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Pictures by Derek Fett
Pictures by Derek Fett

I am Going to be Myself

Saturday May 17 2014

Lynne McNeil meets the Rt Rev John Chalmers, Moderator of the 2014 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

“I AM going to be myself,” says the Moderator of the 2014 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev John Chalmers.

In a year where passions are running high in both the Church and in Scotland he has a clear theme of ‘respectful dialogue’ for the 12 months ahead.

“It is interesting to me in this particular year when Scotland’s future is in the balance and where there will be deep division and maybe even some real battle scars on September 19 (following the Referendum on Independence) that those who have passionately taken sides will be back on the same side; part of the same community and I want the church to be a force for healing and reconciliation in post-referendum Scotland where, in spite of our deep disagreement about how the future should be shaped, we must still be able to say the grace together knowing that we belong to the one community.

“If we can model that within the Church of Scotland when dealing with our own differences then we can earn the right to act as a peacemaker in the wider community. Respectful dialogue and discourse should be the hallmark of the way we deal with our major differences including the one on same sex relationships. Respectful dialogue on matters to do with Scotland’s independence is of major importance and the Church has to be a leader in this field.”

John has served as Principal Clerk of the General Assembly since 2011 and previously held key roles within the Board of Ministry and Ministries Council.

He was elected after the Committee to Nominate the Moderator had to be hastily reconvened in April after the Rev Dr Angus Morrison, minister at Orwell and Portmoak, who had been nominated in October, was forced to step down at the 11th hour because of ill-health.

Born in Bothwell in June 1952 ,the young John grew up within Troon: Portland Church, where the family moved when John was still at primary school.

John attended Church but cites his involvement with the Crusaders Union (now known as Urban Saints) as perhaps the biggest influence on his faith and life.

The young John showed an aptitude for maths, physics and chemistry and took up a degree course in chemical engineering at Strathclyde University.

“To say I didn’t enjoy it would be an understatement. I just felt that it was way too theoretical and much more theoretical than I expected it to be. Although I now wish I had persevered and completed the course.”

Instead he took a year out and caddied for a friend who played on the professional golf circuit and decided to study theology and apply for the ministry of the Church of Scotland, transferring to Glasgow University and being accepted by selection school later the same year.

Before graduation in 1977, John tied the knot with his wife Liz, whom he met while running a youth and community scheme in south Ayrshire during his year out. The couple married in April 1976. Liz later worked side-by-side with John in Edinburgh within the Department of Ministry and Ministries Council, becoming what John describes as ‘midwife’ to a generation of ministers.

The couple moved to a bungalow in Barrhead and after a year of post-graduate study, John became a probationer at Glasgow: Netherlee, under the guidance of the Moderator of the 2011 General Assembly, the Very Rev David Arnott.

Reflecting on the Church of today, John says: “We have got ourselves into a position where one part of the church seems to be saying that unless we return to the truth as our forefathers preached it and understood it, then the Church will just continue to weaken and bleed. While another part of the Church is saying unless we can actually reform and re-vision what we believe in the light of modern knowledge and understanding we will be seen as irrelevant and people will consign us to the history books.

“It seems that for some people there is no ground in between. Some feel the church is too broad to contain the range of interpretation of Scripture which marks the present day. But if faith is a journey and we are at different places on that journey, then the church has to be big enough to hold us in the one community.”

He also believes support for ministers remains a critical issue for the Church.

Following his ordination in 1979, John’s first ministry took him to Renton in Dunbartonshire.

He also unexpectedly found himself offered the role of presbytery clerk.

Rule changes in the 1980s meant that vacancy committees were presented with some suggested names when calling new ministers. John found himself on the lists of several prominent Edinburgh churches, including Palmerston Place.

He was also able to develop his interest in support for ministry and began working in the Church’s offices in Edinburgh in 1995 in the field of ministry development and pastoral support.

His work in ministries fostered an interest in conflict resolution and reconciliation.

The office of Principal Clerk to the General Assembly then beckoned in 2011.

He hopes there may be the opportunity during the year to visit Afghanistan with his youngest son JJ, who, whilst serving as a Royal Marine reservist in Helmand was seriously injured in May 2011 by a bomb which killed two colleagues.

He also hopes to have time to rekindle a long-term hobby – beekeeping.

“I had 15 bee hives at one time, but latterly my hives were stolen off of the Pentland Hills. Hundreds of pounds of honey used to be sold in aid of the organ fund at Palmerston Place!

“I still have all the equipment and was about to buy some bees in 2011 when JJ was injured. I am definitely going to get bees again – possibly when this year is over.”

This is an abridged version of an article which appears in the June issue of Life and Work. Subscribe here.