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Pictures by Derek Fett www.fettimages.co.uk
Pictures by Derek Fett www.fettimages.co.uk

"All are Welcome"

Wednesday May 10 2017

The Moderator-Designate of the General Assembly, the Rev Dr Derek Browning, tells Lynne McNeil about being expelled from Sunday School - and a call to the ministry that surprised him as much as everyone else.


A gleaming double oven has pride of place within the kitchen of the Victorian manse of Morningside Parish Church in Edinburgh.

Shelves weighed down by recipe books provide the telltale signs of a ministerial passion for cookery and it will be no surprise to learn that hospitality will be the theme of the Rev Dr Derek Browning’s year as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

“The overall theme of this year’s General Assembly is ‘Word of Life’ and, thinking about different significant words in the life of the church, for me, one of them is and has been hospitality and also welcome and how we do that. It is also about inclusion. Inclusion has been a significant part of my ministry,” he explains.

Derek, the minister at Morningside since 2001, is both erudite and charming and with a quick wit – tempered by compassion and a passion for ministry and people. He is also no stranger to regular visitors to the General Assembly, having served in recent years as Convener of the Business Committee.

Born in Edinburgh, he grew up initially in Penicuik, Midlothian, where he found himself removed from Sunday School, and later in North Berwick.

“I was removed from Sunday School at the age of seven for being a disruptive influence because I was asking too many questions. That sense of wanting to ask questions is important to both my ministry and parish work and at the General Assembly. Questions are always in order,” he explains.

After being dispatched from Sunday School, the only time he participated in anything church-related was compulsory attendance at school assemblies (despite his protests of agnosticism) and with friends at the Watchnight Service at North Berwick’s Blackadder Church. Worship at the services was led by the Rev Dr Donald McAlister, who would prove to be an important influence.

“I was always impressed by his integrity and his honesty. He would never give us a hard time for turning up on Christmas Eve or say: ‘Have you thought why you are here?’ I respected the man.”

Derek became one of the first alumni of North Berwick High School to go to Oxford University, when he was offered a place at Corpus Christi College to read history.

During his last year of studies he developed an interest in the Reformation. As part of a thesis on the life of Knox, he made an appointment with the then minister of St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, the Very Rev Dr Gilleasbuig Macmillan.

“Gilleasbuig was incredibly gracious with all the questions I had, but at the end, he said: ‘For the last hour we have maybe spent two minutes talking about John Knox. The rest has been spent talking about church and ministry. Have you reflected on that?’”

Having completed his degree, job offers came from the BBC as a continuity announcer and he was also drawn to personnel work.

“I had a job interview with Shell and was about to be offered a position. Sir Bob Reid, the (then) Head of Shell, who came from Cupar, was involved and he asked: ‘What would happen if you didn’t get this job? What would you do if the job offer from the BBC fell through?’

“And out of nowhere the words: ‘I could always go into the ministry’ came out.

“There was a stunned silence, not only from them, but from me.

“I had a maiden great aunt who had given me a copy of the Bible which I treasured. I sat down and read it that night from cover to cover. At the end of it, I was not quite sure what had happened. I thought I would write to the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

“I got a letter back from the then Education for the Ministry Committee saying: ‘This may be a call. These are the things you need to do.’ I wasn’t a member of the Church at that point. I was still finishing my finals. I didn’t know what training I would need or where I would go.

“I turned down the jobs I had been offered, which was a brave thing. I stayed with friends in North Berwick. Donald McAlister invited me to move into the manse with him and his wife. I went to his communicants’ class. The day before I went to selection school, I joined the Church.”

He opted to complete his divinity studies at St Andrews, undertaking practical training in Dundee at St Peter’s McCheyne, Tayport and at St Andrews: Hope Park. He was licensed by the Presbytery of Lothian in July 1986 and served as a probationer at Troon: St Medan’s before looking for his first charge in 1987.

“The congregation of Cupar Old and St Michael of Tarvit was looking for a minister. They were not looking for a probationer or a bachelor but it just clicked between us. There were some significant people there who were generous, understanding and talented.

“It was a big church. There were lots of opportunities to do different things. They were good people and always up to try new things. We did some interesting projects there.”

It was during his time in Cupar that he decided to undertake doctoral studies at Princeton, USA. He offered his doctoral thesis on leadership and management of change and entitled it ‘It’s Aye Been’.

“It was principally about redefining the role of the Moderator (of Presbytery). I’d just become the Moderator of the Presbytery of St Andrews and looked at what were legitimate leadership roles within a Presbyterian structure.

“I might just have a quick flick through it again!

“Sometimes you are a shepherd. Sometimes you are a commander. Sometimes you have to be decisive, but the catalyst that has always been important in life and ministry is to bring people together. That is where hospitality and welcome comes in.

“All are welcome.”

He was called to Morningside in 2001, where he has overseen major property changes, including the building of new halls.

In bringing the generations together, Derek has increased the role of children in worship.

“Our children play an important part at the beginning of services. They lead a weekly prayer. They help with the offering. Offerings have gone up since they started to help! We also have an all age communion service every year. Our Sunday Club is maintaining its numbers and growing because children feel welcome.

“When children are collecting the offering, they come down the aisle to the communion table and some of them skip down the aisle carrying the offering bags. I see the congregation loving it too.”

His diary for his year in office includes presbytery visits to St Andrews, Glasgow, Dumfries and Kirkcudbright and Ross. Overseas visits to the Middle East and Sweden have also been pencilled in, along with Wittenberg in Germany for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

The Moderatorial outfit has already been planned: “The congregation has purchased my gown, which is hugely significant as it means I will carry a little bit of Morningside with me through the year. I’m going to wear a traditional court coat with buttons.” He promises that lace will feature.

A longer version of this feature appears in May's Life and Work. Download a single issue or subscribe here.

Life and Work will report daily from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which opens on Saturday May 20. A webcast of proceedings will be available from the Church website, where you can also find Assembly documents and speeches.