Jennifer Boag at the General Assembly
General Assembly 2009
Many years ago, when Rev Bill Johnstone, the former minister of St George’s church, was the Moderator, my father asked if he could go the General Assembly that year. So I thought I would follow my father’s example this year when our own Rev Bill Hewitt elected as the Moderator. As there are often congregations who can’t find someone to attend as a Commissioner, it is usually possible to take up a spare place.
So on the opening morning of the Assembly, I was sitting among the Commissioners and not in the gallery with the many people from Westburn who went through for the election of the new Moderator. It was a very proud moment for all of us and a huge privilege to be able to say that I was a member of the Moderator’s church.
One of the advantages of being from the Moderator’s church was the number of extra invitations which I received to events during the Assembly. Along with others from Westburn, I went to the Moderator’s Reception on the Thursday night and I was also invited with other Commissioners from our Presbytery to the Lord High Commissioner’s Reception at Holyrood Palace – where I met an old friend of Douglas and Nancy Hamilton from their courting days in Glasgow.
I was asked to be a greeter for the Lord High Commissioner, something I didn’t even know we did. Every session when the Lord High Commissioner arrives, he is met by a small delegation of Commissioners and introduced to them. They then provide an escort for his entrance to the Assembly Hall and are to be seen lurking behind his chair in the Hall for the first part of the session. This year’s Lord High Commissioner was again George Reid, the former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. He proved to be a most interesting man and an honour to meet and greet.
It also gave me great satisfaction to be invited to take part in the Sunday evening Assembly worship. I took part in a dialogue with Alison Bennett, the Presbytery Youth delegate. We played the roles of mother and daughter on the day of her daughter’s wedding.
Although the media coverage of the Assembly was dominated by discussions on the issue of the appointment of Rev Scott Rennie to Queens Cross Church in Aberdeen, for those of us attending the Assembly, this did not overshadow the debates and other business. If anything, it served to make Commissioners more attentive to the views of those with whom they disagreed. It became quite a theme of the Assembly for Commissioners to offer to meet those they disagreed with over coffee to discuss their differences and try to reach an understanding, if not an agreement.
The most moving event of the Assembly was on Chaplains Day when we had a live radio link with Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. The lesson for morning worship was read to us by one of our Chaplains with the Army there. The Moderator was also able to speak with two of the Chaplains during the service. We then had a presentation in which we were shown, in a series of slides, images of a simple memorial service for a young soldier killed in combat there just a few weeks before the Assembly. Few failed to be moved by its simplicity and poignancy.
I think for many people, myself included, the highlight of this year’s Assembly was the visit from the Most Rev Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town. When the Assembly Business Convenor announced his visit, a very audible Oooooo! went round the Assembly (to be contrasted with the polite silence which greeted the news that we were also to be addressed by Alex Salmond, the First Minister). Archbishop Tutu was inspiring, enthusiastic, just amazing, with his theme that “We are family” and that God calls us to help Him to make this a more compassionate world – He has no one else but us to do it.
If you have access to the internet and haven’t already watched the clip (about 25 minutes) of the Archbishop’s address, please do make time to watch it and be inspired!
At the final session of the Assembly, the roll of deceased ministers is read by the outgoing Moderator, and Westburn members will want to know that the name of Rev Stewart Pyper was one of the first to be read out this year.
On the Saturday night, the Assembly sat as a court of the Church, to judge the Scott Rennie case. The case before us was not on the rights and wrongs of gay ministers, but whether or not the Presbytery of Aberdeen was correct in sustaining the call to Mr Rennie, as church law stood when they took the decision in January. The Moderator made it very clear in his opening remarks to the session, that we should only consider the case as it was put before us and not be influenced by any views or prejudices which we held.
The debate itself was conducted in a very measured and reasoned way. The cases for and against were put and opportunity given for replies. The two parties were then questioned by Commissioners and the matter was debated for several hours once the parties had been removed. Finally, a vote was taken and the Assembly voted, as I am sure you know, to allow the call to Scott Rennie to be sustained.
I heard many people complimenting the Moderator on the way in which he chaired what was a very challenging evening, which could, with less astute guidance from the chair, have been a much more fraught and strained occasion.
Although I was not representing Westburn church, I feel that I have to tell you how I voted, as the only Westburn member with a vote that evening. I voted in favour of Scott Rennie’s appointment for two main reasons.
Firstly, the Assembly was sitting as a court of the church and the case was, as I said before, whether or not the Presbytery of Aberdeen was correct in sustaining the call to Mr Rennie, as church law stood when they took the decision in January. My understanding of the paperwork which I was supplied with, and which I read carefully, and from the debate, was that the Presbytery of Aberdeen was correct in its decision. Whatever my views on the gay ministers, I could see no way in which the decision taken was wrong.
Secondly, coming from a Free Church background (my great-great-great-grandfather – hope that’s the right number of greats! – walked out of the Mid Kirk in Greenock in 1843 at the Disruption to form the Free Middle which later became St George’s and now Westburn) I feel quite strongly about the rights of individual congregations to call the minister of their choice. It appeared to me that Queens Cross Church in Aberdeen chose Scott Rennie as their new minister and they were aware, from a report which was circulated to them on the day he preached as sole nominee, of his personal circumstances when they made that choice. On that basis, I believe they were entitled to the minister of their choice, although it might not have been my own choice.
Altogether a very memorable Assembly and one which it was a particular honour and pleasure to attend.