Take a walk with Susan in this very special year

The Right Rev Susan Brown
The Right Rev Susan Brown

Moderator of the General Assembly wants to unite people while celebrating a golden anniversary for women in the ministry

From a council housing estate in Penicuik to the Moderator of the General Assembly.

The Right Rev Susan Brown’s story could well be a script for a Hollywood movie.

Particularly when you bear in mind that when the 59-year-old first joined the ministry 33 years ago, women in the church were still a pretty rare species.

But it will come as no surprise to anyone who has met the engaging Dornoch Cathedral minister that she has reached such heady – and deserved – heights.

For her passion has never wavered since she first decided as a teenager to follow her calling.

Susan said: “As people did in the early 1970s, my twin sister Mo and I were sent to church every week.

“Mo gave up when we were 10 but I kept going.

“I rebelled a wee bit by turning up in my jeans but the auld wifies would miss me if I wasn’t there.

“I was about 15 when I felt I was being called to the ministry – even though I’d never met a female minister.

“It was just something I felt compelled to do.

“I toyed with becoming a PE teacher as I was really into hockey and sport but I kept on coming back to ministry.

“So I was one of those weird people who headed straight into it when I left Penicuik High School.”

Susan did her four-year Bachelor of Divinity at Edinburgh University, then a two-year post graduate Diploma in Ministry.

As she was only 24 when she was ready to do her year’s probation, Susan decided to do two years ... and landed a pretty plum position.

She said: “I was assigned to St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh – it was pretty mind-blowing.

“When you’re young you don’t realise what a big deal it is but it was an amazing training ground.

“Gilleasbuig Macmillan, the minister, was a great guy and those two years stood me in very good stead.”

Despite never having had a female minister, the congregation at Killearnan on the Black Isle then had the courage to call Susan as their new minister.

And over the course of 13 years, both she and the congregation managed to transform its fortunes.

Susan explained: “It was a tiny wee congregation when I first arrived. In fact, they were thinking about closing it as the church really was in the middle of nowhere.

“At first, people were writing to the local paper saying a female minister shouldn’t be allowed. It’s not what women did then.

“It didn’t take long though – if you do a decent funeral and give a good account of the person’s life, you can usually win people round!

“And they were an amazing bunch of people – starting from scratch, we managed to fund and build a lovely church hall.

“They really were up for anything – it was brilliant.”

In 1998, Susan was invited to apply for Dornoch Cathedral but never dreamed for a second she was truly in the running.

“I just thought they wanted a woman to apply for it,” she said.

“It’s a beautiful church with a history stretching back almost 800 years.

“I didn’t think for a moment I’d get it – I was the first female minister there too – and I’m still there, 20 years later!”

However, Susan is having to take a back seat for the next 12 months to focus on the Moderator’s role.

It will see her make two foreign trips – to Uruguay and Argentina in October and India and Pakistan in January. Women will be at the forefront of both trips.

She said: “There’s a tiny Protestant church in Uruguay, with a female Moderator there too.

“There’s a lot of domestic abuse in Latin America – it’s a very male-orientated society.

“So I hope to encourage women in both places to speak out during this very special year for women in the church.”

But Susan is most looking forward to taking forward her theme for the year.

That will see her walking with a host of organisations, bringing people together who may not normally seek out each other’s company.

But the theme is two-fold – to get people walking and talking but also to raise awareness of, and hopefully improve, mental health.

Part of her desire stems from an issue all too prevalent in the Highlands.

She explained: “Suicide is a major issue in the area.

“I want to get people with mental health issues to walk with me to find out what both the church and fellow human beings can do to help.

“I’m also going to be walking with women from Women’s Aid. I want to understand the lives of women who are treated badly, simply because of their sex.

“And I’m going to be working with the Muslim community to bring them together with Christians to share their stories.

“If you walk with someone you get to know them in a different way than you do sitting round a desk with a barrier between you.

“I also want to organise a geological walk, looking at the environment around us and seeing what stories it tells from a scientific and a Christian point of view.

“We used to do it all the time, through pilgrimages, but we’ve lost sight of that.

“I truly believe that walking and talking is the best medicine – for our physical and mental health, as well as our spirituality.

“And if it helps break down prejudices along the way, that will be even better.”

On every step of her journey, Susan will be cheered by her husband Derek (58), a chaplain at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, and their children Simon (31) and Hannah (28).

And she’s delighted to be Moderator 50 years since the historic decision to ordain women to the ministry.

Susan added: “This year is such a special one for women in the Church. It’s a reflection of the women who worked so hard to allow the door to be opened, later enabling people like me to sail through.”