Female Moderator makes history

HISTORY was made yesterday as the Church of Scotland chose the first female moderator-designate of the General Assembly in its 443-year history.

The appointment of Dr Alison Elliot, of Greyfriars Tolbooth and Highland Kirk, in Edinburgh, finally shatters the so-called stained-glass ceiling which for centuries has prevented a female taking up the post of moderator.

Dr Elliot, 54, the director of Edinburgh University’s centre for theology and public issues, was chosen by a 53-strong committee ahead of the Rev Valerie Watson, also 54, a minister with parishes near Kelso.

Dr Elliot, a former psychology lecturer and mother-of-two, was appointed an OBE earlier this year for services to the Church and ecumenical relationships.

On the Kirk’s liberal wing, she is also considered acceptable to other parts of the Church because of her conciliatory approach, particularly as convener of the Church and Nation Committee from 1996 to 2000.

The historic appointment of a woman was guaranteed two weeks ago with the announcement that only two nominees had been chosen - both of whom were female.

Dr Elliot is also the first elder of the Kirk to be chosen since the 16th century - seen by many as of equal significance to the appointment of a woman.

Yesterday, Dr Elliot said her appointment would act as a signal to both the Kirk and wider society that the Church of Scotland was open to modernisation.

The moderator-designate went on to hail her appointment as a significant fillip to the eldership in Scotland and to the role of women in the Church.

"I am very excited about what is coming up. I am very touched that the Church has thought fit to entrust this job to me and I am looking forward to it tremendously," she said.

"I don’t know why I was chosen, and I don’t know why other women were passed over, but I have always been very disappointed that a woman hasn’t been appointed until now and so I am delighted that it has now happened.

"I haven’t experienced sexism within the Church, but I am aware that it exists. I have always had a very positive experience. I am lucky.

"I happen to come to this at a time in history when I can benefit from the struggles of women before me, and I do know that other women in the church have a different experience."

Dr Elliot acknowledged that as an elder and a woman, her appointment forced current issues of practice and tradition to the fore, joking that the Church would have to "go back to the drawing board" over the traditional garb she would be expected to wear.

"The mould has always been that of a male minister. There are issues of preaching and of taking communion, which an elder wouldn’t do," she added.

Asked whether she would be a "reforming" moderator, the Edinburgh University graduate said she was determined to embrace new ideas.

She had earlier refused to be drawn on her stance regarding the controversial issue of homosexuality within the Church, saying that further thought and consultation were required.

"I consider myself someone who likes new ideas and likes to see the Church as a place where new ideas can be developed - in many ways, that is its contribution," she said.

"It is sitting on 2,000 years of history and there is a huge legacy there. We can use that legacy to come up with new perspectives on the issues of today."

The appointment of Dr Elliot was welcomed by Jack McConnell, the First Minister.

He said: "This is a historic day for the Church and for Scotland and reflects the changing face of Scottish society.

"I am sure Dr Elliot will represent Scotland as well as the Church, and I look forward to working with her in the future."

The Rev Marjory MacLean, the clerk to the committee to nominate the moderator, said yesterday: "Dr Elliot’s combination of outstanding intellect and unfailing Christian dignity will be just a delight to work with.

"She breaks the moderatorial mould in more ways than one. One of the principal resources of the Church in Scotland is its eldership - the extraordinary time and energy they devote to the work of the gospels."

As well as being an elder, Edinburgh-born Dr Elliot is heavily involved in ecumenical work for Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS) and holds several civic appointments.

The Kirk’s historic refusal to appoint a female moderator, despite the existence of several well-qualified nominees, has created growing concern in the past decades. Matters reached a head with an official report in 2001 which condemned the Kirk as an old boys’ club.

The Kirk’s gender attitude project reported that women made up only 15 per cent of the ministry, compared with 40 per cent in the Church of England. The sexism row was reignited last year, after the Rev Margaret Forrester, an Edinburgh minister, failed for the third time to gain the appointment of moderator after suggestions that taking part in a blessing for a lesbian couple had counted against her.

Ms Forrester’s rejection caused 140 members of the Kirk to write to The Scotsman highlighting the repeated failure to appoint a woman moderator since women were accepted into the ministry in 1968.

The Rev Kathy Galloway, who wrote the letter, claimed the attitude stemmed from the gender imbalance on the Kirk’s nomination committee.

The role of moderator, currently held by Rev Professor Iain Torrance, is honorary and is held for 12 months.

Primary responsibilities for the incumbent include heading the Assembly, leading daily worship, ruling on points of order and signing documents on behalf of the Assembly.

The Kirk has played a pivotal role in Scotland for 500 years. Currently, it has about 600,000 members, with 1,400 ministers and 2,000 support staff, making it one of the largest organisations in the country.