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.
Sunday 22nd October 2017
On Wednesday I hosted a meeting of interfaith leaders. It was a privilege to gather together senior figures from the Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist traditions, as well as from across the Christian Churches, though I did find myself saying at one moment, “We can’t have our photo opportunity, I have two Lamas in the lavatory.” There has never been a time when dialogue with people from other faith traditions. In the uncertainty caused by Brexit and other international tensions, the rise of anti Semitism, anti Muslim feelings, and other hate crimes and speeches appear to be on the rise. Now would be a good time for people of good will and steady faith not only to speak together but also to act together. There is much good that we could do together.
On Friday I preached at Allan Park South, Stirling, 150th anniversary. It is a challenging time for churches in Stirling, but it was good to be with a number of hard-working and good people on that evening.
Today I was invited to preach at the Kirk of the Canongate, where my old friend Neil Gardner is minister. I know the congregation fairly well, and it was lovely to be with them on a ‘normal’ Sunday!
Tomorrow I’m in Glasgow for a discussion on BBC Religion and Ethics programming – as the BBC consults with faith leaders on how religion and faith could be better served by television and radio – that’ll be an interesting conversation.
Then on Tuesday – I’m off to Rome!
Friday 27th October 2017
It has been a whirlwind few days. I flew out to Rome on Tuesday to begin an official visit. I met first with the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, who support the charity Mediterranean Hope. This charity works with immigrants and asylum seekers, who come to Italy from desperate situations in the Middle East and from across Africa. The charity also works with those thinking of coming to Europe before they have made the journey that could bring them here. It is incredibly sensitive and complex work, and is carried out with great skill by Mediterranean Hope.
I then enjoyed lunch with the UK ambassador to the Holy See – in a wonderful embassy which has great views of Rome from a roof top terrace. It was good to meet several of the English-speaking clergy who work in Rome in many different denominations. In the evening I visited St Andrews, the Scots Kirk in Rome. This congregation had a wide range of members from across the world, supportive of the Church of Scotland, and some travelling great distances to worship each Sunday.
On Wednesday I had an audience with Pope Francis. It was a tremendous honour. I spent thirty minutes with him, accompanied only by a translator – but I was surprised how much English he understood, and how much Spanish I understood! He is an incredibly warm and caring man; it was clear that he cared about many difficult situations across the world. He mentioned particularly the situation in Myanmar, and we also talked about our mutual concern about refugees, people with poor mental health, Brexit, secularisation across the world, and the ways in which good local churches are reinventing and reimagining their work at parish level. We prayed together too, and for a moment it felt like nothing more than two Christians holding the world and its many needs before God. There was then a more open audience where I and then the Pope made more formal statements. I talked about my theme of hospitality: from hospitality as charity to hospitality as justice. I also talked about the need for churches to re-engage with their communities and challenge all forms of sectarianism, anti-semitism and Islamophobia. I took the chance to talk about the role of women in the Church, particularly the work of Deacons. I also mentioned the forthcoming 500th anniversary of the German Reformation, and hoped the Pope would share a call for our two denominations to work together.
“A wise man recently told me: ‘When we speak, we must speak the truth. Then we must speak the truth in love. But first, we must speak.'” And I hope that in our speech together, truth and love would shine out not only in our words but also in our actions.
The Pope, in response, talked about our need to live as brothers and sisters in faith, and put behind the suspicions and dwelling on differences which have dominated the Protestant/Catholic history. We should be overcoming divisions and healing wounds. And we should be continuing our dialogue with each other in language befitting those who belong to God. We cannot be Christians on our own, “we belong to the family of believers…”
It was a wonderful and humbling experience. We exchanged gifts – I gave a new book on Columba and Iona, with a prayer of Columba translated into Spanish; and a hamper filled with special Scottish goodies. The Pope was also quite taken with my socks, but that would be taking ecumenical relations a little too far. I received three books written by the Pope, and a ceremonial Papal medal. A tremendous honour, and a worthwhile discussion.
After the audience was over, we were toured round the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, and St Peter’s. I have been before but this was the deluxe tour and it was fascinating to see some areas not normally open to the public. The view from high up on the basilica (we were up at the same level as the saints who frame St Peter’s Square) was stunning.
We then travelled out to the Scots College – where Scottish priests are trained. We explored the possibility of trainee ministers and trainee priests meeting together and learning from each other.
I returned to Rome to do a BBC interview, and then went on to dinner – with the British Ambassador again, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, as well as a cardinal and other senior church figures from Rome. The conversation was fascinating, and it was a great honour to be included.
An intense few days, back home now, before I go off to Dunoon to celebrate their church’s 200th anniversary, then back for a night before going to Germany for special Reformation celebrations, and then on to Sweden.
Saturday 4th November 2017
I continued my ‘overseas’ trips last weekend by taking the ferry to Dunoon! Visits to ordinary Church of Scotland congregations have been very important to me – and it was a pleasure to take part in a service marking Dunoon’s 200th anniversary, and to hand out long-service certificates to elders. It has meant living out of a suitcase for the better part of two weeks – but the pleasure of meeting so many different people is wonderful.
Monday morning saw me travelling further afield as I took the plane to Berlin. Tuesday 31st was the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s attributed nailing of his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. It was a great privilege to be invited to attend the service in the Church on that day – and I was even more grateful for my schoolboy German which meant I had a reasonable idea what was happening and when. To sing Luther’s great hymn Ein feste’ Burg in German and in Luther’s church (he’s buried up in the chancel) was astonishing. The service reflected on the contribution of Luther and the Reformation to the history of the world, particularly his brave stance for his understanding of faith. “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Equally important was the note of reconciliation struck by the Lutheran Church president, who had invited the senior Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany not only to be present but to participate. A cross of reconciliation and hope was presented by the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics to the German President – a potent symbol of intention as Protestants and Catholics recognised that whilst differences undoubtedly remain, there is much that both strands of the Christian family can do together and share together to make a difference for good. At the reception afterwards it was good to mix with the many representatives of the Christian faith family who were there to celebrate and commemorate – and it was certainly helpful for me to have visited the Pope the previous week as the Roman Catholic cardinal and bishops knew all about me. It was also an honour to be presented to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, herself a woman of faith (her father was a Protestant pastor). During her address at the reception she said, “Without tolerance there is no hope in the civilised world. Tolerance ends where our freedoms and human rights are ignored.” It was a moment of significant personal testimony from one of the most powerful leaders in the Free World.
On Wednesday I met with the Protestant bishop of Berlin and other Church leaders, and talked about a number of areas where that Church and the Church of Scotland shared common interest and concern. How do we engage with a secular world; how do we interact with the interfaith community; how do we help people grow in their faith; what should our involvement be with Israel-Palestine (a particularly difficult matter for the Germans, for obvious historical reasons). In the afternoon I travelled a little way outside Berlin to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp site. Sachsenhausen is not a place where anyone can walk quickly. The weight of memory, savagery, inhumanity and bleakness lies heavily here, as I know it will on other concentration camps. It is a place where birds rarely sing, though one small flock of sparrows flew through the leaden grey skies, piercing the clouds of drizzle that enveloped the site with the brevity of life.
I have never visited the site of a concentration camp before. Sachsenhausen housed Jews, political prisoners, religious prisoners, prisoners of war and many others. I walked on the cobbles made by prisoners. I saw images painted on the walls of the prisoners’ kitchens; I saw the triangles made for Jewish, gypsy, political and homosexual prisoners; I saw the shoes, and the shoe-testing tracks where prisoners were made to run to test whether shoes would be good enough for use by German soldiers; I saw the execution trench where conscientious objectors were sentenced to death by Nazi Special Courts; I saw the site of the crematorium; I saw the mass graves of concentration camp victims, dying from cold, hunger, neglect and torture; I stood on the site of gallows where prisoners were executed in front of their assembled fellow-prisoners as an example, the same site where at Christmas, the SS had a Christmas tree erected.
Sachsenhausen is not a place where anyone can walk quickly.
It is a place that overwhelms, where the planned banality of cruelty was commonplace and everyday, and unimaginable inhumanity was unexceptional.
Words cannot quantify or delineate this place of broken and misshapen human desolation.
In the face of the eternal ‘why’ which concentration camps shout to the heavens, one is left with the endless ‘why not’ when we see ongoing inhumanity and casual dismissal of human pain, need and hurt.
Faith is no trivial thing in this bitter footprint where humanity failed. I am left, still, with questions. I am left, unshakeably, with determination.
To speak out whenever I can against injustice.
To speak out whenever I can against prejudice.
To speak out whenever I can against cruelty.
To speak out whenever I can against the deficit of love and decency.
Faith impels those who accept its claims to work towards the graciousness of hospitality and the fundamentals of human rights, and towards the basics of loving our neighbours as ourselves.
In this place so far from forgiveness, and yet so demanding of it, I could see no hope beyond a suffering Saviour; Who neither explains nor excuses the absence of love, but stands in the midst of the pain and suffering, weeping, identifying, and eternally reaching outwards.
I found the visit overwhelming, powerful, upsetting, and significant beyond words with Remembrance Sunday coming up.
On Thursday I had interesting meetings with different German Church groups . First with ‘Bread for the World’, similar to Christian Aid, then with ‘Churches Helping Churches’. Across the world people are seeking to develop work in many different areas. There is also some interesting work being done with refugees, people who have been human trafficked, and those caught up in modern day slavery. These are big issues affecting the UK and Europe and the wider world. It is something I hope to continue to reflect on throughout my year as Moderator, and beyond.
Later on Thursday I travelled to Sweden, first to stay in Uppsala. This beautiful university city is also the ancient ecclesiastical centre of Sweden and home to the largest church, the Lutheran Church of Sweden. As with the German churches, we share many common interests with the Swedes, particularly in relation to work in the Middle East. It was helpful to hear of areas where our two churches’ work in the Middle East has striking parallels, particularly in Israel-Palestine and in Egypt. It was helpful to renew and to make new contacts.
Equally interesting was a meeting with the Head of the Research Department of the Church who talked about projects relating to “Migrants and Hospitality” (what is the practice of hospitality in our theories of being the Church, who forms the bridges between the local and national church and immigrants, what are the characteristics of the people who offer hospitality and what positions do they hold and roles do they perform); “Social Innovation” – how do churches engage with society in new ways, what projects do they choose, how are they sustainable in terms of personal and economic resource; “The historical Lutheran idea of ‘household'” – where do people find community today in societies where extended and nuclear family is no longer a reality, how do we show hospitality, welcome and inclusion in a secular and individualistic world?
In our different ways our two churches are looking at some of these issues – but what would it be like if we pooled resources and, more importantly, experience about how to formulate these discussions and how to disseminate the results of the research and apply them in practical ways?
Then on to a visit to Uppsala Cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. A fascinating blend of traditional and modern art work, including a modern door to which contemporary ‘theses’ were nailed by modern Lutherans. It was also good to see the Vasa Bible, the first translation of the Bible into Swedish at the time of the Reformation.
Today I arrived in Stockholm and attended a service to mark All Saints’ Day. Similar to the Remembering service we hold after Easter, a quiet act of worship with some wonderful music helped people remember their loved ones who had died. Afterwards I met with some of the members of the Church to hear about their work in their community. Four medium size churches united, knocked down their buildings, sold the land and built a new, larger church which gave them wonderful facilities to provide hospitality and welcome not only to church attenders but also to the wider community. Not entirely dissimilar to what we’re doing at Morningside. This kind of faithful imagination – thinking how we can take our traditional message of faith and hope, translate it into ways that engage with the community around us, and turn our attention from inward concerns to outward needs, is surely the way ahead for every church.
Sunday 5th November 2017
This morning I worshipped at the Jacobsbergskyrkan, a union of Methodist, Baptist and Reformed Churches. This church specialises in integrating different communities within the city from different ethnic, social and lifestyle choices. All are made welcome here, and all means all. Affirming, challenging, thought-provoking, Christian. After worship, I was privileged to meet with a small group from the Jacobsbergskyrian Church. Swedes, Germans, Syrian, Egyptian, Afghani, Somali, Iranian, American, and from a wide age-range. During the service there was a baptism of a young Afghani man, and people from several nationalities were welcomed into the membership of the congregation, supported by friends who will continue to accompany them during their Christian journey. The ministry and leadership team seek to provide an intentional, faith-offering community where encounters with Jesus are spiritual, practical and communitarian. A weekly language café is held for people of all faiths and none to come and practice Swedish, and sometimes English (which is a major component of Swedish education). Friendships form, stories are shared, people learn from each other. The Church, the Uniting Church of Sweden (Equmeniakyrkan) strives to be a church for all aspects of life where the encounter with Jesus Christ transforms individuals, communities and the world.
It was humbling to hear stories of older people befriending asylum seekers and their families; it was inspiring to hear younger people who were refugees talking about their educational hopes; it was refreshing to hear church leaders talking about the positives and negatives of applying Biblical teaching in an inclusive way which addresses directly Paul’s writing in Galatians 3 – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ.”
To wrestle with what this means, what this requires, what this looks like and with how this works out in practical terms continues to be a major challenge to churches across the world.
It has been a thought-provoking and sometimes emotional day when I have been privileged to see Christians being Christians, with successes and failures, but with open-minded, open-handed and open-hearted faith continuing to reach out to an anxious but searching world.
What a blessing this day has been.
Saturday 11th November 2017
On my return from Sweden on Tuesday – I found a package from Gammarelli’s – the Pope’s outfitters. It was a pair of red silk socks. Did he….?
No time to ponder – I went on to a meeting at the Scottish Parliament, hosted by Nicola Sturgeon. The Interfaith Summit meeting gathers together people from all the faith traditions in Scotland. We talked about how faith communities can help build communities that bring people together. We also talked about the growing number of hate crimes associated with religion, particularly with ongoing issues around sectarianism. I was asked to speak about how religious communities can be brought together at local, national and international levels and to reflect on what builds strong interfaith relations. It is good when people get together to talk, ad it was interesting that the First Minister as well as the Cabinet Minister for Communities and Culture were present.
On Wednesday I spent some time catching up on paperwork at my office at 121 George Street, then went on to a reception to welcome the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Thursday morning I went to Craigmillar Park Church where thousands of shoeboxes, filled with Christmas gifts, are parcelled before they are sent off to areas of poverty in Rumania through the Blythswood Charity. An astonishing amount of generosity and kindness. Then I met up with an MSP at the Scottish Parliament to discuss the Church’s work in communities in Glasgow, before returning to the Moderatorial residence where I hosted a dinner for my successor, the Revd Susan Brown, who will become Moderator in 2018. It was good to meet Susan and her husband Derek. The last time we were together was on July 4th 1986 when, as probationers, we were licensed to preach. Five other former moderators and their spouses joined us for dinner. Conversation was not hard to find.
On Friday I travelled to Glasgow to visit the offices of the Prince’s Trust – an incredible charity helping young people who struggle with life by helping them into work, education and other life skills. An incredible amount of energy, compassion, common sense fun. Humbling and inspiring at one and the same time.
On Friday evening I hosted a dinner table for Refugees and Modern Slavery, gathering together experts in this area along with three refugees from different parts of the world. It was wonderful to hear some incredible stories, and to discuss ways in which modern slavery is an increasingly significant issue in Scotland, not only in cities but also in many rural areas.
Today I hosted an afternoon tea for some of the elders from our Church. It was so lovely to meet up with so many people from Morningside and to catch up on some of the news.
Saturday 18th November 2017
On Remembrance Sunday last week it was a privilege to take part at the Wreath Laying ceremony at the Memorial Stone outside the City Chambers in Edinburgh, and then to preach at the Remembrance service at St Giles’ Cathedral. It is always one of the most moving events in the year and it was good to be involved at this special time.
On Tuesday I was in London and delighted to attend the Awards fo Young Musicians Autumn Fund-Raising event at the Stationers’ Hall in the wonderfully named Ave Maria Lane, beside St Paul’s Cathedral. The charity raises money from young talented musicians who need some financial support to help purchase instruments, go to music college, or have extra tuition. Some incredibly talented young people, the evening was hosted by my friend Zeb Soanes (if you listen to Radio Four he’s one of the newsreaders and often is the voice presenting the Shipping Forecast).
On Wednesday I hosted the last of six lunches for staff members who work at 121 George Street, the Church of Scotland main offices. A lot of people work very hard throughout the year and do a lot of important work quietly and in the background. It is good, and important, to say thank you. On Wednesday evening I attended an event in the historic Parliament Hall to attend the appointment of a new consul for Estonia and to hear something of the Estonian Presidency of the Council of Europe.
Thursday saw me at Edinburgh Castle for St Margaret’s Day, and I took part in a service in the tiny St Margaret’s Chapel. Flowers in the chapel are provided by the St Margaret Guild – where all the women members are called Margaret. I think the only -non-Margarets present were the few men at the event, and the Princess Royal, who is the Honorary President of the St Margaret Guild.
On Thursday evening I drove to Giffnock Synagogue where I moderated a meeting which had two sensational speakers from the Invest in Peace movement. One was a Jewish mother whose son was shot by a Palestinian sniper; the other was a Palestinian father whose ten-year old daughter was shot by an Israeli soldier. Speaking from the heart, the room was silenced by these moving stories. Two real people who spoke the truth about what the conflict in Israel-Palestine is doing – leading to the deaths of children, alongside many other acts of injustice and casual cruelty. There was hardly a dry eye in the room when these two wonderful speakers finished. How important it was to hear their stories, and to think about what this means.
On Friday I was at an event at Dunblane Cathedral, where the Boys’ Brigade presented a cheque to the Church of Scotland World Mission Council for work in flood-threatened Bangladesh. The cheque for £10,000 was raised by boys all over the country – a symbol of what can be done when a lot of people get together to do small things to make a big difference.
Today I hosted the second of two afternoon teas for elders from the Morningside Parish Church Kirk Session. Lovely to catch up – and for the mystery elder who ironed the clerical shirt that had been airing in an upstairs room – my very grateful thanks!
Saturday 25th November 2017
I had a lovely day at Greyfriars Church in Lanark last Sunday – rededicating their refurbished church (though I’m looking forward to another refurbishment rededication next year even more!). It’s always interesting to see what churches are able to do when they re-imagine the future and reshape their buildings accordingly. It was also good to catch up with the Revd Louise McKay, Minister of St Nicholas, Lanark. Louise was a a first year student with us a few years ago. It is also good to think about the privilege our church has had in helping shape many people who are now serving as ministers across the country.
Last Monday was a wildly early start – I was up at 4.30am to be on a plane at 6am as I was flying to Brussels to visit the European Parliament. It is a divisive issue and I appreciate both sides of a long argument – but the decision for Brexit still leaves me feeling hurt and baffled. Catherine Stihler MEP hosted me around the Parliament, and it was fascinating to watch some of the committees at work, tackling issues relating to human rights and business, children and the future of Europe (with a very articulate and angry group of 17 year olds from Accrington who felt the Brexit vote had stolen their future) and to sit in on one of the finance committees where I was formally welcomed by one of the European Commissioners. It was also interesting to go to the Scottish centre in Brussels where Westminster and Holyrood interests in Europe, pre and post Brexit, will be represented. A long day was rounded off with some moules et frites, a traditional Belgian dish. Home by midnight!
On Tuesday I attended the HeartEdge conference at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. Imagined by the team at London’s St Martin in the Fields church, this new initiative helps congregations wherever they are situated to look at their context, their resources, and the needs of the parish around them and see what can be done to help. Already churches across Scotland are beginning to do this work. In my closing comments I was able to add my observation that churches that are not only going to survive but thrive are ones that are already re-engaging with what it means to be a parish church – reaching out to their communities and realising that being the Church is more than simply a Sunday preoccupation. It’s something we are doing at MPC already – but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels!
Wednesday was another early morning as I was speaking at the Priority Areas conference just outside Glasgow. There are many priority areas where poverty is a major issue in Scotland, and the Church of Scotland plays a major part in helping communities, supporting groups and congregations in some of the most challenging areas in our country. The acknowledged challenges around Universal Credit and its rolling out are causing massive issues for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our country, and churches and charities have never seen a busier time at foodbanks and other facilities (like the Edinburgh Clothing Store). When we take a great deal for granted, it is humbling to be reminded of people who have so very little struggling to make ends meet. Many of those who struggle most are trying to hold down two and even three jobs.
I managed an ‘office’ day at 121 on Thursday, with meetings about ministry and global warming in Zambia, the Church of Scotland and Christian Aid’s campaign against gender-based violence, a briefing over the phone from London about a speech I’m giving at the Fishmonger Company’s Livery Dinner in December (I’m not making that up!) and then in the evening I attended a ceremony to mark the inaugural presentation of the Dr Elsie Inglis Scottish Women’s Hospital’s Trust Medal and Prize.
On Friday I travelled down by train to London to prepare for the ‘London Visit’ that Moderators make each year. More of that shortly, but it was nice to go to the Olivier Theatre at the National last night to see a sensational production of Sondheim’s ‘Follies’. I think it’s going to be cinema screened across the UK and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Today I’m going out to lunch with my godson – how is he nearly twenty years old? He still remembers fondly his visits to Morningside Parish Church some years ago. I haven’t seen him since my installation as Moderator, and it will be good to catch up with his parents, who I have known since my time at St Andrews. Then off to the theatre again tonight to see a new play, ‘Oslo’, and hopefully an early-ish night as I am at Westminster Abbey in the morning – simply as a guest, and then preaching at St Paul’s Cathedral in the afternoon.
Saturday 2nd December 2017
Last Saturday’s production of the new play, ‘Oslo’ was a revelation. Who would have thought that a play about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the 1990s could have been so funny, moving, and thought-provoking? Challenging and honest, the difficulties of finding a lasting and meaningful peace which is also a fair and just one remain pressing to this day.
Sunday morning saw me at Westminster Abbey as a guest of the Dean of Westminster. In the afternoon I was the guest preacher at St Paul’s Cathedral Evensong where I preached to over 500 people. It was quite something to be in that pulpit. The music was magnificent. Tea with one of the Canons, then on to supper with my chaplain John McMahon and two London friends.
On Monday I was joined by the Principal Clerk and the Ecumenical Officer as the formal visit to London began. At 9am we had a robust but respectful meeting with the Israeli ambassador, talking particularly about the need to recalibrate relationships between the Church of Scotland and the Jewish communities in the UK. It was very helpful, and particularly helpful to me as I will be going to Israel-Palestine and Jordan in the New Year. We travelled to Westminster Abbey next for a meeting with the Dean and Chapter and discussed challenges of expressing faith in the public square, Church-State relations, and thinking of ways to engage the occasional visitor to Churches with the message of faith. For lunch we met up with United Reformed Church colleagues to discuss our ongoing ecumenical relationship, and later we met with the leadership of Christian Aid to hear about their work and priorities. The afternoon was rounded off with a visit to 10 Downing Street for over an hour with the Prime Minister talking about some of the challenges facing us today – Brexit and its impact on Scotland, foodbanks and universal credit, the Rohingya crisis in Burma and a number of other matters. It was an interesting meeting! Later in the evening I was the chief guest at a reception and concert in Knightsbridge.
Tuesday saw us travelling to north London to have a very helpful and productive meeting with the Chief Rabbi. It is good when people of faith can sit down and discuss easy and difficult matters that unite us and divide us. We returned to the city centre for a productive meeting with the Revd Sam Wells and his team at St Martin in the Fields, and learned more about his HeartEdge programme – bringing faith and Christian action to bear on the life of the local church, and to look to see how we can serve and inform our local church and parish context. Tea was next with the Lord Mayor of London, who is launching an initiative on ‘Trust in Business’ – a challenging topic for those in the City of London given the present context. I then preached at a service in the Wren Church of St Margaret Lothbury, Kirk in the City – a joint venture between Crown Court and St Columba’s Pont Street. Then it was on to supper with some old friends.
I spent most of Wednesday in and around the Houses of Parliament, preaching in the Crypt Chapel to around 70 Scottish MPs, peers and civil servants. I attended Prime Minister’s Question Time, then had lunch with some of our MPs and Peers at Dover House with the Scottish Secretary of State. In the afternoon we watched some of the debate in the House of Lords before being taken on a tour and having tea with the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler. In the evening I was the guest speaker at the ScotsCare Charity, which helps people of Scottish origin in London who find themselves in difficult circumstances.
On Thursday we returned to Downing Street to meet faith and community advisers to the Prime Minister, and on leaving Number 10 was introduced with Larry the Cat, who lurks outside the front door waiting for photo opportunities. We travelled to the Oasis Church to meet its minister and leader, Steve Chalke, who told us about his work in London and around the country, connecting local churches to local communities and working alongside city councils. Another fascinating insight into what churches can do in the civic world. Later in the afternoon we were given a fascinating tour of St Paul’s Cathedral, tea with the Dean of St Paul’s, and then I took part in the Sung Eucharist in the cathedral – almost as nerve-wracking as taking part in communion services in Morningside. It was good to take part in their St Andrew’s service. A quick change at the Caledonian Club and then off to another private reception with friends from the theatre and politics, rounding off the day.
Friday morning saw my team visiting the Borderline Charity – another London charity helping homeless Scots. A staggering amount of good work and care – not just about helping people find homes, but providing ongoing support and assistance. Scots form a significant proportion of homeless people in London. We went on to a meeting with the Methodist Church leaders in the UK, and then I went on to have a meeting with Vincent Nichols, the Cardinal Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. It has been good to have a number of ecumenical and interfaith meetings during this St Andrews-tide trip. Then I had a night off!
Today is a rest day, and I’m sitting typing this in the pleasant environment of the Caledonian Club in Belgravia, going off to lunch with friends soon, including two radio personalities, Zeb Soanes and Roger Royle. Then a lazy day thereafter. Tomorrow I will be preaching at Crown Court Church in the morning, and St Columba’s Pont Street in the evening. It’s good to keep a happy connection with the two Church of Scotlands in London.
The two London Scottish congregations attract a wide group of people, and it was lovely to be with them on the first Sunday in Advent. After the evening service at St Columba’s I found out a little about their night shelter work, Glass Door, where they are part of a group of churches who provide shelter and food for some of London’s rising population of homeless people.
I return to Edinburgh on Monday.
Sunday 10th December 2017
A week in Edinburgh, catching up with some writing, planning, and attending meetings. I hosted the Table of Communications on Thursday evening, where journalists and communications leaders discussed the question: “In the public square, in politics, social affairs and religion, how can we encourage and practise responsible communication?” Questions about responsible writing and speaking, as well as responsible listening and interpreting, are increasingly crucial. How we communicate any and every message, news item or story is a complex issue. The words and images we use say as much about us as they do to the people we seek to reach through our communication. A fascinating evening
On Friday I hosted a lunch for a group of Presbytery Clerks from across the country as well as the two Assembly Clerks. It was insightful and challenging to think with them about what a responsible, dynamic, reflective and competent Presbytery would look like. A lively afternoon!
Today I’m sitting in the warm, but thousands won’t be. I’m having something hot to eat and drink, but thousands won’t be. I’m at home, but thousand’s won’t be.
And I am reflecting on last night’s ‘Sleep in the Park’ In Princes’ Street Gardens. experience and the work of Josh Littlejohn and Social Bite. It was also good to see so many Church people involved, including our Associate Jennifer Stark.
It was cold, but I felt relatively warm, but it was for me only one night.
It was noisy – sirens throughout the night, drunken singing, shouted abuse from some passers-by, people chatting as the lay next to each other in their sleeping bags, police and security guards talking too loudly as they walked by, checking that everyone was all right, the constant banging of plastic portaloo doors.
People sleeping fitfully trying to get comfortable, others like me awake all night, getting up to move to ease stiff joints as the frost mantled everything and everyone under the trees.
People waiting until around 5am when there was an almost universal ‘resurrection’ as most got up to move, find something warm to drink, and begin to head for home.
Will last night have ended homelessness for good? Probably not – sadly. But thousands more will be aware a little bit more of what fellow human beings will face night after night all the year round.
Homelessness is not simply the lack of a roof over your head. Homelessness is a symptom which has many root causes. Domestic abuse; relationship breakdown; unemployment; poverty; substance and alcohol addiction; poor mental health.
If we are going to address homelessness we also need to address these and other issues in our communities, in our country, and in our churches.
As my predecessor as Moderator, the Very Revd Dr Russell Barr told the General Assembly in May, this issue and all its related issues, transcends party politics. It is a social, economic and broadly political issue, and the Church is grateful to him for the lead he continues to give in this area. It is an issue that, for those of us from the Christian faith, asks us to think again how we love, or fail to love, our neighbours as ourselves.
It was humbling and moving to meet so many people from churches and other faith families, charity volunteers and politicians, young people and older people, country people and town people, people in groups and people on their own, all wanting to say something and do something to begin to help and to continue to help.
There are many good causes to support throughout the year – homelessness. Last night was more than simply a gesture, and was more than mere tokenism. Awareness was raised, or deepened, or came for the first time. I was reminded how many Church of Scotland charities (CrossReach, Borderline and ScotsCare) alongside so many other charities and groups, work all the year round to bring help.
For all the charities that we support, for all the good causes that rightly claim a part of our heart and a part of our efforts, how can we continue to help and make a difference for good?
Today’s lectionary readings focus on crying in the wilderness, and comforting people, of bringing fairness and equality into a needy world, and of listening to what God is saying to God’s world today, and working out how we are called to respond now.
The work continues, the needs remain, and all people of good will and kindliness are called to do what they can and when they can, so that step by step, link by link, day by day, hope comes steadily, and keeps coming for as long as it is needed.
Sunday 17th December 2017
On Tuesday I visited the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation – part of Edinburgh University. Fascinating to see a new building designed to be as eco-friendly and carbon-neutral as possible. The building was originally a school, then the first infirmary in Edinburgh, then the university bought the site and it has housed technical drawing and later geography. Built on the site of the Blackfriars’ monastery, it is now one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in Europe. In the evening I hosted the Table of the Arts – a collection of writers, artists, clergy, theatre producers from London and poets discussing how the Church interacts with the Arts World – and what we can learn from each other. One of the most thought-provoking discussions I’ve been involved in for some time, and good to meet up with some old friends too.
One Wednesday I took the train to London where I had been invited by the Princess Royal to address the Fishmongers’ Company, one of the Twelve Great Livery Companies of the City of London. They have a fantastic hall on the banks of the Thames, beside London Bridge. I was asked to speak on an ‘ecclesiastical’ theme, so chose St Andrew, the fisherman, and the theme of hospitality. I wasn’t scheduled to speak until 10.15pm, and it was a bit of challenge to be amusing, sincere, thought-provoking and uplifting, and all within seven minutes. I made it and with 20 seconds to spare!
Back to Edinburgh on Thursday where I conducted and spoke at the Church of Scotland offices carol service at 121 George Street, and then on to Greyfriars’ Kirk for the Feed the Minds carol concert, where it was lovely to hear the Telephone Choir, who had been at Morningside Parish Church the previous night.
On Friday I met the Director of NHS Scotland, and then went on to preach at the New College Carol Service. A challenge to preach to a congregation of divinity students and their professors. Lovely to see one of our choral scholars conducting the New College choir.
Today I have just returned from preaching at the 150th anniversary of Queens’ Park Govanhill Parish Church in Glasgow. It was lovely to be in an ordinary parish church, reflect on their past, and look at their challenges for the future.
Sunday 24th December 2017 – Christmas Eve
A quiet week has passed, time for me to relax a little after a busy few months. I’ve missed much of the bustle of a parish Advent and Christmas. Tonight I will be at a reception at Prestonfield, and then on to take part in the Watchnight Service at St Giles Cathedral.
A very happy and blessed Christmas to you all.
Saturday 30th December 2017
It was lovely to take part in the Watchnight Service at St Giles – a very different crowd from the one we normally see at Morningside – many more tourists. The place was packed.
On Christmas Day I attended St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral for the morning service, and then in the afternoon I went to help with Crisis at Christmas in the Southside Centre. Several hundred homeless people (from rough sleepers to those in bed and breakfast temporary accommodation who are out on the street during the day) were given hot meals and drinks, haircuts if they wanted, podiatry service, clothes mended, new clothes if they wanted them, massage, a safe place to sleep, game playing, and chat. As I moved from room to room and person to person I heard the most extraordinary stories. Physical and emotional abuse, unemployment, relationship breakdown, sheer bad luck, and poor mental health. It was emotionally draining but personally rewarding simply to be present and to listen.
Then, thoughtfully, home for Christmas dinner with my chaplain, John McMahon.
On Thursday 28th I was invited to attend another Christmas dinner for the homeless, this time run by the Sisters of Mercy at the St Catherines’ Convent in Lauriston. A hot meal and drinks, and then, a lovely touch, personal and practical gifts for each person who came in. Everyone was served, no questions asked.
A quiet few days, and now I get ready for Hogmanay and the coming New Year.
Sunday 28th January 2018
A very belated Happy New Year to everyone!
On 12th January I hosted the Table of Respectful Dialogue – a wonderful gathering of politicians, public servants, academics, mediators and theologians. We considered what had been the most significant changes in Scotland in the last ten years, and what might be the most significant in the next twenty years. How might we define these, and how do we enter into discussion about them in a way that is respectful. How do we agree and disagree well over things that really matter? It was a lively and informative night.
On Friday 13th January I hosted the Table of Ecumenism, thinking about the ways in which sisters and brothers from different Christian traditions not only need to meet together but to work together, reflecting on the difficulties of the past, celebrating the things that distinguish us, and work actively to find ways that will help us to grow in our faith and service int he future. How can we live our faith out loud in such a way that it attracts people to the message of hope that is at the heart of what we believe? How can we work together sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in ways that will continue to change the world? Another lively, challenging and informative evening.
The reason for the prolonged silence is that I have been in Israel-Palestine-Jordan since 17th January, and I am writing today on the last day of the visit from Amman, the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It has been an intense, stimulating, emotional and thoughtful visit.
It remains something special to return to Jerusalem. That divided, unfulfilled, fearful and holy city. To crest the hills and to see it stretch out in the darkness when I arrived, wondering when the promise of God will come true, when women and men will put away the cruelty of words and actions and turn to God’s ways of peace. It was a blessing to be there – though there were many challenges. I met with Christians, Jews and Muslims and listened, spoke and saw. My base in Jerusalem was the lovely St Andrews Guesthouse – beside the St Andrew Church of Scotland. Lovingly run, comfortable rooms, and a stunning chef who made sure we never went hungry!
On my first full day in Israel-Palestine I visited one of the sites where Jesus is reputed to have been baptised. It’s a place of great significance to people of faith since the River Jordan is a moving thread that weaves its way through Christian and Jewish faith traditions. Today it has significance for the peoples of Israel, Palestine and Jordan where important sites have been developed where people are challenged to think about baptism, new beginnings, fresh starts and personal and sometimes national transformation.
To walk passed church sites on the Israeli side of the river which were mined and booby-trapped in 1967, to see the derelict buildings and cemeteries around them, and to know that today the Halo Trust, supported by Christian communities in the Holy Land, and the governments of Jordan and Israel, are working to make the area safe again is a powerful thing. I can’t help but wonder that the image of baptism, which is about new beginning and fresh starts, in a persistently troubled region in the world, can only be a good thing.
In a few days time I will be visiting the Jordanian side of the river and their baptismal site development. It will be good to see how a river, a border between two nations, has at various touching points the theme of baptism.
This river brings people of different faith and political traditions together and helps them reflect not only on what has been, and what currently is, but what might be in the future when people can, should and must talk and work together for safety, welcome and peace.
The Church of Scotland has many partners working in challenging situations across Israel/Palestine. Bringing hope, working for justice, and listening. Good to meet some of them in Bethlehem on my first night.
On 18th January I had a number of meetings in Jerusalem. First, breakfast at the St Andrew’s Scottish Guest House with two Scots who have strong connections with the Jewish communities in Scotland and Jerusalem. In how we speak and how we listen it matters to hear as many voices as possible. Everyone has much to learn and it is good to speak across different communities. Then on to meetings with two Palestinian leaders to hear more perspectives about the complex situation in the Middle East. For both communities questions about rights, security and belonging remain central. A persistent issue is wondering how the international community of nations addresses the long term challenges of facing the people of Israel and Palestine. It has struck me how many voices of hurt are raised, and how solutions will rarely be straightforward and certainly not quick.
The issues affect the nations of the world, and it was interesting to learn how both Israeli and Palestinian peoples are looking for friendships and practical support. How do we, from different faith traditions, and with different world views, and with different histories recognise what we hold in common as much as recognise what we disagree about?
What, through dialogue and sometimes the saying hard things, can be realistically achieved and sustained?
How can global decision-making have local impact, and how can local, grass-roots work have global implications?
Where, in the midst of speaking the truth in love, is the aspiration of peace to be made real and lasting?
When passions run high, who will stop to speak the words of reason?
If one group considers concession, will others feel obliged to match?
How can we move beyond the mentality of winners and losers, to places of acceptance and trust, or even watchful but respectful tolerance?
I wonder also where are the voices of the young, and for what do they hope? The children that I have seen, Israeli and Palestinian – what kind of world is being made possible and impossible for them? It has been a blessing to have Robin Downie, the NYA Moderator here, to reflect with him on these questions.
It has been challenging to hear many voices, and I am left wondering where, in all of the speech, will humanity reach out and normalising relationships be enabled.
Later in the afternoon, some of the Church of Scotland group went up the Mount of Olives and looked down from the Dominus Flevit Church, the place where Jesus is said to have looked down upon the city of His day and wept. When will the weeping end, and what will cause it to end, and the sound of genuine laughter be heard in this place where peace is supposed to be paramount, and throughout the land here?
How long must we hope, and while we wait, what must we do to work towards it?
The following day began with a breakfast meeting with Scottish Jews in Israel. Then, by armoured car and diplomatic assistance from the British Consulate, we visited the Palestinian Presidential Palace in Ramallah for a fascinating meeting with senior representatives. Then some ‘down time’ with a walk from the Mount of Olives, through the Old City, back to the Scottish Guesthouse.
The day was completed with a stimulating table-talk dinner with a diverse group of inter-faith and ecumenical partners. One of the wonderful things about this trip to date has been this Table of Dialogue in Jerusalem where the concept of “it is better to build a longer table than a higher fence” has so many resonances. Along with the Church of Scotland group at the table tonight we had representatives from Rabbis for Human Rights; B’Tselem in peace and reconciliation; the Department of Services to Palestinian refugees; Military Court Watch (dealing with Palestinian child detainees); Physicians for Human Rights (medical care for those who do not have any); Sabeel (liberation theology); Sunbula (supporting Women’s Co-operatives in the West Bank) and Mushalaha (Jewish-Arab reconciliation).
Around the table, with food and drink, people were honest, emotional, passionate, respectful, about issues dear to their hearts. From the Church of Scotland perspective we learned about what our partners were doing, and how we might help, and hinder, the work that is going on here on the ground.
One of the good things has been not only bringing together partners who can pass on their stories to us, but also bringing together partners who can talk to each other.
Challenging, insightful, incomplete conversation laced with frustration, uncertainty, hope.
The next day we had a meeting with Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s Director of Inter-religious Affairs. Among the various awards and recognitions he has received, Rabbi Rosen was granted a Papal Knighthood in 2005 for his contribution to Jewish-Catholic reconciliation and in 2010 he was made a CBE by HM The Queen for his work promoting interfaith understanding and cooperation. It is fascinating to enter into conversation with people from the Jewish tradition who are willing to speak openly and candidly about the opportunities and challenges that face the constantly evolving situation in Israel and Palestine, and what this means for us in Britain.
How do we relate to our Jewish neighbours?
What lessons can we learn from each other?
What are the things we have in common (the rabbi made me think of our churches here in the Holy Land not as ‘ex pat’ congregations but as peoples who are ‘at home’ in the place where our faith tradition had its birth).
How do we shape our conversation with each other, and how do we share what we believe in ways that enables conversations and opens doors rather than drives us to ‘faith silos’ and closes communication.
A wonderful and illuminating time shared, where each looked for the image of the divine in the other, and found it.
On 19th January I had a lovely visit to Bethlehem. I met the men who make stars! And the olive wood crosses I’m using as gifts.
These are the stars made from olive wood from Nablus that I am using as one of the gifts I am sharing with children and young people in the United Kingdom that remind us of the place of Jesus’ birth, the story of the Magi and the star they followed as they were en route to encounter the Saviour.
Shirabe from Sunbula took us to meet George and Elias, today, in Bethlehem who make those stars.
The skill and concentration, the dexterity and danger, it was a wonderful experience. And it was good to pass on a tartan gift from Scotland.
By purchasing these little stars we can support Palestinians who need not only financial support but a deeper solidarity.
By purchasing these little stars we can remember and share the light of nativity and epiphany. Shirabe from Sunbula took us to meet a family cooperative today, in Bethlehem, who made the holding crosses and larger crosses from olive wood which I have been giving during my year of office. The Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society, Beit Sahour, the Field of Shepherds at Bethlehem.
It was an emotional moment for me.
These crosses, also made from olive wood from Nablus, crafted in Bethlehem the place of Nativity, but in the shape of the cross that speaks of Calvary and crucifixion and Resurrection. It is like holding Christmas and Easter in your hand.
The family making the crosses, and other olive wood items, need the income to support their family, and their work enables me and all Christians to connect with the land of Jesus.
I then had a lunch meeting with Dr Bernard Sabella, Executive Secretary of the Department of Services for Palestinian Refugees, which is part of the Middle East Council of Churches, and with George Stephan, Forum Coordinator of ACT (Action of Churches Together), Palestine.
We think of refugees as people who are forced from their homes and having to travel great distances. In Israel Palestine, a refugee may be only a few miles from their home, it the next village or town.
In the situation in Israel Palestine there are many voices in what is a complex political, economic, social and theological challenge. How can we in Scotland here the many voices, all wishing to speak their own truth, and how can we discern it?
How do we relate to what was described as the “many inadvertent victims in Israel and Palestine, often in circumstances not of their choice, and living in situations that the cannot change?”
We talk of one narrative, but there are many stories of hurt on many sides.
How should we speak, and how should we listen, and how should we act?
Today started with a good, perceptive and honest conversation with a senior Jewish rabbi and ended with a passionate advocate for Palestinian refugees. The complexities are self-evident, the hurts are palpable, the humanity is overwhelming.
I also spent time with Robin Downie, the National Youth Assembly Moderator, at the Western (sometimes called the Wailing) Wall, one of the most sacred sites in Jerusalem. We stood at this ancient wall side by side, and in a moment of quietness amidst all the noise and bustle of this place we prayed.
In this city of dreams and brokenness, where faith is found at every corner, our prayers were for peace, for respect, for understanding, for sharing and, despite these hard times, for hope.
On Saturday 20th January it was good to spend time with the Nasser family at the Tent of Nations, on Saturday morning. They have owned the land since the Ottoman Period. Daoud Nasser is their international spokesperson and works on the farm full-time. The farm is located in the middle of a number of Israeli settlements, and is constantly under pressure from the State and Military Authorities, who dispute their (documented) claim to the land. On the farm itself there are vineyards, olive trees, and an educational centre, and everything is self-sustainable. Around four years ago, a large number of olive trees were illegally uprooted by the Military Authorities, on the eve of our 2014 General Assembly. Currently, the family are again going through the courts to fight against Demolition Orders on many of their structures. Despite this constant pressure the family are resolutely committed to a non-violent resistance and state that “we refuse to be enemies”.
Land is an issue for both Israeli and Palestinian. Justice is an issue for both Israeli and Palestinian. A place to belong is an issue for both Israeli and Palestinian. Peace is a necessity for both Israeli and Palestinian.
As a Church, as a Christian Church, our call is to pray for peace and to act for peace. For both Israeli and Palestinian. Somewhere in all of these questions lies not only the question, “Why”, but also the question, “Why not?”
If we refuse to be enemies, then we must work at being friends.
On Saturday afternoon we met Zoughbi Zoughbi and his family and colleagues at Wi’am for a lunch meeting. Wi’am is the Palestinian Conflict Transformation Centre, based in Bethlehem, just beside the separation wall. Wi’am are involved in Education, Job Creation, Non-Violent Resistance and Mediation, working particularly with women and children. Wi’am aims to improve the quality of relationships and to promote peace, justice, a culture of acceptance, and reconciliation in the community. Wi’am (which means ‘Agape’) strives alongside other forces in the community to build a society based on active participation, citizenship, democratic norms and values, and separation of the four powers (executive, legislative, judicial, and media). Their mission is to create a culture of acceptance of others as they are, through engaging in conflict transformation and empowering civil society whilst attending to critical needs for the social, political, psychological, and economic well-being of the community and its members. After lunch, we also visited the Aida refugee camp which is just behind Wi’am. The camp has been in existence since 1950 – first tents, now permanent buildings. There are few days in the month when tear gas is not in evidence. We stood at one of the many walls in Israel-Palestine – that runs through properties. I was left wondering who was being kept in and who was being kept out since the different sides in this ongoing conflict are in some form of ‘prison’. I have talked intentionally about the need to build longer tables and not higher walls throughout my year. Standing beside a high wall after having eaten lunch at a long table – what are we to make of this conflict that seems endless. Who is talking, who is listening, who is jostling for international support, attention and acceptance, who is the victim. Listening as I have been for these last days, I hear the voices of many victims, and they have not always been the ones I have expected to hear. The key is a symbol used to remind those forced from their homes that one day they will return.
In Advent we sing the hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel”
“O Come, Thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heav’nly home,
make safe the way that leads on high,
that we no more have cause to sigh.”
Who will wield the key to open not only heavenly but earthly homes for all the children of Israel and Palestine?
At 4.45am on Sunday 21st January we left Jerusalem for Bethlehem and Checkpoint 300. The Checkpoint is one of the main crossings between Palestine and Israel, and in the mornings thousands of people queue to get through the Checkpoint and to their workplaces in Israel. Some have travelled an hour before they even get to the Checkpoint, and queues can be anything from 30 minutes to a number of hours. We drank coffee from the vendors, and had a conversation with some of them, as we joined Palestinians passing through the queue.
Many face a commute to work, but not like this.
What have these people left behind, and what are they traveling towards?
In a C21st democracy, what are all the messages here?
Later on Sunday morning it was a privilege to preach at St Andrew’s, Jerusalem this morning. A large and diverse congregation representing many nations and traditions. It was good to include, amongst others, John McMahon and Robin Downie in the service as we brought the greetings of the General Assembly to the local congregation. Worship followed by a magnificent lunch in the Guest House.
On Sunday afternoon we went to honour the memory of and to give thanks for the service and sacrifice of Jane Haining, a Scotswoman who worked in Hungary during the war and protected Jewish children. She was arrested and died in Auschwitz along with countless others …
Near the memorial at Yad Vashem were rosemary bushes (for remembrance) and Scots Pines. It seemed appropriate to lay sprigs of these at the memorial and to follow the Jewish custom of leaving a stone.
Later that afternoon I met with Rabbi Michael Melchior, President of MOSAICA (The Middle East Religious Peace Initiative) and, also, Chief Rabbi of Norway.
His vision stems from a biblical belief that everything we do in our lives should come from recognising God’s image and holiness in all and that holiness and peace are the tasks we should pursue in the faithful life. No understanding of life and its problems can be found without faith issues being included.
A challenge for the Middle East. A challenge for all.
On Monday 22nd I visited the Al Asqa Mosque. The Temple Mount site in Jerusalem, which is one of the most holy, and most conflicted, places in the world. We were privileged to visit. We visited the Dome of the Rock Mosque. Sacred to Jews as the site where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac, and the spot where Muslims believe Mohammad ascended to heaven. This was followed by a friendly and informative meeting with Sheikh Abdul-Hafiz al-Khatib al-Tamimi, Director General of the Department of Awqaf Jerusalem and the affairs of Al-Aqua Mosque.
I then met with one of the Church’s partners in Jerusalem, The Most Revd Archbishop Suheil Dawan, Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, and The Very Revd Hosam Naoum, Dean of St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem.
Later that same afternoon I met with The Most Rev. Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, The Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, Jerusalem, the Roman Catholic church.
Finally I had very interesting and productive meeting with HM Consul-General to Jerusalem, Philip Hall OBE, at the British Consulate, Jerusalem.
Perhaps the most challenging part of the trip has been the visit to Gaza on 23/24 January. It is overwhelming. The conditions a people living under siege cope with are numbing for those of us who have choices about where we travel and what we can do.
Visiting a psycho-social therapeutic session at the Shija’ai Clinic in Gaza City which helps young girls to cope with the trauma they have experienced under the Occupation and, especially, how their young lives have been affected by military assaults and its consequences. The Shija’ai Clinic is run by the Middle East Council of Churches Committee for Refugee Work, Gaza Area.
Before lunch we visited Shija’ai Vocational Training Centre in Gaza City and saw the education of teenage boys, learning skills in woodwork and metalwork which helps to boost confidence and self-esteem as well as providing vocational training. This work is supported by various partners, including the Church of Scotland, through the Middle East Council of Churches Committee for Refugee Work, Gaza Area.
We had the honour of meeting with Bishop Alexius of the Orthodox Christian Church in Gaza, as well as visiting the beautiful church of St Porphyrius (the site of which dates back to 425). Bishop Alexius was delighted with his gift of a Guild tartan scarf from the Moderator, and our Youth Moderator was pleased with Bishop Alexius’ other ‘famous’ visitor (the place had dozens of Father Christmases at every point – the Orthodox celebrate Christmas later than we do. It was a challenge for me)! It was good to visit this Christian community in Gaza.
In the evening we visited the YMCA Gaza and heard about remarkable projects and initiatives working with both young men and women. We heard that YMCA Gaza can often work with up to 500 people per week, and sometimes more. Despite the many challenges and struggles faced in this community, the human spirit and hopeful resilience refuses to lie down. Make me a channel of your peace …
Despite everything, life goes on. Despite the blockade and the political wrangling, despite the looming humanitarian and environmental crises, life goes on. I am left with the sense that Gaza is the city nobody wants. Yet 2 million people live here. Israeli, Palestinian and the international community are failing these people.
Leaving Gaza through the Israeli checkpoint was a dehumanising process, interesting to experience, upsetting to watch.
On 24th January we visited Tabeetha School, in Jaffa. Tabeetha is a school open to Christians, Jews and Muslims, is ably led by a strong staff team, and makes its own difference in offering lessons that will help blend cultures and traditions so that understanding comes, whilst not shying away from very clear Christian roots. Inspirational and fun. This is a Church of Scotland run and owned school.
We then drove back to Jerusalem to meet HM Ambassador to Israel and discussed the many political challenges facing the country.
It was a privilege and joy to be at St Andrew’s Church, Tiberias, the same evening where I was invited to re-dedicate the church sanctuary after the completion of a significant and beautiful refurbishment project. The Rev Kate McDonald, Minister of St Andrew’s Church, welcomed me, the Mayor of Tiberias and other ecumenical, inter-faith and community guests to a fun and enjoyable evening.
“Unless the Lord builds” was the short reading that Robin Downie, NYA Moderator, gave, and in my prayer of rededication I gave thanks to God for St Andrew, Fisherman of Galilee, whose ministry though short on words was large in action, consistently bringing people to Jesus for nourishment, inclusion, and finding answers for questions.
We were many tradition at this event, but all found a place, and all were made welcome through the hospitality of St Andrew’s Church and through the Scots Hotel.
The following morning, Kate, the minister at Tiberias, led a short celebration of Holy Communion in St Andrew’s which was good to share in.
On 25th January we had a fascinating visit to the House of Grace in Haifa. Established in 1982, it provides social services to the poor and runs a halfway house for Arab prisoners released on probation. It is the only remaining halfway house for Arabs. Released prisoners need assistance; many quickly end back in prison due to a lack of proper rehabilitation programmes and support from official institutions and their communities. The House of Grace was the first rehabilitation hostel for released prisoners in Israel. They assist released prisoners who are ready to rebuild their lives and the programme involves community living, re-integration visits with families, counselling and addiction advice, and work opportunities to re-integrate people back into normal life.
We sometimes ask were does some of our Church offering go : here is a good example of good work being done by good people and in the name of faith, hope and love. When the family who run this halfway house opened their home to released prisoners, they did, and still do, something extraordinarily powerful in the name of Jesus, Friend of all.
We then visited The Galilee Society, an organisation which focuses on community-based healthcare. They work on Arab healthcare rights in Israel, including addressing HIV in a country where HIV is under-reported. They have also developed a research facility focusing on eco-friendly methods, particularly biogas. Their main role is in advocacy, after they have gathered statistics about the situation and identified inequality faced by Arabs in Israel. The World Mission Council has supported the Galilee Society financially on a semi-regular basis for its advocacy work, but recently supported a three year project for its HIV work.
We spent a fascinating afternoon at Sindyanna of Galilee, a women’s cooperative working with Arab and Jewish women providing employment opportunities for them such as basket weaving. They also have an oil production facility, providing farmers with an opportunity to get to market with their produce. The Church of Scotland, through our World Mission Council, support The Scottish Grove in south Nazareth, to give them the tools to be able to them grow olive trees. The Scots Hotel in Tiberias, where are tonight as well as last night, exclusively used Sindyanna olive oil for all cooking. We even had the opportunity to sample the products with an olive tasting session which involved drinking some olive oil! There’s a first! #Fairtrade
This video link gives more information:
We got back to the Scots Hotel in Tiberias, where there was a splendidly Scottish and international evening as we celebrated the legacy of our national bard, Robert Burns, with the Immortal Memory speech (albeit abridged!) which I was happy to give. There was haggis, bagpipes, poetry, whisky and dancing! The Revd Ian Alexander’s (World Mission Secretary) recitation of Tam o’ Shanter was a revelation.
On Friday 26th we crossed the border from Israel into Jordan and we travelled to meet the Revd Fares Naoum, and his community at St John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Husun. We were then taken to Azmi Al-Mofti Refugee Camp, listening to peoples stories of displacement and their hopes for “home”. I was invited to give a TV interview which will be broadcast on Ro’ya tomorrow, Saturday, at 7.30 pm. We then returned to the church in Husun for a fabulous lunch with local people, and the hospitality was typically generous, delicious and welcoming. The ‘theatre of hospitality’ is immense – we need to acknowledge more the pleasures derived in giving and receiving, and the importance these have for human dignity and respect.
We had the inordinate privilege, today, of a private meeting and lunch with HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad (Chief Advisor to King Abdullah II for Religious and Cultural Affairs and HM Personal Envoy) at the Royal Court compound in Amman. Prince Ghazi then took us on a personal tour of the Al-Maghtas site (Arabic: المغطس), meaning “baptism” or “immersion”. The site of the baptism of Jesus had been known to be around the Jordan River, but no one knew exactly where. An abandoned site in Jordan overlooking the river, was heavily mined in 1967 due to an acquired front line position during the Six-Day War. In 1994 after the signing of the Israel–Jordan peace treaty, Prince Ghazi who is deeply interested in religious history and is an acclaimed philosopher of religion, was searching the area after a monk convinced him to take a look around what was thought to be the baptism site. When they found evidence of ruins, that was enough to encourage de-mining and further development. Soon afterwards, there were several archaeological digs, tourists influx and pilgrimage activity, and several papal and state visits. In July 2015, the site was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site and is now known as the most likely location for the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The natural landscape and ancient ruins add a deep authenticity to this area of spiritual significance and it was good to take some moments to be still …. and to pray.
I hope this may become a place of pilgrimage not only for those of us within the Church of Scotland, but for all people of faith. Here is one of those special places where the sense of God’s presence is very near.
Baptism is a sign of new life and new beginning; it is a sign of hope and welcome. It was intensely moving to be here and to reflect on the promises of baptism, and how through them we are not only brought into nearness with the Lord, but also named and claimed. An incredible day with so much to reflect upon.
It was good to join with our sisters and brothers in Christ, this morning, at the Arab Evangelical Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Amman. The Revd Canon Faeq Haddad welcomed us and kindly guided us through an Arabic Service, during the service I brought greetings from the Church of Scotland, helped serve at the communion service, as well as pronouncing the Benediction in English immediately after the Benediction in Arabic. To share in Holy Communion reminded us that we are one body who drink from one cup.
It was also lovely to share with the congregation how much we have in common. No sooner than the organist played a few chords of a hymn the Scots in my team all recognised the tune Crimond and were able to join in with the 23rd Psalm.
A special time with friendly people, gathering in Christ’s name. Also important to embody the reality of Christian Unity week. Though we are many, we are one.
And finally, I have just returned from the Hashemite Kingdom Royal palace where I had an audience with King Abdullah II of Jordan. Turns out we were both at Oxford at the same time and we knew several people in common. A small world, half way across the world!
Early flight tomorrow morning from Amman back to London and then on to Edinburgh.
Saturday 3rd February 2018
On Tuesday 30th January I visited Glasgow University. It was good to meet with candidates for the ministry and conduct a service with them. I spent the afternoon with students who were looking at how the church and community work together, and how, in the C21st, the Church continues to have something to say. In the evening I preached again in the University Chapel and conducted communion, and then had dinner with the Chancellor and the Principal of the University.
On Wednesday 31st I was back in Glasgow on two interfaith visits. The first was to the Ahmadiyya Mosque to meet with this small Muslim community, and then on to the Glasgow Gurdwara to meet with the Sikh community. It is fascinating to see the things that distinguish the different faith communities and also what draws us together.
On Friday 2nd February I hosted the Table of Wellbeing. Issues about wellbeing and how we care for the entire person continue to remain a priority in the health and professions and in public policy, yet can often become complex when issues around funding, staffing and public perception are added to the mix. We looked at the question: What should an integrated public policy for wellbeing look like and include? It was a fascinating evening of discussion.
Friday 9th February 2018
On Sunday 4th February I travelled to Glasgow to preach at the annual service for the Glasgow Lodging House Mission. The LHM has been running for over a century and provides a wide range of services for rough sleepers in Glasgow. It is widely supported by local churches and there were nearly 200 people at the service. It was good that 2 of the service users took part in the service, and a choir made up of volunteers and service users sang. The Church supports so much good work across the country. In the LHM hundreds of men and women are being helped quietly and compassionately and given some dignity and a lot of love.
On Wednesday 7th in the morning I was in Dundee at Braeview Academy where I was invited to work alongside a class doing Religious and Philosophy studies. There were about 20 young people there, not all doing the Higher but some simply interested in meeting me and asking questions about faith, ethics and the role of the Church in the world today. It was a fantastic opportunity to interact with young people – some great questions – and hopefully some equally great answers! In the evening I drove out to Linlithgow where I was the guest of the Girls Brigade. I was able to take some pictures of my year as Moderator (lots of questions about the Queen, the Pope and how I manage not to spill food and drink on my lace!) A fun night with some exceptional young women.
On Thursday 8th I was in London as a guest of the Lord Mayor who was hosting a dinner for the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England, and one Moderator! It was good to connect with colleagues in the southern church, I’d met Justin Welby before, but was interested to meet John Sentamu. Some of the relatively newly appointed women bishops were particularly impressive.
Today I’m in Aberdeen, where I’ve had lunch with the Master of Christ’s College, the Divinity Faculty in the University. I’m preaching at a Presbytery service tonight, and handing out long-service certificates to a group of officebearers from different churches who have amassed over 1,000 years of service. Tomorrow I’m meeting the Principal of Aberdeen University, and on Sunday I’m preaching in King’s College Chapel at the annual Founders’ Day Service. The Chapel service was to commemorate the foundation of Aberdeen university. There was a magnificent choir, and I bumped into people who came from Cupar, and someone who was a good friend to two of our members in Morningside. All in all a lovely visit.
Back in Edinburgh now, with a busy week ahead.
There’s a lot of writing to do as Moderator, so I’ve been producing pieces of the Church of Scotland website, Life and Work and several other publications, as well as sermons and prayers for a variety of occasions. This week included writing a short appreciation for the first woman appointed as a parish minister. I’ve also had to submit a piece for the Time of Reflection at the Scottish Parliament for the end of the month. I’m finding train travel has been generally easier than plane travel as I can write on the train. Ever moment counts!
Friday 16th February 2018
On Monday I had a meeting at New College, Edinburgh with Professor Mona Siddiqui to talk about the possibility of developing in-service training opportunities for Christian clergy to learn more about Islam, and the interaction of the Muslim world with the C21st. In the evening I spoke at a dinner in the City Chambers, hosted by the Shia Muslim community, who are beginning to engage with issues relating to homelessness, and working out how they can work together and inclusively with people of all faiths and none. I then cabbed over to Britannia to speak at a second dinner with some French friends.
On Tuesday I hosted the Table for Christian and Jewish dialogue, and looked at issues that affect both communities in the UK, and how in times of tension we can learn to agree and disagree well on matters that unite and divide us. Later in the afternoon I had tea with Richard Holloway.
On Wednesday I hosted the Table for Food Justice, with guests from different parts of the food and food justice world, including representatives from the Scottish government. It was fascinating to hear the different issues affecting food, and to wonder what a policy for sufficient food for all in times when some people in our country still do not have enough nutritious food to eat. In the evening I attended Old St Paul’s Scottish Episcopal Church for their Ash Wednesday service.
On Thursday I was the guest of officials at Hampden, Park, Glasgow. It was my first visit to the national football stadium and interesting to have a tour behind the scenes, and to stand on the hallowed turf. I decided not to become Scotland’s next manager…
Saturday 24th February 2018
On Sunday 18th I was invited to preach at Dunfermline Abbey where the congregation was commemorating the 200th anniversary of the rediscovery of the bones of Robert the Bruce, who was buried there (minus heart, which is in Melrose Abbey) as Dunfermline was one of the ancient capitals of Scotland and several kings and queens were buried there. Robert the Bruce was a boyhood hero of mine courtesy of the books of Nigel Tranter. I remember as a boy walking with Tranter around Aberlady Bay. It was also quiet something preaching in front of Lord Bruce (son of the Earl of Elgin) who is the direct descendant of King Robert. It was good to see Charles Bruce again, we were at St Andrews together in the 1980s. The congregation at the Abbey is launching an appeal fund, partly to do restoration work at the church, but also to address issues facing refugees in our country.
On Monday I began a four day visit to the RAF. Each year the Moderator visits one of the three services. I visited RAF Benson, a helicopter base where I met the chaplain and welfare team, the station commander, spoke to young officers about leadership challenges in the C21st. Benson also houses six simulators where pilots are trained to fly, some incredible technology. On Tuesday I was flown by Puma helicopter to RAF Halton, the base where airmen and women are brought as new recruits. It was helpful to hear how the ‘reception’ team work with the young people, many of them teenagers, and help them in those first challenging weeks. I had the opportunity to speak to twenty new recruits about values and ethics, and they had the opportunity to quiz me about faith, the Church, and issues facing our world today. It was a tremendous opportunity and experience with these young people, well-served by their chaplains. I also had a chance to visit two small museums with RAF memorabilia – including the 1930s pilot training simulator – powered by organ bellows. The designer’s father had been an organist. The following day I was at High Command at RAF High Wycombe where I met two of the most senior RAF officers, both men of faith, who talked about the challenges facing this service today, in terms of personnel, funding, equipment and strategy. I also had interesting discussions with the senior RAF chaplain on spirituality and resilience, something the whole service was addressing. There are a number of top security installations at this air base which I can’t talk about – but it was interesting to see these and meet the people who operate them. My final visit on Thursday was to RAF Brize Norton, the major RAF transportation unit. It has its own airport, hosts the parachute training facility (no, I didn’t!), and the dog-handler training unit. Another senior officer talked extensively about the future work of the RAF – which also includes outer space.
I have been struck by a number of issues: the utter commitment, professionalism and dedication of the RAF chaplains I have met; the respect in which the chaplains are held by all ranks in the RAF who see the unique role they provide; the vast technical skills and capabilities of the servicemen and women; the considerable practical, technological, cyber and space capabilities of the RAF; and so much more.
Eye-opening, jaw-dropping, heart-warming, spirit-lifting. The RAF works hard to maintain its levels of excellence in a challenging and hostile world. They have much to celebrate in this, their centenary year.
On Friday I was invited by Pope Francis to join the ecumenical day of prayer and fasting. Christian denominations around the world also took part in the day of prayer. Friday 23 February comes during the first full week of Lent. In many parts of the world tension and strife are strongly present. When one part of the human family hurts, all parts of the family hurt. I extended an invitation to all parts of the Church of Scotland to spend some time in quiet prayer and reflection for all people living through conflict at this time, and particularly those in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in South Sudan. We should pray for the gift of peace not only to be given but to be received, not only to be hoped for but to be worked towards and to be sustained—in these places, and everywhere.
I then had an interesting meeting with Pearson Soka, a senior hospital missionary from Malawi who was visiting Scotland, and NHS services and partner churches here. Good to hear about challenging medical work in another part of the world.
Sunday 25th February 2018
Returned today after a weekend at St Andrews. It was wonderful to revisit St Mary’s College, where I did my Divinity training, and be the guest of honour at a reception hosted by the new Principal of St Mary’s. It was good to see so many old friends, and to remember the times I spent there from 1983-1986. Then on to dinner with Sally Mapstone, the Principal of St Andrews University. A fascinating evening in good, intelligent and convivial company and some exceptional people. Today I preached at the Founders and Benefactors service at St Salvator’s, the University Chapel. It was good to see Tom Wilkinson again, the university organist, who was one of our organ scholars a few years ago. I had the opportunity to attend the wreath-laying ceremony for Bishop Wardlaw, founder of the University, then on to lunch with the University Chaplain and some others, before an evensong service of Scottish Plainsong. It has been a very full weekend. I was preaching about ‘confidence’ this morning and wondering what it might look like – a match at Murrayfield somehow came to mind!
Sunday 4th March 2018
On Monday I went to Glasgow to visit the Scottish Refugee Council. There motto is ‘building a better future with refugees in Scotland. Moving, passionate, distressing, uplifting. The director was himself a refugee from Afghanistan, stayed in a camp, and now working here to make life better for others. Many refugees get caught up in human trafficking and modern day slavery. Many of them will never go home again. Many of them will never see their families again, if their families are even still alive. We would have much to learn from hearing from this gentle, perceptive man.
Tuesday and Wednesday saw me at the Scottish Parliament, where I gave the Time for Reflection, and met with most of the political leaders. It remains a fascinating building to visit, and clearly there are many people there working hard for our country. On Tuesday evening I hosted a reception to mark the Year of the Young Person – young people of faith, building bridges and making a difference. We heard from two young people, both had been in Rwanda as part of a Church of Scotland visit with young Muslims. One of them had been with me in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. There were young people from churches, youth workers, volunteers and many other from the Church present with politicians and civil servants. It was good to bring so many people together and remind them that the Church is not dead, but re-forming.
On Wednesday evening I had a helpful meeting with an old friend who happens to be the Chaplain General of the Army.
Snow kicked in so a few days at the Residence catching up on some writing and getting a little cabin fever. It has, however, been moving to read about how so many people have been looking out for neighbours, families and friends. It is true that there is much that can be said to be wrong about society, but very often in the more challenging times, good people with good hearts rise to the surface and help, and that is surely a good thing.
Today I conducted two services at Mayfield Salisbury Parish Church, where the Revd Scott McKenna, our interim moderator, is minister. It was good to conduct the services with him, and with one of my chaplains, Anne Mulligan DCS.
Friday 9th March 2018
On Tuesday I hosted the Table of Community. I had gathered together Lord Provosts and Provosts from around Scotland, along with some Holyrood communities civil servants and representatives from the Church’s flourishing communities group, the Go For It fund, and the Priority Areas group. What do our communities need for them to be inclusive, imaginative and flourishing? It was good to hear from people working at grass-roots level about what was, and was not, going on within their communities.
I’ve also spent some time with my successor, the Revd Susan Brown, who has now begun her preparation period as Moderator-Designate.
On Thursday I attended two events. The first was the Reform and Unity Conference, looking at the impact of the Reformation historically, and on the way we carry out our worship. In the evening I attended an event to mark the International Day of Women, with the Side by Side group and Christian Aid. It was moving to hear of the stories of women in this country and across the world and how they still face prejudice in many different walks of life.
Today I visited the Samye Ling Buddhist monastery in the Scottish Borders. It was fascinating to see the Temple and to meet with the senior lamas here and learn something about their worship and how they approach life. The lunch they served was fantastic – and I’m not a vegetarian!
I’m now in Dumfries, about to begin a ten day visit to the Presbytery of Dumfries and Kirkcudbright. It’s not a part of the world I know well, so I’m looking forward to an action-packed ten days.