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The Rev Professor Susan Hardman Moore (left) and Professor Helen Bond
The Rev Professor Susan Hardman Moore (left) and Professor Helen Bond

Shocking Knox

Wednesday December 5

Thomas Baldwin meets the two women at the helm of New College, the University of Edinburgh's School of Divinity


It was of course John Knox who coined the phrase ‘the monstrous regiment of women’.

So it’s tempting to wonder what Knox, glowering down from his plinth in the quadrangle of New College, the home of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity, would make of events there this year.

Not only was this the scene of the celebration of 50 years of female Church of Scotland ministers in May, but this autumn women started work in two of the most senior positions in the college.

“I think he’d get a shock,” says the Rev Professor Susan Hardman Moore, new Principal of New College, and therefore responsible for the trainee Church of Scotland ministers at Edinburgh.

“And we don’t mind about that!” adds Professor Helen Bond, Head of the School of Divinity.

Helen is the first woman to hold her position in the University’s history – “And about time, too,” says Susan.

“It is quite bizarre that it has taken until 2018,” agrees Helen, ”But when we came in 2000 [the two arrived at New College at the same time, although it is Susan’s second spell] there were only two other women on the staff. Now we must be up to about 40 per cent, so I think it’s just taken a while for women to percolate up.”

Helen specialises in the New Testament and very early Christian history. She got what she calls ‘the divinity bug’ at St Andrews University, before doing a PhD at Durham and working in Manchester and Aberdeen before arriving at Edinburgh. Of the new job, she says: “I’m still not quite sure what I’ve let myself in for!”

“I suppose you get to that stage where you’ve been somewhere for 18 years, and it’s time to do something a little bit different,” she adds.

“It used to be a three-year post and now it’s five years so it’s more of a commitment. Although at the end of the five years I go back to being a regular professor here, so I do have to live by any of the changes I implement!

“One of the things I am quite keen to do is work more on our outreach and outward-facing roles. New College could be offering a lot of courses – CPD (continuing professional development) events for ministers, courses for lay people in the churches.

“We have already been doing that sort of thing but I’d like to see it on a wider basis, and not just in terms of Christianity and not just in terms of the churches, but wider as well. We have got expertise over the range of religion, not just Christian and Jewish but almost any religious tradition you can think of.”

Looking at new ways of doing things is very much part of Susan’s job as well, as the Church of Scotland seeks to recruit more ministers and develop more flexible patterns of ministry. It’s something she feels she has a perspective on, as someone who took an unconventional route to ministry in the Church.

“I started out as a Methodist lay preacher when I was in sixth form (in Staffordshire). It didn’t enter my head to go into ordained ministry because I’d never seen a woman minister in my life.

“When I came up here to begin with I was involved in the Methodist Church around Edinburgh.

“But after a while we started to go up to Perthshire and I became a member of the Parish Church in Comrie, because there is no Methodist Church in that area. And that led me to becoming a Reader in the Church of Scotland, and having become a Reader, in the evolution of my spiritual journey, it didn’t make sense to me any longer to separate a ministry of Word and Sacrament. So I applied for OLM (Ordained Local Ministry).

“So I have not come through the traditional route, I have come with this background of engaging in lay ministry, and I think in some ways that gives me some experience to draw on in developing these new things that have to do with lay training.”

Susan’s academic life started with a degree in theology at Cambridge, after which she trained as a teacher. However, she got a scholarship to Yale Divinity School in the US, which led her to take a PhD in history, focusing on the Puritans (16/17th century religion and the Reformation is her specialty).

After that she taught at Durham University, before coming to New College for the first time in 1987. At the time Dr Ruth Page, who would go on to be the first female Principal, was the only other woman on the academic staff.

Susan’s first stint in Edinburgh lasted four years, and then she spent nine years at King’s College London, before moving back north at the turn of the Millennium.

She is married to John Moore, a professor of economics (“The family joke is I deal with God and he deals with mammon”) and they have two grown-up children, Rannoch and Helena.

“As Principal, I have oversight of the candidates training for ministry, and work on various committees shaping the future of ministries training.

“I think we want to make New College very responsive to what the church needs in terms of training opportunities at various different levels, but also if you can pitch them at lay people who are interested in theology, in biblical studies, in leading worship, then you may get more ministers coming in.

“And you also change the model of ministry. If you equip lay people and equip our candidates to be more flexible with working with people in the parish, then you might help to create a new environment in the difficult climate we’re moving into.”

Helen is a member of Falkirk Trinity Church, where her husband Keith Raffan is an elder. They have two children, Katriona, 14, and 12-year-old Scott.

She unwittingly found herself in the headlines after her appointment when she was reported to have said that, often, the best people to study theology aren’t religious.

“I was just trying to talk about the kind of person who comes here to New College, which is a much broader range of people than the ones who are ministerial candidates,” she explains.

“Obviously there are extra things ministerial candidates will be doing that are growing in their own faith tradition, but that’s not specifically something the School of Divinity in our degree courses are offering.”

Susan adds: “What you want to know is, are they thinking critically about the issues?

“The way I sometimes think about it is, we’re not confessional here, so I say we don’t educate people into religion, we educate people about religion.”

And she adds that she believes the multi-faith context is a healthy one to study in. “It’s really important that you know how to listen and interact with people with different opinions.”


A longer version of this feature appears in December’s Life and Work. Download or subscribe here.