are dark places in our own lives, as well as dark places in the life of the world. It is about wanting to bring light to those places, so that things, sometimes very slowly, get better, fairer, kinder, and more inclusive.

As a small boy Robert Louis Stevenson, the C19th Scottish novelist who wrote Kidnapped, and Treasure Island, and Jekyll and Hyde, would sit looking out of the window of his parents’ Edinburgh home, watching darkness fall. He was fascinated by the old-fashioned lamplighter, who each night would wander down the street lighting the gas street lamps one by one. On one occasion he was so excited by this that he shouted to his nanny, ‘Look, there’s a man coming down the street punching holes in the darkness.’”

[i] Jonathan Sacks, Celebrating Life, p183

12th March 2017: One of the major adjustments in this weeks of preparation is not having to lead worship on a regular basis, or attend to the needs of the parish. It means I have the opportunity to visit different churches and I’ve drawn up a list of churches I’d like to worship in on Sundays. Today I went to Corstorphine Old Parish Church, where the Revd Moira McDonald is the minister. A challenging and thoughtful sermon on pilgrimage, with links into Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Kenneth Graeme’s Wind in the Willows – both of which relate to the Spring of the year and that time when that sense of things moving and growing again is around. It affects our faith lives too – what faith adventures should we be going on.

I have completed the first drafts of orders of service for the Assembly Sunday service at St Giles, and the different worship sermons at the General Assembly itself. It has been demanding to think about the theme ‘Word of Life’, recognising that different people will have different words – which is part of the genius of the theme.

This week I have preparatory meetings at St Giles for the Assembly Service, at  Edinburgh Castle for the annual war memorial service, and with Crossreach – the social care arm of the Church of Scotland. I return to the Castle for a meeting with the Halo Trust – who do work around the world de-mining areas that were mined in times of conflict. This will be of particular interest to me as I plan to visit one of those sites when I visit Israel-Palestine next year. I also visit the Carnegie Trust in Dunfermline, and attend two St Patrick’s Day events on Friday.

18th March 2017: During the week I had lunch with the Scots Makar, Jackie Kay. I have long been a fan of her writing, and was particularly impressed by the poem she wrote for the opening of the Scottish Parliament last year. As Scots Makar, Jackie’s role is not a political one but shows how poetry can play an active role in the life of the nation. Jackie Kay will take part in a special event which is being planned for the week of the General Assembly.

On Friday I said grace at a St Patrick’s Day breakfast held in the Caledonian Hotel. I’ve attended for a number of years and have been impressed not only by the number of Irish people attending the event, as well as many of their Scottish friends, but also that they’re able to get out of their beds for 8am on a Friday morning to have a (small) glass of Guinness along with their breakfast. At both this event and one hosted by the Irish consul in Edinburgh, the Irish government ensures that one of their government ministers attends and speaks to promote their country. At a time when UK and Scottish identity feel under intense scrutiny, if not threat, from several quarters, it was helpful to reflect on the positive qualities of national identity within an international context.

I have been slowly warming to Justin Welby’s Lent book, ‘Dethroning Mammon’.
“We used to have an annual slogan in my parish church, to give us some priorities for the year. It was a struggle to think of new ones until we found one that kept us going happily year after year: ‘more parties, less meetings.’ It sounded frivolous, but at its heart it said that we are a community, not a corporation; we are a family, not an organisation.” (He also points out to the poised grammarians that it should really be, ‘more parties, fewer meetings….’
But it’s an interesting point, nevertheless. Not ‘no meetings’, but fewer…and more parties.

Palm Sunday, 9th April 2017

I am in London for a few days, partly pleasure and partly business. On Wednesday I had tea in the House of Lords with Lord McInnes of Kilwinning (or Mark to us!), and met a number of the Scottish peers. It was good to see Mark settling in so well to his new role. He will be missed as one of our councillors in Morningside.

On Thursday I met with the Revd Dr Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin in the Fields. Sam will be speaking at the General Assembly on Tuesday 23rd May. The work he and his colleagues have been doing in St Martin’s in relation to homelessness, and also in making Christianity not only demonstrably practical but also thoughtful, intelligent and accessible is an inspiring thing. I look forward to welcoming him to the General Assembly.

On Friday I met with Steve Chalke, Minister and CEO of Oasis, an incredible church movement in London and beyond, who not only has led a small congregation into a bigger and more diverse one, but has become actively and decisively engaged in the Lambeth and Southwark communities. They run some schools, provide care and welcome for refugees, and engage with local and government authorities in their area. They recently took over what was a dwindling library, and found the reason for the decline in library usage in that area was not because of lack of interest but lack of literacy. Oasis now provides literacy training. In 2018 they are planning a number of ‘Inspire – Peace by peace’ events across the UK to mark the end of World War One, with a view to engaging young people not simply to commemorate the end of that War, but to work how, in many different areas of life, we need to learn how to be ambassadors for peace in their homes, schools, communities and churches. Again, another inspiring individual and I hope to visit some of the Oasis ventures in London when I make the St Andrews-tide visit in November/December later this year.

Today, Palm Sunday, I went to worship at Westminster Abbey, and met the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd Dr John Hall. It was a moving service, with superb music, and a very warm welcome. I look forward to visiting again, more officially, later in the year.

Otherwise my preparation time continues. I have written much of the worship for the week of the General Assembly, though I have still to tackle the sermon for Assembly Sunday. I’ll also be looking at the services I’ll be conducting immediately after the Assembly, and have already written the sermon for the service at the Scottish National War Memorial.

This makes it all sound like I’ve been doing nothing but work. London is always a fun place for me to visit, with so many friends here. I’ve managed to see a few shows during my days here, fulfilled my godpaternal duties by taking my 19 year old godson out to lunch, and tonight will be attending the Olivier Awards at the Royal Albert Hall. Then back to Edinburgh on Monday!

Wednesday 26th April 2017

Attended the Assembly Arrangements Committee this morning at the Church headquarters at 121 George Street. It was odd sitting in on a meeting that I have been a part of for many years, and convened latterly. The purpose of the meeting was to bring together all the conveners and secretaries of the General Assembly Councils and Committees and give them time to talk about their forthcoming reports to the 2017 General Assembly. It looks like it will be a lively time with some important debates and discussions on a wide range of matters. The proceedings of the Assembly can be watched live at the Hall from the public gallery (access from the Lawnmarket door), or online at the Church of Scotland website. I think this year there will be a catch-up facility on the Church of Scotland website, and some edited highlights too.

Thursday 27th April 2017

Today’s task, learning to pronounce the Benediction in Gaelic for the Gaelic Service that is held in Greyfriars’ Parish Church on Sunday 21st May, after the service at St Giles.

Gu’n robh gras an Tighearna Iosa Criosd,

agus gradh Dhe and Athar

agus co-chomunn an Spioraid Naoimh

maille ribh uile a nis agus gu siorruidh.

Amen.

Saturday 29th April 2017

I attended the Broken Rites group this afternoon. Moving and powerful in amidst a great deal of sadness and hurt.

From divorce to new hope

When a clergy marriage falls apart we are

Here for you. Broken Rites can help you by giving support and understanding on a one to one basis when needed.  We also hold local group meetings, provide information and signpost sources of help which may be practical, financial or spiritual support.

There for others. Broken Rites is a compaigning organisation.  We act as a pressure group within the various churches by raising awareness of the particular difficulties and issues which may occur following a clergy marriage breakdown including such issues as pension sharing and housing.

Broken Rites members have all experienced clergy marriage breakdown and understand the emotional impact when someone loses not just a spouse or partner but their home, their way of life. sense of purpose, place in the community and sometimes their faith or job.  We understand the embarrassment that comes with the public nature of the separation and the effect that all this has on children and the wider family.

Wednesday 3rd May 2017

Odd to wake up in the Moderatorial Residence in the New Town this morning! (But don’t worry – the manse is locked, alarmed, and watchful neighbours are everywhere; and I’ll be popping back and forth throughout the year!)

Friday 5th May 2017

I had lunch today with the current Moderator of the General Assembly – the Rt Revd Dr Russell Barr. We reflected on his year as Moderator which is coming to an end, and mine which is about to start. We are both Parish Ministers – and Russell commented on how much he had missed his parish and people at Cramond. Only two months away from Morningside – I know how he feels. The period of preparation has been challenging. A lot of the work has been completed, but it has been difficult doing this work in a vacuum where I have not been preaching, or doing pastoral work, or attending meetings. It has certainly made me reflect on how much of my life is taken up with work, and how much it means to me to be surrounded by good people, like the people of Morningside!

Now that we are into May, the pace begins to quicken. My diary continues to fill up, and there are some extremely exciting events lying ahead, more about those in the coming days. For now, the General Assembly opens in two weeks time. Once again, I ask for your prayers and good wishes. I wouldn’t be anything without them.

Saturday 13th May 2017

A week to go; I can hardly believe it! The pace is definitely picking up. Yesterday I attended the wonderfully titled ‘Hot Potatoes’ meeting – where senior Assembly figures meet to work through the ‘Blue Book’ (the reports of councils and committees of the Assembly), and try to work out where the challenges (opportunities?) and difficulties in the Assembly week might lie. It’s always a moment of coming to terms with real and imagined problems – and very necessary for the smooth running of business.

Last week I attended a book launch at St Giles. The Very Revd Dr Finlay Macdonald has brought out a useful guide to the history of the Church of Scotland, “From Reform to Renewal: Scotland’s Kirk Century by Century”. It’s a very helpful guide, and accessibly written. If you’re interested in finding out more about the Church’s history, I commend it to you. 

My diary for the forthcoming year continues to fill up – I look forward to sharing some of the highlights as I go through.

I’ve now picked up the full moderatorial outfit – so I hope I won’t let you down when I appear in the Assembly Hall next Saturday. 

Sunday 21st May 2017

There is a bit of me that still can’t quite believe it has happened – but it has! I am honoured and thrilled to have been installed and consecrated as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Yesterday went by in a blur of activity – but I can assure you that wearing that gown you kindly gave to me, seeing so many of you in the galleries in the Assembly Hall, and feeling your prayers and good wishes made all the difference in the world. It is particularly lovely that Robin Stimpson, our Session Clerk, and Chris McNeil, our Treasurer, are elders commissioned to attend the General Assembly this year.

It was a long wait in the Moderator’s rooms waiting for the nomination process to go through, watching it on a small screen. The walk through the Assembly felt like the longest walk in my life. The Very Revd Dr Russell Barr and Her Grace, the Princess Royal, were very kind and generous in their words. Russell spoke eloquently and passionately about the plight of the homeless in our country, and told the Assembly that what needed to happen to remedy this situation was political will – and the Assembly warmly endorsed his words.

When welcoming our overseas delegates, I made mention that two of them, one from Syria, one from South Sudan, had their Visas denied by the UK Border authority. Our country, and our Church, should pride themselves in their openness and welcome. What kind of signal does this refusal by the immigration authority send to two countries already devastated by war, famine and exclusion. I called for the UK Government to review its policy. Hospitality and grace must be accompanied by goodwill and common sense.

Today I prepare to preach at St Giles, say a blessing (in Gaelic) at the Gaelic service at Greyfriars, then go to the wonderful Heart and Soul event in Princes Street Gardens in the afternoon. There we see the Church as it really is – diverse, vibrant, innovative and inclusive.

Once more, thank you all for your prayers and support. I am so happy to represent Morningside at the 2017 General Assembly.

Sunday 21st May 2017

What an extraordinary day. Each day for me starts with my chaplains, Anne Mulligan DCS and the Revd John McMahon. Between them they lead a short but powerful act of devotion – it really sets me up for the day.

Then today was the Assembly Sunday service at St Giles. Wonderful music, and all the panoply of a state event with the Heralds, the judges, Lord Provost and councillors, and the Lord High Commissioner, the Princess Royal, as well as all the Church dignitaries. I preached at the service on the theme of, “Word of Life – Hope”. Daunting but it was lovely to preach again. This was the first sermon I’ve preached since finishing at Morningside. I think it went well enough.

I attended a reception with the new Lord Provost in the City Chambers, then went over to Greyfriars Parish Church for the Gaelic service. Quite a challenge as the whole service was conducted in Gaelic, but I managed to pronounce the benediction in Gaelic, and it seemed to meet with approval.

One of my favourite events at the General Assembly for several years has been Heart and Soul in Princes Street Gardens. Thousands of people gather and walk up and down ‘the Avenue’ and see displays and stalls from organisations and groups from across the Church and beyond. What a great shop window this event is. Quite challenging to lead worship in the open air, but we managed. My thanks to all involved.

A quiet night in tonight,  I think! But some preparation for tomorrow’s communion service will be needed, as well as reading over the reports that will form the business for the day.

Saturday 10th June 2017

Life has been exceptionally busy! I look back on the amazing week of the General Assembly with gratitude and amazement. So many wonderful memories. The Monday communion service went well – and it was good to see our Session Clerk, Robin Stimpson, who was a commissioner at the Assembly, leading the elders in. I knew things would go well!

One of the challenges of the week was working through the theme ‘Word of Life’, and looking at how to say something that would be helpful, thoughtful, and encouraging. It felt like preaching to the worst vacancy committee in the world – all those ministers and elders out there expecting so much. I was glad for the opportunity to lead worship, and the singing at the Assembly, as always, was such a great encouragement to me. On Monday evening I attended an event at the Royal Overseas League in Princes Street where we welcomed our delegates from across the country and across the world. One of the important dimensions of the Assembly is its ecumenical and international dimension. It was a sadness that two of our overseas delegates, from Syria/Lebanon and South Sudan, were denied visas. We kept two seats empty for them each day.

After the business of Tuesday, we enjoyed a special event where Jackie Kay, the Scots Makar, read some of her moving and thoughtful poetry on the theme of welcome and inclusion, and the Revd Dr Sam Wells, vicar of St Martin in the Fields in London spoke about what it means to be a fully functioning church in the C21st. I’ve admired Sam’s writing for many years and it was good to have him speak. It was particularly challenging to think about church growth – and realise that the real growth area is going to people who have often been rejected by the church and have rarely, if ever, had a welcome. Later on Tuesday I was a guest of Her Grace, the Princess Royal, at Holyrood Palace. There was a magnificent banquet, and I was fortunate to stay overnight in the Palace in the Hamilton Suite. There are aspects of being Moderator that I could come to enjoy!

Wednesday was a very special day for me. It started with worship led by a choir from South Morningside Primary School where I am chaplain, and three of our girls, Beth, Sara and Claudia read the story of Zacchaeus. How wonderful to have them at the Assembly, and they did our church proud. We had another special visitor on that day, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, a Hashemite Prince from Jordan. He spoke of the importance of Christian-Muslim dialogue, and how difficult it has become in a world of extremism and populism.

On a personal note it was a little embarrassing to have the General Assembly sing ‘Happy Birthday’ on Wednesday for my 55th birthday – but I survived!

During the week the tragedies at Manchester and Egypt unfolded, and the Assembly took time to remember those who had lost loved ones. I took some time to contact the minister on Barra where one of the young people who died came from. 

On Wednesday evening I hosted an event in Parliament Hall and was delighted to see so many people from my past and present, as well as guests from the Assembly. I noted the Morningside contingent were amongst the last to leave – but it was lovely to see so many friends again.

On Thursday the debate on equal marriage took place and I am happy to say it was conducted with dignity, insight and gentleness. It is a difficult topic for some people, but I am grateful that the Church of Scotland is gradually moving towards a more open and gracious position, recognising that this is a conscience matter on both sides of the debate.

On Thursday evening it was back to the Palace for Beating Retreat where I was the Princess Royal’s guest again. I didn’t see much of it as it was a blazing hot afternoon and we sat facing west into the sun. The Princess Royal suggested I should have ‘rang’ for sunglasses, as she had! At the following reception it was good to meet with many of the people who attended the Assembly, and it was particularly good to meet up with the delegates from the Youth Assembly.

By the time we got to Friday, the last day of the General Assembly, everyone was on a high. The closing ceremony is always moving, and then there is the fun of the ‘clapping out’ event as Moderator and Lord High Commissioner are clapped out from the Hall and across New College Quad, where we take our leave. The Princess Royal was simply stellar throughout the week and it was a privilege to have her with us. On return to the Moderatorial Residence I hosted a ‘wrap party’ for everyone who had worked at the ‘top table’ and behind the scenes at the Assembly. Everyone left by 9pm to well-earned rest.

On Sunday 28th May I went to the Forth Bridge to see my predecessor as Moderator, Russell Barr; the retiring Principal Clerk and the retiring Cross Reach Chief Executive abseil down the bridge to raise money for Cross Reach. I think the current total is over £26,000. No, I won’t be!

Wednesday 31st May saw me at the Scottish National War Memorial Service at the Castle, where I told again the story of Pvt John Finlayson, a Morningside man who was killed in 2017 and is buried in Morningside cemetery. It was a very moving service and lovely to be in the Lorimer Chapel.

Sunday 4th June saw me at St Michael’s Linlithgow where I preached at the 775th anniversary of the church being consecrated.

From 5th to 8th June I attended the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s General Assembly. It is a continuing disappointment that they do not send their Moderator to attend our Assembly. It is surely good, whether we agree or disagree on matters, that we meet together. On the whole I was met with friendliness and generosity, but the Thursday debate was an unpleasant experience and I left with a sense of real sadness.

I’m well settled in to the Moderator’s residence. It’s taking a little longer to get used to my office at 121 George Street  – so many interruptions. And I think I’ve signed around 1,000 long service certificates!

This weekend I’m off to Ayr St Columba’s to preach, then back to Edinburgh to host three lunches, and then attend a Marines’ Dinner at the Castle. I’m not weighing myself until next year!

Sunday 11th June 2017

Whilst in Ayr…. I go to breakfast, somewhat overdressed in Moderatorial lace and buttons and ring. A child at a nearby table pipes up: “Mummy, mummy! Is he a pirate?” Mummy, embarrassed, says, “No, he’s a Minister.” Child continues in awed tones: “He’s GOD?”

Babes. Sucklings. Mouths….

Tuesday 13th June 2017

What a wonderful weekend in Ayr. I led worship at two services at Ayr St Columba’s. Lovely to see a big church filled to capacity at both services, and to hand out long-service certificates to elders and Guild members.

After the service around 100 members from the Church joined me for lunch at Dumfries House, and I was privileged to be taken on a private tour afterwards. It is well worth a visit – so many amazing things to see there.

In the evening I attended a communion service in Alloway Parish Church, just across the road from the famous Kirk-Alloway of Burns’ Tam o’Shanter. Fortunately the only thing on the holy table during my visit was the bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper, and there were no Cutty Sarks in the vicinity.

Today I hosted a lunch for the Go For It fund – a Church of Scotland fund that helps congregations cross the country do research into finding out what things they might start in their parishes to help their communities, and then often provide funding to kick-start projects. Today we heard more about the Place for Hope organisation – a body that helps individuals, congregations and larger groups address and learn from issues of conflict. The Church of Scotland does so many things about which we should be proud, yet so often we hear little about them. The information is all there on the Church of Scotland website. Dip into it and be amazed at what our denomination does.

Monday 19th June 2017

Another busy run of days. I attended a dinner in Edinburgh Castle hosted by the Marine Corps in Scotland. It was wonderful to be in the Great Hall of the Castle, looking at some of the history of our nation. It was also good to hear about the work of some of our Armed Forces chaplains. So many of them are so greatly appreciated.

Then off to London. I’ve only ever seen Trooping the Colour on the television, so it was a real treat to see it live from the balcony of Dover House, the Scottish Office. It was a swelteringly hot day but fortunately we were in the shade. It is a magnificent spectacle, the music was wonderful, and the marching precise. And the first piece of music (Ein Feste Burg) reflecting the forthcoming 500th Reformation in Germany.

On Sunday I preached at a friend’s Church, St Paul’s Knightsbridge. A very high liturgy (it was the feast of Corpus Christi), but I managed to get through the complex liturgical choreography without too much difficulty, despite all the incense! It was a privilege to preach their, and good to see my old friend the Revd Alan Gyle, Vicar of Knightsbridge, who preached in our Church some years ago.

23rd June 2017

Three very different events during this week. I addressed the Diaconal Council (a council made up of the deacons of the Church) at their annual meeting at Queen Margaret University. Deacons – like our own late, great Norma Ronald!) are women and men who serve the Church in a variety of different ways. Some are involved in parishes, particularly in some of the more challenging locations across the country; some are involved in chaplaincy work (one of my moderatorial chaplains, Anne Mulligan, was a long-serving NHS chaplain at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary). The role of the deacon is often seen to ‘assist’ but in reality they often provide the continuity and hard-graft in many areas of the church’s life. They tend to be very practical and down-to-earth, and simply want to get on with the job. It was a privilege to speak to them en masse, in tribute to Anne Mulligan, and in memory of Norma Ronald – two deaconesses par excellence!

I attended an inter-faith dialogue event at the Scottish Parliament, where I met with people from every conceivable faith community in the country. It was particularly interesting to speak to colleagues from the Jewish and Muslim communities. The event show-cased the work of an artist who had painted portraits of people from the refugee communities in Jordan and Scotland, and told stories about how the traumatic events of fleeing home to escape war and persecution had on their mental health. It was an incredibly moving and worthwhile evening, and I think some bridges were built between faith communities.

Yesterday I attended the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston. I have fond memories of that event as I used to got there as a boy with my grandfather who farmed near there. Fortunately the weather was kind and it was fascinating meeting people from farming and fishing communities from across the country. A few politicians were lurking around too – comments about ‘best in show’ would not have been appropriate! The churches have a small marquee at the event, and provide prayer and support to those attending. Farming and fishing are particularly stressful occupations, not only hard work but with ongoing Brexit discussions there is a lot of uncertainty. Suicide rates amongst farmers are increasing again, and a new initiative to provide pastoral support is being launched by members of the farming community where the church might be able to provide some support and advice.