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Breaking the mould: meet the Kirk’s quiet rebel

Ron Ferguson profiles Sheilagh Kesting, the Moderator-elect of the Church
of Scotland’s General Assembly: Inevitably, the words Moderator of the
General Assembly of the Church of Scotland conjure up a dark-clad image of
dog-collared rectitude. Even after the first woman was appointed to the
post three years ago, it is hard to move away from the assumption that the
incumbent will be a middle-aged male minister.

Sheilagh Kesting is
a minister and, at 53, has spent her life in the service of the Kirk. As
the first woman minister to be appointed to the post (Alison Elliot was an
elder), she has already said that she hopes to be an inspiration to women
in churches throughout the world, including those which ban women from
their ministry. That should not be dismissed as a pious hope. For all her
cheerful, understated demeanour, the Rev Sheilagh Kesting is a quiet rebel.

Even
so, she admits to being apprehensive in advance of her year in the
limelight: "Inevitably there are high expectations and you just hope that
you are going to be able to fulfil them." In her case these are heightened
by the fact that she is the first woman minister to be Moderator, and her
consciousness that this is both a privilege and a burden.

For the
past 14 years she has been secretary of the Church’s ecumenical relations
committee, and the drive to cement the common bonds between different
Christian denominations, which has been the most significant feature of
her ministry, will be equally to the fore. The seeds were sown in her
early childhood in Stornoway, where she was born and lived until going to
university in Edinburgh.

It had what she calls "an interesting
influence" on her life. "I was brought up in the Church and became a
Sunday School teacher, but from an early age I became aware of the degree
of tension which existed between the different churches on the island –
not just between Protestant and Catholic, although that was a very real
one – but also between the different Presbyterian churches. All of that
didn’t seem to me to make sense, because when you meet people from other
Churches they seem fine people."

The denominational divisions
run particularly deep in the islands, but her parents taught her what she
calls "a more open acceptance within Christianity."

Once
ordained, sometimes simply as a result of seizing an opportunity, it has
been a feature wherever she has worked. In her first charge in
Lanarkshire, she first met west of Scotland sectarianism face to face.

"Even
then, in 1980, it was at a time when people were beginning to realise that
this is not how things should be. In my time there we began to seek
opportunities to do things together with the Catholic church down the
road." From today’s perspective, joint worship during the week of prayer
for Christian unity or the Church of Scotland minister attending the
anniversary celebration of the Catholic church building hardly seems
revolutionary.

For Kesting, at the time, there was a frisson of
storming the barricades. "There was an excitement about it, because it was
going into what had been forbidden territory. There was a hunger to find
out how other people did things, and we began to discover that in fact we
share a lot more than everyone had believed."

She built
further on that experience in her next charge, St Andrew’s High Church in
Musselburgh. When she arrived in 1986, it was a newly united church and
perhaps particularly open to fresh thinking. That, combined with the fact
that she arrived at the same time as a young priest as the new curate at
the neighbouring Catholic church, produced an opportunity she quickly
seized.

Together with the priest, she set up a group of the Not
Strangers but Pilgrims programme, in which people get together in small
groups and share their faith. In Musselburgh it also involved the Scottish
Episcopal Church, the Congregational Church and the Seamen’s Mission. Not
Strangers but Pilgrims was to change the ecumenical process in Scotland.
As Kesting says: "It led to the total reshaping of the way we work
ecumenically, not just in Scotland, but in Britain and Ireland. We set up
Acts – Action for Churches Together in Scotland – and at that point, the
Roman Catholic Church was able to come in as a full member.

In
turn, her seven years in Musselburgh shaped her future in the Kirk. "It’s
the place where I matured and realised the importance of working with
other parishes and faiths. I had a tremendous congregation who were very
active in working together, and all of my subsequent ecumenical work has
stemmed from my time at St Andrew’s High," she says.

Immediately
after that she became secretary to the committee on ecumenical relations.
It was her dream job. She remembers that when she first met her
predecessor in the job, she thought: "If there is any job in the Church of
Scotland I really would like, that’s it." When he retired, it seemed the
right thing to apply for it.

It’s an illustration of her gentle
determination. Nevertheless, after 14 office-based years, she says what
she misses is "the privilege of a parish minister working very closely
with people as a friend, as a pastor. One of the main privileges of being
a parish minister is being able to build up relationships with a
congregation." A renewed contact with people at local level is one thing
she is particularly looking forward to in the year ahead.

Before
that, however, she will preside over a historic ecumenical gesture. It is
now all but certain that one of her duties next week will be the
unprecedented one of welcoming the convener of the Free Church of
Scotland’s ecumenical committee to address the Church of Scotland’s
assembly. In a historic step, the general assemblies of both churches will
be asked to agree a joint statement which recognises "the scandal of the
divisions in our Presbyterian Church family". It will be a thrill for
Kesting, who was secretary of the group which produced the statement.

"I
think it is a tremendous thing. I don’t think any of us guessed that we
would be able to do such a thing, but we have been meeting for a couple of
years and it became clear that there were areas where we could say we have
common ground. There are still huge potential tensions between us, but at
least we are talking and that is a positive thing. We have been able to
say something in common and the hope is that our respective conveners of
ecumenical relations will address each other’s assemblies. It now looks as
if it will happen this year, which I am thrilled about."

Nevertheless,
she knows how pernicious the long, bitter legacy of the Disruption of 1843
remains. Any re-unification of the two churches would be "over the
horizon," she says.

The process will continue and she says the
group hopes that they can discover more common ground and there will be
further movement.

The issue of ministers being able to bless the
civil partnerships of same-sex couples threatens to be divisive, but as
moderator Kesting says her own view is "irrelevant." The proposal from
last year’s assembly that ministers who carry out blessings on same-sex
couples should not be disciplined has been rejected by the presbyteries.
As a result, they revert to the status quo, which means that ministers
make their own decision on whether to carry out blessings ceremonies for
gay couples, but those who do may be at risk of being disciplined by their
presbyteries. That report, however, will be merely noted.

The
thorny issue may or may not come up in the wider context of the discussion
on human sexuality. The Moderator Designate is hoping that debate will be
conducted "with respect". She says: "The report says there is a range of
viewpoints, but it is not asking the assembly to come to a decision on any
one of these, but to go away, discuss and listen."

In
moderatorial tradition she hopes to carry out two foreign visits. The
first will be to Australia and New Zealand, where after meeting delegates
to ecumenical gatherings, she is keen to see how they operate. The
Presbyterian churches in the southern part of the South Pacific
archipelago of Vanuatu, which were founded by Scottish missionaries in the
nineteenth century, recently wrote "out of the blue" to the Church of
Scotland saying they would like to have fraternal relations, so she will
take the opportunity to extend her journey to the islands. "It will be
wonderful to rediscover what this church is about after all these years."

Plans
for a visit to Syria and Lebanon are more tentative because of the
political situation there. Again, her impetus is the ecumenical context.
"In the Middle East, churches have to work ecumenically and it is their
Christian identity that comes first, before their denominational identity
because they are such a beleaguered community. The other reason is to go
and show solidarity with Christians who feel forgotten."

She
assumes her high-profile role at a time when church membership is reported
to be at an all-time low of 504,363, but instinctively looks beyond mere
statistics.

"We can get too anxious about numbers. If we remind
ourselves that the church is about the gospel and focus on what that
means, I think the church becomes more relevant and therefore, perhaps,
the numbers will go up.

At the end of the day, it is not the
numbers that count – it is the quality of our witness and how we care for
people that really matters," she says.

Full story at The
Herald
.

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