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Remember Who We Are

Remember Who We Are

Monday May 15 2023

Ahead of the Church of Scotland General Assembly starting this Saturday, Lynne McNeil speaks to the Moderator-Designate, the Rev Sally Foster-Fulton

The Moderator-Designate of the 2023 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is no stranger to regular readers of Life and Work.

For the Rev Sally Foster-Fulton has served as Head of Christian Aid in Scotland since 2016 and her words campaigning for the poorest and most disadvantaged around the world regularly feature on the pages of Life and Work in this role. Before this she served for four years in the high-profile role of Convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church.

It will come as no surprise to find that global and social justice spark Sally’s passion and she captures this sentiment – and all that inspires her – early in our interview.

“There is a word in South African ubuntu which means ‘I am because you are’. For me that underlines what we are. We cannot be human beings without one another.

“These are extraordinary challenges that we face now.

“You look at the cost of living crisis. You can’t underestimate the scale of it. It is always the people who struggle the most who get hit hardest.

“It is the same with the climate crisis: how do you shift that ball and remember those are the folk who have done least to cause it?”

Sally’s rich tones reveal her roots: born and raised in Beaufort, South Carolina, Sally has early memories of her life within the Presbyterian Church (USA), where families met up together during the summer with a “bring and share and we (the kids) just ran riot.”

Sally was one of three children born in the early 1960s to a primary headmaster and a high school English teacher. The family grew up in the early years of racial integration and witnessing this clearly fuelled Sally’s passion to tackle injustice. Preaching and ministry was not on her radar, but she remembers being particularly influenced by the ‘wonderful’ Dr Joe Gettys, a retired interim minister at her church, who reshaped her conception of church and encouraged her to ask questions.

Her path to ministry was not straightforward. After studying English and religion at Presbyterian College, where she considered education and had been accepted to begin seminary training at Princeton, she was involved in a serious road accident. She deferred her place in Princeton and secured a role as Director of Christian Education at a church in Newnan, Georgia. The minister there encouraged her to consider an application to Columbia Seminary in Atlanta, which had a strong reputation for pastoral counselling – an area she was drawn to.

She secured a scholarship to Columbia and the move proved pivotal to her life in more ways than one – for it resulted in meeting her husband Stuart, who had come from Scotland to study at Columbia on an exchange visit.

“He knocked on the wrong door and got me!” she laughs.

The couple’s relationship grew and after they married in 1991, Sally came to Trinity College in Glasgow to study on an exchange scholarship.

Daughters Alex and Gracie quickly followed and Sally remembers her first years in Scotland as a happy time.

After completing a BD, she worked as a chaplain at Falkirk and District Royal Infirmary and the Royal National Scottish Hospital in Larbert before being accepted as a candidate for ministry. Ordained in 1999, her first charge was Falkirk: Camelon Irving where she spent four years. In 2003 the family relocated to Seneca, South Carolina, before ‘coming home’ to Stirling and a new role on the ministry team at Dunblane Cathedral in 2007.

An opportunity arose to become part of the Church and Society Council, which she served as both vice-convener and convener. The experience equipped her with some of the skills needed to serve as Head of Christian Aid Scotland, a role she has filled from 2016 until earlier this year, when she took a sabbatical to begin the time of preparation for the role of Moderator.

Her family – including her mother, sister and (hopefully) her brother – are planning to fly from the US to attend the opening ceremony and some of the business of the week. And are ‘beyond excited’. She will also be joined by

Stuart (who recently demitted from parish ministry in Glasgow), Alex and Gracie and her year-old granddaughter Oran.

Looking ahead to the year, there are visits planned to the presbyteries of Fife and Forth Valley and Clydesdale. She is particularly looking forward to the latter, which embraces her ‘home’ presbytery. A visit to Rome has also been pencilled in.

She restates the need for the Church to remember its roots: “When I interviewed with the Nominating Committee for the role of Moderator, I was reminded of a phrase my grandmother used with us that sat with me and it was ‘remember who you are’.

“I want this year for the church for us to remember who we are.

“That gives us strength, courage, inspiration and the tradition to be the Church.

“I want to centre around that - not a memory but a re-membering.”

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

The Church of Scotland General Assembly starts on Saturday, May 20. Life and Work will be reporting on each day's business, and there will be a special downloadable supplement summarising the key debates, available from May 31.