Our Minister, the Right Revd Dr Derek Browning, is now embarked on his year 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.
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 there, 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 go 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.
Thursday 29th June 2017
Last Saturday I attended the St Margaret’s Chapel Guild 75th Anniversary service at the Canongate Kirk. The Guild, made up of women whose names include ‘Margaret’, provide fresh flowers in St Margaret’s Chapel at Edinburgh Castle each week. It’s a lovely way to bring colour into the ancient building. On Saturday evening I was at the Castle to sign, on behalf of the Church of Scotland, the Armed Forces Covenant, promising the Church’s support for armed forces personnel and their families after their time of service. Something like one in ten of Scotland’s population are either former members of the armed services, or family. It’s a staggering statistic.
On Sunday 25th I was in North Berwick, preaching in the town where I went to High School. it was lovely to be back and meet some people who knew me in 1974 – when I was younger, had hair, and was an agnostic! Lunch was in the Blackadder Manse, on Marine Parade in the town, right on the beach front. I spent time there when I was training for the ministry, and it was lovely and emotional to be back in that house where I was shown hospitality over thirty years ago. In the evening I was in St Ninian’s Cathedral, Perth, for the retirement service of the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, Bishop of St Andrews, Dunblane and Dunkeld.
Monday 26th found me hosting a reception for all the volunteers who helped at the General Assembly. It was good to say thank you to so many people who were generous with their time to ensure that the General Assembly kept on the road.
On Wednesday 26th I was at the Scottish Parliament to celebrate the Maltese Presidency of the European Union. I fear there won’t be many more celebrations once Brexit goes through. At these events a wide selection of Scottish society are present, and I spent time with the BBC journalist Glenn Campbell, Scotland’s Chief Vet, and the High Commissioner of Malta.
Today I spent some time with the Secretary of the Council of Assembly discussing how to support the Call to Prayer – a venture discussed at the General Assembly. In the afternoon I hosted a lunch for around thirty delegates from the Korean Churches. North and South Korea are still at war, and the area knows a great deal of tension. In the Church council, Koreans from north and south work together to see if peace might come to that troubled peninsula. It was fascinating to talk to them and hear of their fears and hopes.
Saturday 8th July 2017
Every now and again you attend events at which you should really pinch yourself. Last Monday I was invited to be the Reviewing Officer at the 21 Gun Salute at Edinburgh Castle given to welcome Her Majesty the Queen to the city. Precision timing between Holyrood Palace and the Castle, earplugs against the deafening reports from the guns, and well done all the gunners who made it happen. I reviewed the Gunner teams and the Band of the Royal Marines afterwards.
Then it was on to the City Chambers to a reception hosted by the American Consulate to mark the 241st anniversary of the departure of the former colonies in America (maybe they call it something else!) A wide variety of people, and it was a particular pleasure to meet a group of young people going off to study in the United States later this year.
On Tuesday I attended the Royal Garden Party at Holyrood Palace. One of the more ‘baltic’ July days – it was wet and cold – but everyone survived. It was an honour to be introduced to the Queen who was in fine form, as also the Duke of Edinburgh. It is the first time I have met our most senior royals and, like many people, I marvel at their energy and ability to mix with the crowds. The Royal tea tent is a bit like being in a goldfish bowl or on stage – three ‘walls’ and the fourth one in public view with hundreds of people ‘looking in’. Another long chat with the First Minister. Whatever personal views you may have on the political state of our nation – it remains fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes view of our politicians and to be reminded that all of them are human.
Tuesday night saw me flying down to Cardiff to attend on Wednesday a day at the Presbyterian Church of Wales General Assembly. A day almost entirely in Welsh (with simultaneous translation) is quite a challenge!
Thursday included a three hour meeting with someone from the ‘Ascend’ project organised by the Ministries Council – an opportunity for me to reflect on my ministry and to think about what the future years will hold for me. It helped me think about what goals I might set, and what I might do after my moderatorial year, not only with my ministry but also with my personal interests. On Thursday afternoon, back in the office, I met with someone who works for the Church in co-ordinating our response to the refugee crisis – an area I will be focussing on, and then later on with two people from our Church and Society Council as we looked at ways to engage with the political community, and people from other walks of life, ‘at the long table’ in the moderatorial residence. My overall ‘theme’ is hospitality, and I will be exploring how by bringing people together around a table for a meal we might use the opportunity to talk about the big issues of our time. Politicians, media people, academics, the Arts Community, interfaith and ecumenical leaders, minorities representatives, Armed Forces leaders, educationalists, community builders. If you are more fortunate than others, it is better to build a longer table than a taller fence.
I now have a few days of holiday, my first real break this year.
Sunday 23rd July 2017
After a few days of holiday spent in and around Edinburgh – it’s back to the grind. One of the interesting things I’ve been able to do is visit different churches in the city. So far Palmerston Place, Drylaw, Portobello/Joppa and St David’s Broomhouse. It is fascinating that within our city, and within relatively short distances, there is such a diversity of places of worship, each with their different styles and traditions.
I had a good meeting with one of the event planners for the opening of the Forth Crossing which will take place in a few weeks time. I can’t say too much about this at the moment – the details will be announced on 4th August – but if these plans come to fruition, it will be very exciting for me!
Yesterday I attended the National Youth Assembly held in Gartmore House, Stirlingshire. There were around eighty young people aged between 18 and 25 (including one MSP). They’re looking at themes around inter-faith dialogue, and how we can support people in our communities who have poor mental health. These are both issues I hope to engage in during my year, so it was fascinating to see and hear what the youth delegates thought. I came away greatly impressed by our young people. Faithful, doubting, differing in opinions, differing in their views about the Church and what faith means today, but still there, and still willing to make a difference. It was, frankly, inspiring.
In this coming week I will be going to Aberdeen to take part in a service where my good friend George Cowie, soon to become the Presbytery Clerk of Glasgow, will be installed as one of the Queen’s Chaplains in her Chapel Royal. Back in Edinburgh, I’ll have a private meeting with someone involved in the challenging work of mediation in church and international affairs. On Friday I will be joining with members of the Muslim Community at a special dinner to commemorate the recent ending of Ramadan. And I will be making a short film about the Moderatorial lace. The lace I wear is quite old, and will have come from Chingleput in India, where in the C19th a school was founded for orphan girls who were taught lace-making as way not only to support the school, but also to support themselves in later life. I wonder how similar this idea is to the work done by Scottish Love in Action?
Sunday 30th July 2017
Last Friday I made a very short video about the Moderatorial lace I wear, and the traditions behind it. Astonished to see that nearly 19,000 people have watched the video on Facebook, and more on Twitter. There are challenging lessons for us to learn about how and where people gather their information today. Fewer and fewer turn to print journalism (which is a shame) but there is no denying that maintaining an online presence is important for many different institutions and bodies, including the Church. Hence our own excellent website.
Today I attended worship at St Giles’ Cathedral, my last Sunday not involved with a service for some months to come. It is good, from time to time, for those of us leading worship to sit in a pew and listen for a change!
On Wednesday I’ve been invited to attend the Assembly Festival Gala Launch in the Assembly Hall – I’m guessing the entertainment will be a little different from the Assembly week in May….! It is good that we are able to put the Hall to good use and the revenue from the Fringe Festival is very helpful.
On Friday I have been invited to dinner at Holyrood Palace with the Earl and Countess of Wessex, and the Prince of Monaco. We then go to the first night of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo at the Castle. It will be good to meet the Earl and Countess again as Prince Edward was the Lord High Commissioner at the 2014 General Assembly where he and his wife were absolute stars.
Friday 4th August is also a personally special day to me as I celebrate thirty years of ordination. I can’t quite believe that I have been a Minister for thirty years – it seems a long time ago to that evening in Cupar Old Parish Church. I was twenty-five, and thought I knew nearly everything. Now, thirty years later, I feel I know rather less, and am probably much the better for it! My fourteen years at Cupar, and now my sixteen years in Morningside (coming up on 5th September!) have been populated with some very kind, wise, generous and tolerant human beings. I remain continually grateful for all that has been given to me, and for the ongoing challenges and privileges of parish ministry.
Next Saturday I go to a choral event at Greyfriars’ Church where a choir of some 145 Americans from the Presbyterian Church (USA) will be singing. At a time when views about the kind of relationship the UK has with the USA politically are a little strained (you know what I mean!) it is good to be reminded of the grassroots links that exist between our two great nations.
One final thought, I’ve been greatly impressed by a book I’ve recently finished reading. Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration invites us to think about how the world’s largest religion should be seeking a better way to be Christian. “The Christian story, from Genesis until now, is fundamentally about people on the move – outgrowing old, broken religious systems and embracing new, more redemptive ways of life. It’s time to move again….Growing numbers of Christians are moving away from defining themselves by lists of beliefs and towards a way of life defined by love…Believers are increasingly rejecting the image of God as a violent Supreme Being and embracing the image of God as the renewing Spirit at work in our world for the common good…The faithful are identifying less with organised religion and more with organising religion – spiritual activists dedicated to healing the planet, building peace, overcoming poverty and injustice and collaborating with other faith to ensure a better future for all of us.”
Sunday 6th August 2017
Another busy week passes. On Monday I was the guest of honour at Carronvale House and the King George VI Youth Leadership training event for Boys’ Brigade officers. It was fascinating to be with the young people, and impressive to listen to some of their stories and aspirations for the future.
On Wednesday I attended the Assembly Fringe Gala event at the Assembly Hall. Quite a different set of performances from the usual events in the Assembly Hall. The Chinese dancers and acrobats were stunning.
On Friday I attended as a trustee the Chalmers Lectureship Trust – and spent the afternoon wondering what the format of the lectures might be in the future, and who the lecturers might be. It’s a broad topic – and there are opportunities to reach out to the church and beyond on topics that deserve in-depth thought. The last set of lectures given by Dr Doug Gay were a great success, held in St Giles, but webcast so thousands got the chance not only to see, but also to participate. In the evening I enjoyed dinner at the Palace with the Earl and Countess of Wessex, and Prince Albert of Monaco. I had a lovely conversation with the Monegasque Ambassadress about Jacobean tragedies – it was rather challenging but fascinating! Then on to the Tattoo and a wonderful performance.
On Saturday I welcomed 145 choristers from the Presbyterian Church USA who were singing at a concert at Greyfriars’ Kirk. It was a magnificent event with music by Bach, Wesley and Mendelssohn and others.
Today I preached at St Michael’s and all Angels Scottish Episcopal Church. It was good to be preaching again – though the pulpit was a little challenge – it wobbles! Still, I managed to get through my sermon without mishap.
Perhaps the most exciting news of the passed week was the announcement about the new Forth Crossing. On 4th September the bridge will be opened by Her Majesty the Queen – 53 years to the day since she opened the Forth Road Bridge. I was there in 1964 as a two year old. I was delighted to accept the invitation to bless the new Bridge. It’s a great honour, and yes, I’m thrilled to bits too!
Saturday 12th August 2017
If you’re looking for a good show to see – can I recommend Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ at the Assembly Hall on the Mound – 11.30am. Royal Conservatoire of Scotland was stunning.
On Tuesday another of those surreal moments when I had the great honour of taking the salute at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. I’ve been going to the Tattoo for years – but this one topped them all. Dinner with the Governor of the Castle first, and then driven down the Esplanade where I received the first of many salutes, inspected the troops, then climbed the very, very long staircase up to the royal box, whilst listening to my c.v. being read out. Morningside got a very prominent mention. The show itself was wonderful, though there was a lot of standing up and down as the various acts ‘saluted’ as they went off. Not only is there a red and green light to alert the salute-taker, I also had the Governor whispering, “Stand, Moderator”. It was all great fun, and the Lone Piper, and Massed Bands at the end were simply sensational.
On Wednesday I had a meeting with Alastair McIntosh. He is an independent writer broadcaster, speaker and activist who is involved with issues relating to land reform, globalisation, nonviolence, psychology, spirituality and ecology. He’s a presbyterian quaker, and interesting combination. I’m looking forward to reading his latest book, ‘Poacher’s Pilgrimage, an island journey’, where he records and reflects on his foot journey from the most southerly tip of Harris to the northerly Butt of Lewis. In the evening I had dinner with an old American friend who works in the Lincoln Centre in New York and discussed how the performing arts might engage with the interfaith community. I was happy to point her to our church’s upcoming autumn lectures on exactly this topic. We should be seriously proud of what we do at Morningside, and with our friends at Greenbank. I don’t think we appreciate enough what wonderful things we have been and are able to do.
Thursday saw me going to Dr Neil’s Garden at Duddingston Kirk. What a beautiful spot this is, and there’s a lovely café there too. I was recording a short video piece on the importance of prayer. There is to be a focus on prayer by the Church of Scotland later on in the year, and I was very happy to endorse this.
Friday was a day at the office – planning for a number of forthcoming events and trips to St Andrews and Glasgow Presbyteries, my visit to Rome in October, and my visit to London in November.
Saturday – so far – has been a day off!
Monday 21st August 2017
A week ago Sunday I was invited to preach at the patronal feast of St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral. It was rather a challenge to invited a Presbyterian to preach about the Virgin Mary. More clouds of incense, but some fine choral singing. Also it was good to share the service with the vice provost as I had been at St Andrews with him.
On Tuesday I took possession of a gift I will be presenting to the Pope when I have an audience with him in Rome in October. I also discovered that on one of my evenings in Rome I will be having dinner with the British Ambassador to the Holy See and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the evening I met up with an old Oxford friend, Peter Stanford, who has recently written a biography of Martin Luther, marking the 500th anniversary of Luther ‘nailing’ his 95 Theses to the Cathedral door of Wittenberg. I met up with Peter again at the Book Festival on Wednesday, where he was taking part in a discussion with Richard Holloway.
On Wednesday afternoon I met up with two officials from Crossreach – the Church’s social care body. In September I will be travelling all over Scotland visiting different Crossreach facilities in Dundee, Perth, Kilmarnock, Glasgow, and I’m delighted to be visiting the Elms and Morlich House. The Church of Scotland, after the state, provides the greatest amount of social care in Scotland.
On Wednesday evening I met up with my old friend, the inestimable John Bell, who was taking part in a panel discussion with Faith in Older People and was talking about Ageing Well.
On Thursday I took part in an induction service for James Aitken who has become the minister of St Ninian’s, Corstorphine, and listened to a fine sermon by the Revd Moira Macdonald, Minister of Corstorphine Old, with extensive quotations from Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie!
On Friday I met the soon to be appointed Head of Communications of the Church of Scotland. The Church has come on in leaps and bounds in communications, with an improving website, Facebook and Twitter presence. What point of the best message in the world if we don’t communicate it in many ways to the wider world.
Yesterday I preached at the 450th anniversary of Blantyre Old Parish Church in the morning, and then back to Edinburgh in the evening to deliver a lecture at St John’s Scottish Episcopal Church on Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the importance today of engaging in conversation with people at tables. How much we lose in conversation if it is not shared over food and drink.
Some fun things too – I had friends staying on and off for Festival events – and if you’re looking for a good show to see, a ‘radio’ play of Dad’s Army scripts is well worth catching on the Fringe.
Monday 28th August 2017
Last Tuesday I had the privilege of addressing the current Ministries candidates – people offering for full time and diaconal ministry. It was quite a moment to be asked to reflect on my 30 years of ministry, and whether I’d do it all again. (Yes, I would!) Also to pass on those little bits of information that they don’t teach you at college. It was energising to be with the candidates, all of whom seemed excited about their calling to serve God and the Church. It was lovely to be back in St Andrews, though slightly disconcerting to be able to get into University Hall without a pass: it had been a fiercely protected all-girl residence when I was at St Andrews!
On Wednesday I put my faith in SatNav and got to Garelochead and to share in a service celebrating the 10th anniversary of a CrossReach facility called Oasis, which provides support for Dementia sufferers and their families. A small but incredibly dedicated group of people, strongly supported by the local church and local authority. Good work done quietly and faithfully.
On Thursday I had a ticket to go and see the violinist Joshua Bell with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields – Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony was a particular treat.
On Saturday I was in Dunfermline at the launch of the new Learn resource for those working with children and young people. Over one hundred people from all over the country gathered to share in the conference – it was a jam-packed event with a lot of information to assimilate. I was delighted to see a strong showing from Morningside Parish Church – at the cutting edge as always and ready to learn and share. We should never underestimate the impact we have on the lives of our young people, and the great opportunity we have of sharing a living and practical faith with them. We are richly served in our congregation, and there will be great opportunities in the future to develop our work further. We should be grateful.
On Sunday I preached at the 200th anniversary of Clackmannan Parish Church – another wonderful opportunity to look not only to the past and what had been achieved, but to some of the pressing challenges that congregation will face in the future.
Today I drove down to North Berwick to visit friends – how glorious the countryside was looking. Everywhere fields were being harvested and I was reminded again of the fullness and goodness of the earth, and the responsibilities we have to steward it well and share its rich resources lavishly, in the same way God has shared these resources with us.
As I’m typing this, I’m sitting in the Moderator’s Residence in Rothesay Terrace, enjoying the firework display. A perfect distraction from doing work!
Wednesday 6th September 2017
On 29th August I had an interesting meeting with Sarah Davidson, a senior civil servant in the Scottish Government who is looking at rolling out digitisation across the country. Wouldn’t it be wonderful as we continue to move into the technological age if we could pair up this important new policy with the spread of church buildings across the country which might give access to communities?
On 30th August I was in Coatbridge helping launch a church and charity campaign called ‘Give Me Five’ an initiative from the Child Poverty Action Group. One in four children in Scotland lives in poverty. An extra £5 on Child Benefit would reach these children and their families. It is a scandal that the statistics on poverty in Scotland remain stubbornly high.
On 1st September I was in Bellhaven, near Dunbar, helping celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Church of Scotland’s Crossreach Counselling service in the Lothians. This growing service in the Church helps individuals and families in some desperate situations, offering a listening ear and non-judgemental care. It is a powerful testimony to what the Church of Scotland is doing quietly and persistently amongst some of the most vulnerable and forgotten people in our communities.
On Saturday 2nd September I travelled to the Annual Guild Rally where nearly 3,000 women, and a few men, met in the Caird Hall, Dundee, to think about the new Guild theme, ‘Go in Love’. Astonishing singing, and a great privilege to talk about the power, responsibilities and privilege of love, and the difference that Christians, living love out loud in a welcome and inclusive way, can make in the world.
After a quick change I drove up to Braemar where I enjoyed the Gathering there – pipers, dancers, caber tossers and athletes. I’d never been before and it was a joy to be there on a warm and sunny afternoon. Then a quick run through services with the parish minister, before I drove up the driveway and arrived at Balmoral Castle. It was quite overwhelming, seeing that very familiar site emerging from the trees. It was a tremendous privilege to be invited, and fascinating to see behind the scenes, as well as to meet my hostess and her family! My admiration for Her Majesty knows no bounds – funny, energetic, insightful and with a wonderful outlook on life. It was also good to meet the Duke of Edinburgh, and to meet the Princess Royal again. Protocol dictates that not too many details of visits are divulged, but the barbecue picnic was fun, the lunches and dinners lovely, and the company excellent. I preached in Braemar Parish Church on Sunday morning, and then on to Crathie afterwards. It remains quite an amazing thing to sing the national anthem with the person to whom it is directed sitting a few feet away.
I was driven around the estate, which is truly beautiful, spotted a few red deer, helped ‘release’ a dozen trees from their plastic supports, and made friends with the pet dogs who make their home in the castle.
Monday morning saw me leaving Balmoral at 5.30am – pity the poor footman who had to get up to make me my coffee and make sure I had a rather regal packed-breakfast for the journey south so that I could take part in the events marking the blessing and opening of the Queensferry Crossing. I had attended, as a two year old, the opening of the Forth Road Bridge in 1964, and remember being told by relatives to ‘look at the lady in blue’. I’d mentioned this in my sermon, and was delighted to see that ‘the lady’ chose to dress in blue again for the ceremony this year. The weather wasn’t great, but what an honour to play a small part in this historic and iconic moment. These are the words I used:
This is a bridge
That connects the land:
A bridge to honour
The contours of earth, air and water,
All gloriously united.
This is a bridge
That celebrates the skills
Of hand and heart and mind:
Concrete and steel, style and shape,
All gloriously created.
This is a bridge
That enables the movement of people:
Through space and time,
In coming and going,
All gloriously dynamic.
God bless this bridge;
God bless this Queensferry Crossing,
And all who travel on it.
It is indeed a beautiful structure, and it was wonderful to be driven over it, and join in the events on the north side too.
Today I was in Perth meeting with Work Place Chaplains. I’ve known about work place chaplaincy for some years, and helped one to make some contacts with RBS at Gogarburn, but I had not realised that there are 118 chaplains working across the country in businesses, shops, ambulance services, fire services, lifeboats and many other places. Where people are not attending church, work place chaplains provide a connection for people, and exercise a ministry of presence. They offer listening posts to working communities, and, though it takes time to build up trust and credibility, reach people parish churches often never see. We have much to learn from this ministry, and it is good to see that this great Christian witness is offered sensitively and sensibly across our country.
Monday 18th September 2017
I returned today from my first Presbytery visit – to the Presbytery of St Andrews. It was lovely to be back in the Presbytery that ordained me. On the first Sunday I took part in services at at Holy Trinity and St Leonard’s in St Andrews, and then in the afternoon I preached at Cupar Old. It was quite emotional being back there, but lovely to reconnect with so many old friends. I also gave out a number of long-service certificates, totalling over 3,000 years of service.
On Monday we went to Kettle Produce – I’ve never seen so many carrots in the one place, and a whole lot of other vegetables. Fascinating to see the process, and to learn that around 53% of the staff there are Eastern European, so Brexit will be a real issue. In the afternoon I had tea with the University Principal, Professor Sally Mapstone, who is also an Oxford graduate. A dedicated woman with a grand vision for St Andrews University. In the evening I was the main guest at a reception hosted by the Provost of Fife Council
On Tuesday I visited a small charity that seeks to raise £30,000 per year which helps bring two Palestinian students for one year to the university. It is a life-changing opportunity for those able to come. Later I visited the East Neuk Foodbank in Anstruther. A vital support for people who struggle to make ends meet. In the evening I was guest at a reception at St Mary’s College, where I trained for the ministry.
Wednesday saw me at Waid Academy, the newly rebuilt secondary school for the East Neuk. I had a lively morning with young people who are studying religion and philosophy. One of the best mornings I have had in a long time. Later on in the day I spoke to a gathering of Guilds in Cupar, and then on to Newport on Tay for a songs of praise service.
On Thursday I visited the Army Base at Leuchars. It was fascinating travelling around meeting soldiers from the Royal Scots Dragoons, the Engineers, and the Military Police. Fun driving around in a Panther too! In the afternoon I went to Leuchars Primary School and had a wonderful time with all the classes. They’d baked especially, and some of the cupcakes were so big they could be seen from outer space. Interesting to be in a school where 60% of the children came from a Forces background. Some of the children had been in three schools before they were eleven. From there I went on to Cupar to rededicate the Lighthouse, an ecumenical bookshop, resource centre and cafe that I helped found thirty years ago. And finally to the Cupar Justice and Peace Group, celebrating its twentieth anniversary. At the meeting I’d invited some women from the world church who were visiting Scotland, including the Revd Rula Sleiman, the first woman ordained in the Presbyterian church in the Middle East.
Friday took me to Guardbridge, to the new biomass site which will eventually provide all the hot water for the university. The designer described the system as a central heating system on steroids. Heat is produced from woodchips from trees from the area, the temperature in the furnace reaches 1000 degrees. We travelled on to the medieval church of Leuchars, which is undergoing a major refurbishment. In the afternoon I was driven over to the East Neuk to the Ardross Farm and shop – a brilliant example of local farmers getting together to sell their produce directly to the public. If you’re in the East Neuk, it is well worth a visit. In the evening, back in St Andrews for a dinner with the Principal of St Mary’s College and other senior staff members.
Saturday morning saw me in Gibson House, a nursing home in St Andrews where I got to meet the residents, some of whom remembered me as a student in 1983! Then we drove down to Anstruther where my chaplain, the Revd John McMahon, and I got the thrill of going out on the RNLI lifeboat – it was quite a moment. Got to drive it too and look for ‘bodies overboard.’ Then back to the crew room for a fish supper and learn about a local minister who is the crew chaplain.
Sunday was Harvest Thanksgiving – but a first for me – I preached outdoors at Allanhill Fruit Farm on the hill outside St Andrews – stunning views over the fields, over the town, and across the Tay. About a hundred people gathered. Then a drive in a 1950s Daimler to St Monans and its pretty church where I preached in the afternoon and gave out more long service certificates to elders.
Not much free time – but what a wonderful visit to see what some small churches do to reach out to their communities and make a difference for good. Particularly impressed by the chaplaincy work in many different places – schools, farms, the army, a foodbank and the RNLI. If people are no longer coming to Church like they used to, the Church has a duty, and an opportunity, to go out to the people.
Saturday 23rd September 2017
Had an interesting meeting on Tuesday with Josh Littlejohn from Social Bite who is organising the world’s largest Sleep Out on Saturday 9th December in Princes Street Gardens. His aim is to raise money and to raise awareness about homelessness in Scotland. Sleep In The Park has already attracted over 2,000 people who will be attending. Josh is hoping for 9,000. Look out for details – I’m going to be there! And a whole lot of celebrities. I’m hoping churches and church groups across the country too.
On Wednesday I had a number of meetings throughout the day, then hosted my first dinner in a series based on the theme, “If you are in a position of privilege, it is better to build a longer table than a higher fence.” The first was the Table of Christian-Muslim dialogue. Twelve of us around the table: an imam, an archbishop, a bishop, a Principal Clerk, a Sheikh, and several others. Some very good discussion about the issues facing all people of faith.
On Thursday I went back to school – revisiting my old High School in North Berwick. A lovely trip seeing a place I left in 1980. Interesting discussions with an RME class and a history class. In the afternoon I visited Leuchie House, a respite holiday house in a stately home. Wonderful staff, wonderful care, where dignity, hospitality and kindness coalesce. The CEO, Mari O’Keefe, would be a great speaker at a speaker-supper evening!
Friday was a writing day as I have a fairly heavy week ahead with visits and speaking engagements across the country. It was also good to have a long lie in.
Saturday took me to Doors Open Day where I went to the General Assembly hall to answer some questions and help out the volunteers. It was lovely to see so many people come to the Hall – if a little odd seeing and hearing myself on video. In the evening I attended a concert at Culross Abbey with the Heart and Soul Swing Band. Raising money for the Church of Scotland HIV programme.
Wednesday 27th September 2017
Last Sunday saw me returning to Culross Abbey to celebrate their 800th anniversary. It’s a lovely and ancient church, and I was fascinated by some of the stories around it – including one about the abbey being built on a ley line which runs under the building. Along the line there’s a secret route where a man on a golden chair is seated. If you can find him he will give you untold treasures. Sadly to say I didn’t find him.
Sunday was also the launch of CrossReach week. CrossReach is the social care organisation within the Church of Scotland, working with some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. On Sunday I took part in a service at Coldside Parish Church in Dundee that hosts a cafe and support group helping people combat addiction issues.
On Monday I travelled to Perth to meet with the Tayside Centre who also work helping people towards recovery from different kinds of addiction. I then went on to a Children and Families centre that CrossReach runs at Perth prison. There’s a small cafe providing tea and coffee and a play area for children. There are also volunteers on hand to offer support and advice. This centre helps provide a safe place for children and their families as they prepare to go into prison to visit a family member who is in jail. We often fail to realise that many prisoners leave behind families also affected by the conviction, and it is good that the church provides support for these families. Inside the prison I met with a well co-ordinated prison chaplaincy team, two Christians and one Muslim chaplain, and learned from them and from some prisoners what a support being able to reflect on faith gave.
Tuesday saw me return to Morningside! I visited Morlich House and The Elms. Morlich is a wonderful facility for older women and it was good to catch up with some of the ladies that I knew, including one of our own. The house has a 1950s ‘street’, complete with phone box, sweet shop, and a little house with a sitting room and kitchen – it helps with stimulating memories. At the Elms I also had the opportunity to lead worship, and to chat with one of our members who makes her home there, and to enjoy the beautiful gardens. I know we have members who are part of the Friends of Morlich and Friends of The Elms. I can’t help but wonder if we might think of other ways in which we might offer support. Later in the afternoon I hosted a tea at the Moderator’s Residence for Threshold Edinburgh, a CrossReach facility that provides support for people with learning difficulties that allows them to stay in their own homes. Everybody was on their best behaviour to start with, and then they relaxed and enjoyed the tea and friendship. Once more, what a tremendous amount of work is done by the Church of Scotland – this time in and around Gorgie – for very vulnerable adults.
Today is Wednesday and I’m typing this in the back of a car as I’m being driven from Kilmarnock to Alloa. This morning I visited the Morvern Centre in Kilmarnock, a unique CrossReach service for adults who have poor mental health. It’s a day centre providing a variety of crafts, writing and counselling therapies. People of all ages, some with high levels of anxiety, others with depression, some finding poor mental health came at the time they retired. Andrew is in his 20s and had only recently come to the Morvern. He had some health issues, but suffered badly from anxiety attacks. Within a couple of weeks he was learning new coping strategies, and getting the help he really needed, sometimes from professionals, sometimes from other service users who could help when he found things tough. The sense of calm and sanctuary in the facility was tangible. I came away feeling deeply moved by what I had learned. We often wonder where the money we give to the Church goes. In this CrossReach week I can tell you about some examples of where our offerings are making a life-changing, and indeed life-saving, difference for good.
Saturday 30th September 2017
CrossReach week is over – what a wonderful opportunity to see the work done by the social care arm of the Church of Scotland. Thursday saw me back in Edinburgh, visiting the Perinatal Depression centre in Palmerston Place. This service – entirely funded by the Church of Scotland with no help from statutory bodies (it’s one of the ways our weekly offerings help) – provides what one attender said was ‘life-saving support’ through counselling and general help to women and men struggling with PND. There are three units in Edinburgh and I can’t begin to tell you what a difference they make to those who attend. Staff and volunteers provide a place of safety and calm, and two young women I spoke to were so grateful for the impressive help they received.
In the afternoon I met with representatives from the Scottish Parliament Community engagement group – who were seeking to find ways for the Parliament to engage more fully and learn more about the many different types of service that the Church of Scotland offers through its centres to the elderly, those with poor mental health and those who have addiction issues. The Church of Scotland, after the state, provides the most social care in Scotland. That is something about which we should be rightfully proud.
On Friday I went to Charis House – the office base for CrossReach – to meet the staff who support the service, and to lead a short act of worship giving thanks for all that CrossReach does. It was a humbling and inspiring week.
In the afternoon I attended a meeting with Josh Littlejohn, who heads up the Social Bite shops and charity, to make a short video promoting their ‘Sleep in the Park’ campaign on 9th December where they are raising not only money for the homeless, but also awareness about the issue and adding further pressure on the Scottish Government to do something about this blight on our society. I then attended a meeting to begin a discussion about the issue of modern-day slavery in Scotland, and the unseen thousands who are enslaved by gang leaders in Europe and beyond, brought to Britain, and working not only in cities but also in the towns and countryside of Scotland. More on that as this project develops.
This afternoon I am writing from the Manse of Paris – I am preaching at the Scots Kirk in Paris tomorrow at the invitation of the minister. It has been lovely to wander around Montmartre again, visiting ‘my’ vineyard, and enjoying the early autumn sunshine and warmth. Life is sometimes tough being Moderator!
Sunday 1st October 2017
One of the many joys of being Moderator is, despite an hour long delay in my flight tonight (!), travelling around the country and around the world. I have had a wonderful visit to Paris this weekend. On Saturday I wandered around Montmartre revisiting Sacre Coeur, two wonderful French restaurants with friends (and all that that entailed), and a cheeky visit to the Moulin Rouge. This morning I preached at the Scots Kirk, meeting Christians from around the world. The minister is a South African, elders come originally from Scotland but have now made their home in Paris. The congregation this morning came from France, South Africa, the US, Israel, Sweden, Germany, North Korea, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and North Berwick. The pianist, a world class student preparing for the Liszt Piano Competition in Brussels, played ‘All people that on earth do dwell’, and as we sang that fine old Scottish psalm I looked out at ‘all people’. It was, for me, a wonderful moment. When we gather together as a family of God in our separate congregations, we often don’t have much of a concept of the world wide nature of our faith. Media obsession with numbers (invariably gathered from dubious sources and never telling the whole picture of a denomination’s size) obscures the fact that the Christian family worldwide, in all its textures and hues and complexity, is a wonderfully numerous and diverse family. How thankful we should be. When I brought the General Assembly’s greetings to the Scots Kirk in Paris, I was able to link in to the broad and inclusive family.
Currently I’m at Charles De Gaulle airport, hoping my already delayed flight won’t be delayed much more beyond 10.30pm. It’s going to be a late night, and there’s a busy week ahead.
Thursday 12th October 2017
Last week I hosted three lunches for around 60 people from 121 at the Moderator’s residence. Fortunately someone else does the cooking and washing up. Many staff at 121 work long hours and help the Church of Scotland in a number of ways. It is good to recognise this and to say thank you.
I also hosted a meeting for CrossReach, the Social Care arm of the Church of Scotland, and the Prince’s Trust – an opportunity to explore how we might help young people look for work in the care sector. I attended a meeting of Place for Hope – a Church of Scotland initiated group that works in mediation. On Thursday 5th October I said Grace at the Seafarers’ UK Centenary dinner in Glasgow – a charity that works with men and women who have worked in the merchant fleet.
On Friday 6th October I hosted a dinner – The Table of Creation – where I brought together people who worked in the renewable energy industry and others who work with charities that deal with ecology and global warming matters. There was a lot of science, and a lot of challenges about the way the world needs to reconsider how it reduces its carbon footprint. A fascinating evening of challenge and discussion, and it was good to bring together people from different parts of the debate, as well as people from our Church and Society Council.
I am currently just over halfway through my second ten-day Presbytery visit. This time I am in Glasgow. I’ve preached in Glasgow Cathedral, and preached at an ecumenical service for Glasgow Churches together.
On Monday I visited the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and met the chaplaincy team and the hospital’s chief executive. I then toured the vast building visiting the coronary care unit, spinal unit and the neo-natal unit. It was wonderful to meet so many dedicated staff, working under great pressure and often coping with very difficult circumstances. In the afternoon I visited ‘The Well’, a 25-year old organisation supported by Christians who work in Govanhill with the massively racially diverse community. Over 60 different languages are spoken in that part of Glasgow, where many immigrants over decades have arrived. Getting alongside vulnerable individuals, staff and volunteers help people with understanding culture and language as people begin to integrate into the city. Later on in the afternoon I visited Queens Park Govanhill Parish Church, learning something about their history (the Holocaust martyr Jane Haining was a member here), and also about how this church community seeks to engage with and support the ethnically diverse community. There are around 25,000 people living in this parish. My last call of the day was to the CrossReach unit – Daisy Chain, a Church of Scotland-run unit that works with children and families in Govanhill, again providing support and welcome to some very vulnerable people. It was an exciting and humbling day.
On Monday I was delighted to congratulate the Revd Susan Brown, Minister of Dornoch Cathedral, who will succeed me as Moderator at the 2018 General Assembly.
On Tuesday I visited Knightswood Secondary School which incorporates the National Dance School of Scotland. It has dance studios where those interested can learn all forms of dance, get involved with drama, and do some musical theatre. I was blown away by the sheer vibrancy and quality of everything I saw and heard. It was wonderful. I also met with young people who had recently returned from a work trip to Malawi, and others who were involved with the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. I took part in a Religion, Moral and Philosophy class and shared with them views on end of life issues, IVF, and the Creation stories of the Bible. I earned my lunch that day. In the evening I attended the meeting of the Presbytery of Glasgow and was interested to see how the largest Presbytery in Scotland functioned.
Wednesday took me to Bridgeton, another part of the city where there are challenges around poverty and social deprivation. Church House, attached to Bridgeton St Francis-in-the-East Church, was set up in 1942 to provide safe places for young people in the community. Today, in new premises, it provides a wide range of groups, clubs, educational opportunities and support for some of the most vulnerable people in our country. We don’t recognise how much the Church of Scotland does to support in these challenging circumstances. Afterwards I went on to visit ‘Glasgow – the Caring City’. Set up in Cathcart Old Parish Church, this congregation supports and plays host to a number of charities that make a massive impact locally, nationally and internationally. This award winning charity supports children in crisis at home and overseas by supporting programmes of health, education and security. It also works with local communities to create stronger and more resilient environments for the future. It has worked in 66 countries, undertaken over £550,000,000 of aid and development and is one of the most amazing and inclusive organisations I have encountered. Its heart is in Cathcart Old Parish Church, who create space and give encouragement at every possible turn. In the evening I attended the Trades House Dinner, with one of the oldest organisations in the City of Glasgow.
Today I was up early giving a Thought for the Day on Radio Scotland, highlighting issues around supporting people with poor mental health. I then went on to visit the City of Glasgow College, where there are 38,000 students and a wide range of courses for study in one of the most stunning modern buildings I have been in. Broadcast, film, catering, fine art, hospitality, nautical, air and travel industry and so many more. Also good to see a developing chaplaincy team. At Glasgow City Chambers I had lunch with the new Lord Provost, and also met her compatriot, the Swedish Ambassador to Britain. Tonight I’m off to Partick Trinity Parish Church where I will meet and address Glasgow youth workers and a team who will be travelling to South Africa for the Year of the Young Person.
Saturday 14th October 2017
Friday morning saw me visiting the offices of Glasgow Presbytery – it was good to meet with the team that put together my visit and hear about some of the challenges Glasgow faces. I then moved on to meet with the Priority Areas team – a group of people who, in partnership with others, work in some of the most deprived areas across Scotland, helping build resilience and addressing with imagination some of the challenges people face in being a church community in circumstances we would struggle to imagine. Challenging but rewarding. I went on to visit two of these areas in Glasgow. One at Springburn Parish Church where they host a number of community events – one called ‘Singing for the Brain’ a group who work with people who have dementia and help memory and social engagement through singing songs. It’s amazing how music helps people re-engage with their past. I then travelled to Castlemilk Parish Church, where people from the parish have gathered together to form self-reliant groups, working alongside people in some of Scotland’s least understood communities to improve their confidence, skills and income. Women learning to provide ‘beauty’ salon skills, men turning discarded wood from a local undertaker into furniture and decorative items. From the pews of the old Castlemilk churches they made their font, communion table, lectern, pulpit and a beautiful cross. Inspiring to see people being helped by the church to face the difficult circumstances in their lives and find and own their own solutions. Really making a difference for good.
My last visit was back to the city centre to St George’s Tron church. This church went through a difficult time a few years ago when many decided to leave during the same-sex relationship debates. It was a very unhappy place and, in my view, some more than unhelpful behaviour from some of the congregation. An interim ministry was set up, and the church has been transformed, turning round from being inward looking to very outward looking and serving the passing city centre population – workers, shoppers, homeless people, tourists. An imaginative use of space, good partnerships with other organisations, and a base for a resident artist, Iain Campbell, whose stunning paintings give a contemporary perspective on Bible stories. Utterly inspiring – a church reinventing itself and providing a wonderful witness and service to the transient community it serves.