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!