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Heart and Soul, Princes Street Gardens in 2012. Picture by Jackie Macadam
Heart and Soul, Princes Street Gardens in 2012. Picture by Jackie Macadam

From Reform to Renewal

Tuesday April 18 2017

The Very Rev Dr Finlay Macdonald outlines the inspiration - and need - for his new history of the Church of Scotland.


I was four years old when my father became a minister on his ordination and induction to the charge of Lochee: St Ninian’s. Like many of his generation he had experienced a sense of calling while on military service during the Second World War.

His father was a lay missionary in his native Lewis, having previously served parishes in Sutherland and Skye. I recall that, on my appointment as Principal Clerk in 1996, Life and Work’s Gaelic Supplement carried the story with a small picture of me, a medium-sized photograph of my father and a large image of my grandfather – a nice illustration (literally) of the old Scots saying, ‘I kent
 his faither’!

With this Gaelic/Presbyterian pedigree was mingled a generous measure of Anglican genes from my London-born mother. My parents married in 1943 and, since my father’s RAF duties meant long periods of separation, my mother continued to reside close to her family in Hertfordshire. There I was born in 1945 and, on my father’s next leave, baptised into the Church of England.

Many years later, as Moderator, I shared a public conversation with Bruce Cameron, then Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. In the course of the event in Orkney’s St Magnus Cathedral it emerged that the Moderator had been baptised in the Church of England and the Primus had been baptised in the Church of Scotland – a nice ecumenical symmetry.

As a son of the manse I was duly brought up ‘in the nurture and admonition of the Lord’ and, as other ministers’ children would surely testify, both elements were evident in a manse childhood. I recall one Sunday being asked by the superintendent to recite the ‘motto text’. Unfortunately, I had had rather a busy week and failed miserably. I was braced for the rebuke but what really stung was the rider that more might have been expected from the minister’s son!

From time to time my Hebridean grandmother would come for extended visits. She was a fine seamstress and as the sewing machine shared a room with the piano she often found herself treadling to the accompaniment of my scales and arpeggios (I had begun piano lessons at the age of eight). As I progressed she began to view me as a kind of jukebox. She would call out her favourite psalm tunes and I would dutifully play her requests from the old split-page Scottish psalter.

Granny was one feisty lady and in return for the psalm tunes I was given the benefit of her opinions. One matter on which she felt particularly strongly was the Church’s continuing failure to admit women to ministry and eldership. I can still hear her insisting: “Women were the first apostles of the resurrection”. I’m glad she lived to see the change she so longed for.

I share this personal history because this book is as much informed by personal and practical experience of Church life as it is by the perusal of ecclesiastical history offered in its pages. The idea for it came from conversations over the years which suggested that an accessible overview of the Kirk’s story would be helpful for elders, church members and the general reader – perhaps even for ministers interested in a crash refresher course!

We worry sometimes as to whether the Kirk has a future. Well, it certainly has a past and one element in securing the future is learning from the mistakes of 
the past and avoiding their repetition. The title, From Reform to Renewal, reflects the principle expressed in the old Latin maxim, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda which, being translated, means ‘a Church reformed yet always in need of reform’.

Today I sense a real spirit of renewal in the life of the Church. This is not to deny the realities of declining numbers and diminishing influence, but it is also important to affirm emerging initiatives and many good and imaginative things which are going on in parishes around the land.

The book concludes in this spirit with the following paragraph:
‘This book began with the Reformation and has sought to outline the Kirk’s story over the five centuries since Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in Wittenberg in 1517. We cannot tell how the story will continue into the future but continue it surely will,
 so long as the Kirk remains committed to 
a continuing and positive process of reform and renewal’.

From Reform to Renewal will be published on April 30. You can pre-order from Saint Andrew Press here.