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'A Cherished Part of the Church's Tradition'

'A Cherished Part of the Church's Tradition'

Monday May 17 2021

The Rt Hon Baron Wallace of Tankerness QC, Moderator-Designate to the 2021 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, tells Lynne McNeil that he hopes to use his year to encourage elders in the Church.

As an elder for almost 40 years, it is no surprise that the Moderator-Designate to this month’s General Assembly hopes to encourage those holding the office to serve more widely within the Church of Scotland.

“I hope I can give them encouragement to take on these responsibilities. It shows that the Church does appreciate and value its eldership,” says the Rt Hon Baron Wallace of Tankerness QC, better known as Jim Wallace.

Jim, 66, is a lifelong Christian, growing up initially within Annan Old Parish Church. He is the eldest son of John and Grace Wallace and his earliest memories of the church involve the baptism of his younger brother Neil when Jim was two-and-a-half. He grew up attending Sunday School and has fond memories of a teacher, Mrs Walker, ‘a kind, gentle lady’ and of being part of the local Boys’ Brigade.

At 18, he took up a place at Cambridge University to study economics and law. He was very involved with many Christian societies at university and chose to be confirmed within the local United Reformed Church.

From Cambridge, Jim moved to Edinburgh to study law and joined the Methodist Society, but also started to attend Mayfield Parish Church, the closest church to his student home. From there, he moved to Stockbridge and worshipped at St Bernard’s Church, where he was ordained to the eldership in 1981 and served as treasurer.

It was during this time that his ‘fascination’ for politics developed into something more concrete.

“I had a certain fascination for politics from an early age. At the 1966 general election when I was only 11 I remember hanging around outside the primary school gates to try and get the autographs of the candidates.”

Jim eventually settled on the Liberals (later the Liberal Democrats) and first stood as a candidate for Dumfries in 1979. In 1983, he was elected to Westminster as MP for Orkney and Shetland. A month after his election, he married his wife Rosie and the couple moved to Orkney, which has been their home for the almost 38 years and where he has served as an elder and member of the Kirk Session at St Magnus Cathedral since 1990. Their two daughters, Helen and Clare, were both born in Orkney.

At the time of writing Helen, a solicitor, was on maternity leave after the birth of her second daughter Ella (a sister for three-year-old Catriona) and Clare is a midwife in New Zealand. Like many grandparents they have kept in touch through technology, but have missing family during the pandemic.

Jim’s political career is well documented. As leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats he was Deputy First Minister of Scotland from 1999 to 2005, including two spells as acting First Minister following the death of Donald Dewar in 2000 and the resignation of Henry McLeish in 2001. He moved to the House of Lords in 2007, taking the title of Baron Wallace of Tankerness, and was Advocate General for Scotland from 2010 to 2015.

His nomination as Moderator has temporarily halted political business. He did not take part in campaigning for this month’s Scottish Parliament election, and he moved to the non-affiliated benches of the Lords in January. But he has received congratulations from Christians across the political spectrum and has been heartened by them.

The Assembly over which he will preside will not be a traditional one. He says: “It is pretty daunting, but also exciting. I watched the General Assembly online in October. I thought Martin (the Rt Rev Dr Martin Fair, his predecessor in the office) handled that brilliantly.”

He has attended a few General Assemblies, the first as a spectator in the public gallery in 1977, and on several occasions as a guest of the Lord High Commissioner. He served as a commissioner on two occasions in the 1990s. He has also been a member of the former Church and Society Council and served two terms with the Church’s judicial commission.

Looking ahead to the year, he is particularly keen to acknowledge those serving as chaplains. “Many of the places where we have chaplains – schools, hospitals, college, universities, prisons – are places which have been at the sharp end of the Covid-19 pandemic. I would like to recognise the work that they have done and encourage them.”

He is most looking forward to meeting people during his year of office and hopes it may be possible with the easing of lockdown restrictions. There are presbytery visits to Edinburgh, Angus, Sutherland and Irvine and Kilmarnock in the diary, along with tentative plans to visit Malawi and Lebanon.

But as only the second elder in modern times to be nominated to the office of Moderator (Dr Alison Elliot was the first in 2004/05), he is keen to restate the importance of the eldership to the Church: “One thing I hope to focus on is the fact that I am an elder and the importance of the eldership. It is historically a very cherished part of the Church’s tradition.  

“When you think of the range of the eldership, there is a huge range of experience out there which is another untapped resource, and elders should be encouraged to play their part in the life of the Church.”

He is hopeful the Church will learn lessons from its experience during the pandemic and is emphatic that it has a wider part to play moving forward into a post-Covid world.

“When we get together for the General Assembly we will be hopefully looking at a country that is emerging from months and months of a pandemic. During that time families have lost loved ones and lost livelihoods. There will be uncertainty about jobs and tremendous pressure on the health service. There is a job of healing and renewal, not just for the Church but for the country.

“I would like to see the Church of Scotland not only play a part in the country that is to come but to help shape it.”

A longer version of this interview appears in May's Life and Work. Buy, download or subscribe here.

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland begins on Saturday May 22, and will be webcast on the Church of Scotland website. Life and Work will provide daily reports during the Assembly and a downloadable supplement summarising the key decisions will be available from June 1.