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'Discipleship is not Dull'

'Discipleship is not Dull'

Tuesday May 14 2019

Lynne McNeil meets the Moderator-Designate to the 2019 General Assembly, the Rev Colin Sinclair

“To respond to Jesus’ call ‘Follow me’ is to begin an adventure of faith. Discipleship is not dull.”

The Rev Colin Sinclair, Moderator-Designate to the 2019 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is passionate about faith. He adds: “Since the time I became a Christian at 12 years old I have had adventures all over the world. It has been a great experience, though not without pain. I have enjoyed it all.”

The theme “Jesus said ‘Follow me’” has been suggested to Colin for his year in office.

The theme resonates with the father-of-four, who is minister at one of Edinburgh’s most beautiful city centre churches, Palmerston Place, and the words ‘follow me’ neatly follow his faith journey, which led him at an early age to Scripture Union, Africa and parish ministry.

Born in the south side of Glasgow in 1953, he grew up in the city, attending Glasgow Academy from the age of seven. Whilst his family was not deeply religious – although attended Church - Colin clearly remembers the moment when he became a Christian.

“I became a Christian when I was at school, through Scripture Union which has been very significant in my life for over 50 years. I was trying to leave school early by going down the up stair, which was the worst crime you could commit, and a prefect saw me and shouted ‘Stop!’ I belted to the top of the school as I thought he was after me. I ran into the art room and there was an after school club showing a film of a Scripture Union holiday.

“I thought: ‘That sounds great fun.’ There was a religious bit which I thought I could put up with.

“I went back home and asked my parents if I could go. My first camp was 1964 at Dunbar. I then went to Kincraig near Aviemore. In all the camps I loved the activities, the atmosphere and, to my surprise, really enjoyed the meetings.

“The singing was lively and contemporary and the prayers were short and clear.

“I remember the first time I was told the story of the Cross. I was deeply moved.

“I began to realise that one of the reasons I enjoyed camp was because all the leaders cared for the campers and that came from their Christian faith.

“At the third camp I quietly and simply gave my life to Christ (though at first I was a Christian at camp but not much beyond that!)”

Colin had taken O-Grades, Highers and A-levels by the time he was 16 and decided to study economics at Stirling University, where he was president of the Christian Union and played for the first XV at rugby. It was during this time that he felt the call to the ministry.

Colin explains: “Christian Union were asked by local churches to do Holy Week services in some of the small places around Stirling. At one or two places they would say: ‘Hey son, have you ever thought about being a minister?’

“The call  wouldn’t go away and the following year, about 1972/73 I was running a Christian Union house party and my minister, George Philip, was there as a speaker. I remember walking through Macrosty Park in Crieff with him, saying: ‘I wonder if God is calling me to be a minister.’  He replied: ‘Come back in a year and I will tell you’. A year later, I went back to him. He said: ‘I don’t need to tell you now; you know.’”

After completing his degree, Colin was looking to travel overseas before his ministry studies, and Scripture Union England and Wales offered him the chance to go to Zambia.

“I went out initially for two years and stayed for three. I didn’t have a home. I spent most of the time travelling.  I spoke every day at schools, preached at weekends and ran camps.

“I remember being sent off shortly after my 21st birthday on my first tour. I was told: ‘We don’t know if all these roads exist, but if you do everything we think you can do, you will be back on November 6.’ They just sent me off. I did arrive back on November 6 and my boss’s wife said later ‘you have no idea how he sweated’!”

After Zambia, Colin studied at New College in Edinburgh. In his first week there he re-encountered Ruth, the daughter of one of the university doctors he had known through the university chaplaincy in Stirling. They married in 1981, in Methven Parish Church in Perthshire.

The couple have four children – Jo, who is the youth and children’s ministry co-ordinator at Holy Trinity Church in Wester Hailes; Tim, minister at Partick Trinity Church; Rachel, the International Project Worker for asylum seekers and refugees with Glasgow City Mission; and Bethany, who has done a year in the Congo and will shortly graduate as a midwife. They have four grandchildren.

“Everything that is good about them comes from my wife and God,” says Colin.

After New College, Colin completed probation at Palmerston Place before being called to Newton-on-Ayr. After six years there, he was called back to Scripture Union Scotland as their General Director, and with his growing family moved to Glasgow and worshipped at Stonelaw Parish Church. It was during this time that he would discover Spring Harvest.

“Spring Harvest was coming to Scotland and I was sent to spy it out. I ended up chairing Spring Harvest and a speaker for 30 years.”

Colin and Ruth also continued to run Scripture Union camps for over 25 years, taking the family along.

In 1996 he received a call from Palmerston Place, which had fallen into vacancy as Colin’s predecessor, the Rev (now Very Rev Dr) John Chalmers, had been appointed Depute Secretary to the Church’s former Board of Ministry.

“I said: ‘That was very kind but no thank you. However, I will pray about it.’ I did and knew it was time to come back (to parish ministry). I have now been here 23 years. It was a great decision.”

During his time at Palmerston Place, Colin has taken up a number of appointments within presbytery and the central Church, most recently from 2012 to 2016 as Convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council.

In 2004 he was elected International Chair of Scripture Union, a position he held for 14 years. “That was wonderful and took me all over the world. Latterly Ruth was able to travel with me too. It was as if God had given me back Scripture Union.”

There have been a number of developments and changes at Palmerston Place during Colin’s ministry but he speaks with special joy about the church’s most recent track record on presenting candidates for parish ministry.

“In the last 10 years we have started to see people from the congregation going into ministry. Three of my children have gone into vocational ministry. Others have gone into youth work, some have gone aboard. We have four from the congregation currently in training for the ministry of word and sacrament.”

He speaks warmly and proudly of the Palmerston Place congregation and his predecessors.

“We have never had cliques or divisions. The four ministers before me were totally different from me. Each brought different gifts but none tried to undo the work of their predecessors. There is a nice Catholicity about it all.”

Looking ahead to the year, Colin hopes to offer encouragement and confidence to the Church and wider world.

“People can feel very isolated or exhausted. I would hope that Ruth and I can encourage them.

“I believe in God and I believe in transformation. I believe passionately in the Gospel.

“I have tried to follow Christ for all these years and he has never let me down, although I have often let him down. If I can help to encourage people, if I can give them confidence in the Gospel, I will be content.”

The 2019 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland opens on Saturday May 20. Life and Work's coverage can be found here.

A longer version of this interview appeared in May's Life and Work. Subscribe or download here