Reflecting on a year as Moderator.
by The Very Rev Dr Derek Browning
People have been asking me how I feel now that I have completed my year as Moderator of the General Assembly. The word that has come to me consistently is ‘thankful’.
I’ve been astonished looking back over the year just how much I was enabled to cram into it, and remain inordinately grateful to the many people who helped and supported me along the way.
The broad theme that I chose for my year was “Hospitality.” If we are in a position of privilege it is better to build a longer table than a higher wall. This remains a challenge to the Church both as an institution as well as to the individuals who make up the Church.
Amongst the many privileges of being Moderator is to engage with the Church and wider faith communities at local, national and international levels. What does hospitality look like in those arenas? Are we, in reality, living a hospitable faith? I pick a few out of many encounters.
At a local level, I have powerful memories of the Parish Church in Anstruther. Now called St Ayle, the church had been struggling. A C17th century building, it was restricted inside by pews, had no adjacent hall, and was completely surrounded by a graveyard. Church members wanted to engage with. They set up a foodbank, but few people came because of the location in the church. With a lot of hard work and sacrifice, and some bumps along the road, the inside of the church was redesigned, pews removed, flexible seating installed, and a more usable space created. But still nobody came.
A visionary manager was appointed. A café was set up where home baking, tea and coffee was provided free or for a small donation. It was realised that those the Church was trying to help had no access to telephones and computers, which made making job centre appointments, doctors’ appointments and interviews difficult.
Two computers with free Internet access and a telephone were provided. People started coming. Volunteers talked to visitors. The local secondary school got involved. People with no church connection found their way into the church, and found hospitality.
At a national level I had a meeting in London with the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis. Relations between the Jewish community and the Church of Scotland have been tense for a number of years but through hard work, dialogue and simply meeting face to face in a variety of contexts, the situation is so much better, even if there is still some way to go. As we sat in his study and drank coffee, and talked about the challenges and the tensions, we also talked about the possibility of connections.
He shared that in his devotional reading that day, he had been reminded of something he’d forgotten. In the Noah story, when birds are sent out from the ark to find out if the flood had abated, the second bird, the dove can be translated in Hebrew also as pigeon.
Yonah is not only the symbol for peace but is also the messenger. It also occurred to as that it was part of the meaning in the name of the prophet Jonah, the same word. As I sat at the coffee table with the Chief Rabbi we both made a mental note to use the pigeon/dove image in a sermon at some point! But on that morning, it was the coffee table and our sharing together that had equal significance. In what could have been a fractious meeting the stories of messengers and peace-bringers intertwined through hospitality.
Hospitality at an international level makes me remember a visit to a shed in Bethlehem, an image in itself. In that shed Elias and his father are part of an olive wood collective and they sell what they make to support themselves. There is not much money. Elias may have some learning difficulties, but he is skilled in cutting and carving wood.
Throughout my moderatorial year I gave the gift of wooden crosses carved from Bethlehem olive wood, but to children I gave little olive wood stars, which could be Christmas decorations. As Elias cut and carved and polished the wood deftly, his father passed gave me a small cup of sweet tea and a homemade biscuit. Elias handed a finished article to me and said, shyly, “I am the boy who makes the stars.” In a shed in Bethlehem I met the boy who made the stars, and shared the simplest of hospitality with him.
Hospitality was my theme as Moderator, and it has been a theme throughout my ministry and in both the congregations where I have served.
Hospitality is about how we greet and welcome, how we include and share; it is about how we meet at table and look at those around us and converse with them.
Hospitality will mean gathering in places of ease and unease, with friends and maybe with enemies, with family and often with strangers, and often find, to our surprise, what we have in common, as well as what differentiates us.
There were other highlights too. I will never forget the privilege of being asked to bless the Queensferry Crossing, or spending over an hour with Pope Francis in a private audience, or flying with the RAF, or standing at the Baptismal site by the River Jordan.
Presbytery visits to St Andrews, Glasgow, Dumfries and Kirkcudbright and Ross were hugely important too.
It will be the lessons in hospitality that will continue to shape me as I return to parish ministry in Morningside, and to other tasks. I wonder if these lessons might also continue to shape the Church that we all love and serve here in Presbytery, across Scotland, and around the world