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First Female Moderator of the “Kirk” 2004-05-15

Posted by clype in Intolerance, Scotland.

This morning, Dr.Alison Elliot will become the first woman "Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland".

Alison Elliot

Our attention is often drawn to supposed historic moments; this is a genuine, not a spurious one. Indeed it is a golden moment for our national church, mired as it has been in the problems of haemorrhaging membership and lost influence. But the election of a female elder rather than a male minister is a signal that the "Kirk" may be prepared to change its ways, and to respond imaginatively to its plight. Externally, there is a burst of interest and goodwill, and this opportunity can only be enhanced by the fact that Alison Elliot is herself gracious, personable and highly intelligent. But the opportunity is fleeting.

Dr.Elliot will be called straightaway to her one key role, the moderating of the Assembly. When the gathering breaks up in a week's time, her task will be technically finished. This being the case, it would be so much more sensible if the moderator chaired the Assembly at the end of the moderatorial year, rather than its start.

As it is, the "Moderator" is thrown right in at the deep end, and I [Harry Reid] cannot help wondering if this suits the "Kirk's" mandarins, who like the Assembly to be managed as far as is possible, and who fear a truculent, assertive and dissenting Assembly. These days, the Assembly tends to be a pretty douce affair. It works smoothly, and the timetable is stuck to and everything progresses gently in a kind of quasi-legalistic bureaucratic torpor.

Let us wind back almost 50 years to when the "Kirk's" greatest figure of the 20th century, a man at once infuriating and furious, charismatic and choleric, was "Moderator". George Macleod, in his address to the Assembly, confronted two deeply divisive and combustible issues; the nuclear deterrent and church unity. As his biographer Ron Ferguson has written, he produced no diplomatic chairman's summing up of the consensus, but rather the dividing word of the passionate, obsessive prophet.

Now I'm [Harry Reid's] not for one moment suggesting that Alison Elliot should seek to become what she is not — a passionate, obsessive prophet. What I am suggesting is that it is no less than a tragedy for our national church that it has, in the space of a mere 47 years, become utterly unthinkable that a "Moderator" should behave as George Macleod did.

The context for the "Kirk" could hardly be more hostile. We live in an aggressively secular, glibly hedonistic and cynically consumerist society. Not for many generations has spiritual or moral leadership been more desperately needed.

For Christians it is appalling that Scotland is to all intents and purposes no longer a Christian country, and that so many of our young people — probably the great majority — have no idea whatsoever of the basic teaching of Jesus Christ.

For many non-Christians it is equally appalling that the "Kirk" has so little confidence that it has lost the will to speak out on all sorts of issues. A typical view here is that of a man who is an avowed atheist, Paul Scott CMG, the distinguished diplomat and historian. He admits, despite his atheism, to personal pain at the "Kirk's" failure to live up to its legacy of relevance and engagement.

'We have not found any national substitute for the "Church of Scotland". I wish it could recover its old moral authority,' says Scott.

Of course this might seem to some irrelevant, now that we have our Parliament. But there is difference between political and spiritual leadership. The historian Dr.Graham Walker, a Glaswegian who is working at Queen's University, Belfast, says he believes the "Church of Scotland" has completely lost touch with the bulk of the people in many areas of Scotland, particularly working class areas.

He told me [Harry Reid] that the "Kirk" must not be allowed to squander its greatest resource, which was its remaining place in Scotland's national life. And he wanted it to recover its central role as the conscience of the nation. All this might seem to be getting some distance from Dr.Elliot and her immediate tasks.

I [Harry Reid] would wish, simply, that in the coming week, she makes a special effort to free up the Assembly; to rouse it from its torpor. It is after all the "Kirk's" 'sovereign' body. There is little point in Assemblies that are routinely supine and complacent. I [Harry Reid] agree with Prof.Andrew McGowan, Principal of the Highland Theological College, who recently wrote that he dreamed of an Assembly that would ask questions and be radical.

The "Moderator" can do much to aid this process by being inclusive, tolerating dissenters, and generally encouraging and being sympathetic towards ordinary commissioners, rather than the 'high heid yins', the board conveners and the former "Moderators" and the other members of the great and good. Then there are the other 51 weeks. The convention has grown in recent years that the "Moderator's" role after the Assembly should be purely ambassadorial.

There are visits to Presbyteries in Scotland and various trips abroad. I [Harry Reid] once asked a Minister of the Crown if the government of the day paid any attention to this world travel and the notion was dismissed with the scathing remark that a Foreign Office clerk might be sent to Heathrow with a map.

I laughed, but I was also slightly miffed that Scotland's "national church" could be treated with such patronising disdain. Ambassadors can do much good, but they are not leaders. Leadership suggests the ability to speak out on the issues of our time with force and spiritual pertinence.

The two most formidable "Moderators" of the 20th century were hardly ambassadorial figures. The first, Dr.John White, was an able and courageous man but he was also a racist, and he led the church into a despicable anti-Irish campaign. Unfortunately, his legacy was malignant, and it took much work, led by the saintly Prof.John Baillie, to cleanse the "Kirk" of it. But whatever White was, he was not a mealy-mouthed consensus-seeker.

To cite White is to indicate that I [Harry Reid] am aware that leadership has its risks. But we must equally remember that there is nothing anti-Presbyterian or anti-democratic in strong leadership. Quite the contrary, in fact. The other outstanding figure was of course George Macleod. Before I [Harry Reid] quote from the final stirring speech of his moderatorial year, let me place it in context.

He was talking of a "Kirk" with 1.3 million members in a nation of 5 million people. He was making the point that this gave it a potential influence that no other institution could dream of. To quote him, 'no political party or commercial affiliation or trade union or cultural grouping'. Now that membership has dwindled by more than half, and yet the "Kirk" still has more than 1 000 ministers, more than 40 000 elders, and more than half a million members.

It remains true: any political party in Scotland would give anything for such commitment, such manpower, such potential. Anyway, in his peroration, Macleod asked a question:

'With such potential to the leaderless nature of our world, what wait we for?'

We are still waiting.

  • In 2001, Harry Reid was commissioned by the then "Moderator", Dr.Andrew Mclellan, to write an outsider's analysis of the "Kirk" and its failings. The consequent book, Outside Verdict, was published by St.Andrew Press in 2002.

"Female Moderator must breathe fire back into the Kirk", Harry Reid, The Scotsman, 2004-05-15


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