As I begin this my final contribution, I wish to express sincere gratitude to the Editor for the opportunity and privilege of sharing, through this column, some experiences and reflections in the course of my year as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
This year of service to the church has just concluded, having passed on the baton, at the opening of the General Assembly of 2016, to the new Moderator, Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr. To him with his wife Margaret, I extend warm and prayerful best wishes for the year ahead.
Looking back over our year, my wife Marion and I are deeply grateful for the good-will and prayers of so many kind people, not least those of our good friends in the Western Isles.
We felt ourselves sustained and supported throughout, especially when under pressure. The responsibilities of the role are constant and demanding but, with the wonderful support we have enjoyed, the year has never been other than deeply fulfilling. To serve in this office has been an honour and privilege.
In regard to the role of Moderator, three questions have regularly been addressed to me. Firstly, many people have wanted to know what have been the highlights of the past year.
This remains a difficult question to answer. There have, of course, been many extraordinary experiences: enjoying Her Majesty’s hospitality at Balmoral; meeting the Coptic Pope in Cairo; having afternoon tea and meaningful discussion with the Prime Minister at Number10; receiving hospitality from, and sharing in fellowship and worship with, Archbishop Justin Welby and his wife Caroline at Lambeth Palace; being honoured to be the first Moderator to address the General Synod of the Church of England - to name but a few.
All these experiences represent a huge privilege. Without question, however, the experience that will linger longest in my memory is that of meeting in so many places, often far removed from the limelight, people of extraordinary faith, love and hope, devoting themselves wholeheartedly to the care of the needy and vulnerable among us.
We met them in congregations and their outreach initiatives across the country, in village, town and city; in many CrossReach facilities from Stornoway to Edinburgh; in the slums of Cairo and in St Andrew’s Refugee Service (StARS) in that city; in the compassionate work of Mediterranean Hope in Sicily.
Such people, who remain in my prayers, are shining examples of faith in action. To meet them, and to see something of the service they give, was deeply humbling and inspiring.
A second question, asked in more recent weeks, is, ‘What did you enjoy least about the year?’
This too is difficult to answer but I usually reply, semi-jokingly, in terms of the constant writing demands or the unearthly hour of some early morning calls in order to catch a flight or train.
Thirdly, I have been asked about the future of the church. The question sometimes takes the form, ‘Are you optimistic about the church’s future?’
In answering, I make reference of course to the various challenges before us. I have written and spoken in my year about many of these.
I urge the need for the church to address all these challenges in a spirit of faith, repentance and hope, with dependence always on the promised help of the Holy Spirit.
The core of my answer to the question, however, is best expressed in words of the late Lesslie Newbigin, one of the church’s great missionary statesmen of the 2oth century. When asked this same question, he replied, ‘I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.’
Here is solid bed-rock and here rests all our hope for the future.