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Pictures by Derek Fett
Pictures by Derek Fett

'I Love Being a Minister'

Monday May 16 2016

Homelessness and ministry recruitment will be the key themes for the Moderator of the 2016 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rev Dr Russell Barr. Interview by Lynne McNeil.

 

As home of the largest monument to Robert Burns, the oldest Scottish professional football club and the inspiration for a Proclaimers song, Kilmarnock now has a new accolade.

Since the dawn of the 21st century, the Ayrshire town has produced four Moderators of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Adding to the distinguished list this month (May) is the Rev Dr Russell Barr, minister of Edinburgh’s historic Cramond Kirk, who was also born and educated in Kilmarnock.

He attributes the town’s reputation as a hothouse for potential Moderators to the ministers working in the town, particularly in the 1960s.

“The church my family attended was Henderson Church (now Kay Park) and the minister there was the Rev John Weir Cook. My parents used to sit beside (2009 Moderator) Bill Hewitt’s parents. Certainly through those formative years John Weir Cook was important.”

The Boys’ Brigade company led by Bill Lochhead also played a key role in fostering his interest in the Church.
The young Russell, however, did not harbour any notion of service as a parish minister.

Born in 1953, he was the eldest son of George (one of Kilmarnock’s GPs) and Isobel (a theatre sister).

“I left school intent on playing golf. I didn’t have qualifications of any note and although my parents were not against me playing golf at all they were insistent that I might pass a Higher or two.

“I went to Langside College in Glasgow and a history teacher, Bill Hodgson, a Yorkshireman, took me aside at the end of one of his lessons and said: ‘You have got all the information. You just don’t know how to set it out'.”

The nurturing kindliness of Bill Hodgson also stirred an interest in faith in the young Russell.

“For the first time I had the chance to pass some exams and gain the qualifications to go to university. I was 17 or 18 at the time. I had become interested in the church and faith and God and so for the first time I had a choice to make about golf or going to university.

“I also talked to John Weir Cook. I spoke to him a lot, often on the golf course. I would give him a golf lesson and he would give me some ministry coaching. I then made a choice to go to university so I did a BA in history and philosophy at Edinburgh University and then went on to New College to study for the ministry.”

It was during his time in Edinburgh as a student that he met his wife, Margaret.

After student ministries, Russell became a probationer under the watchful eye of the Rev Ronnie Blakey, then minister at Jedburgh Old, linked with Ancrum and Edgerston;  before being called to Garthamlock and Craigend East in the north-east of Glasgow; and St Luke’s in Greenock.

In 1993, he was called to Cramond, a historic Kirk on the northern edge of Edinburgh and a stone’s throw from the Firth of Forth.

It has been during this ministry that Russell became involved in an innovative project to serve Edinburgh’s homeless community.  He explains: “As a Kirk Session we wanted in 1997/98 to celebrate the millennium. We considered it would be good to do something about homelessness and the theme of no room in the inn."

After holding meetings with the then Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews, Keith O’Brien and the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Bishop Richard Holloway, and also chatting with homeless people about what they needed, the idea was born to create ‘starter packs’ for formerly homeless people who had just got a flat. They also received £150,000 from the Bank of Scotland, which was the ‘seed corn’ for what became Fresh Start.

“Fresh Start now employs 18 people, some of whom were our clients, which is wonderful. Last year we helped over 2000 people who are homeless.

“We have hundreds of volunteers from the churches and Edinburgh community.”

The theme of homelessness is one of two themes that he plans to adopt during his ambassadorial year.

The second is to support the recruitment and nurture of people into the ministry of the Church of Scotland.
Russell’s final words reveal a deep passion and love for the ministry – one that he plans to share through the year.

“I don’t enjoy being a minister. I love being a minister. I love what we do and what we’re about. If I can help people to enjoy being part of the Church and enjoy their faith then I think that would also be very worthwhile.”

This is an abridgment of a feature from May's Life and Work. Subscribe here.