Compared to recent years, which have been dogged by the issue of gay clergy, it ought to be tranquil. All eyes – and guns – are trained on May 2013 when the Assembly will have to make a decision on the subject, but already one can feel the drums beginning to beat. In fact, the first salvo crossed my desk recently, though this is far too harsh a word for this most gracious and well-intentioned of books.
Regular readers of this column may recall me bemoaning the lack of novels about the Kirk. Given the pivotal place the Church held in Scottish society for half a millennium, the paucity is startling. There have been a few, of course, from John Galt's peerless Annals Of The Parish to Nancy Brysson Morrison's The Winnowing Years, Robin Jenkins's The Awakening Of George Darroch, and, most recently, James Robertson's The Testament Of Gideon Mack. No doubt there are a good many others, but they scarcely create a cairn, let alone a mountain.
Even more startling is that, so far as I'm aware, no novel about the church has ever been published by a minister. Not, that is, until the Very Rev Dr Finlay AJ Macdonald turned to fiction. Macdonald is the former Principal Clerk of the Church, a post whose power and authority, in day-to-day matters, far exceeds the Moderator's for clout. Macdonald was Moderator also, and prior to these roles had been a parish minister, like his father. Of all the people to write a novel about the Kirk, I would have said he was the least likely. I take my fascinator off to him.
Anyone hoping for a thinly-veiled account of church politics and parish skulduggery will be disappointed. Those looking for theological direction on sexuality won't. Luke Paul (Shoving Leopard, £12.95) is the story of a minister close to retirement, who in 2010-11 finds himself embroiled, as were all ministers, in the discussion around gay clergy. He secretly wishes this issue hadn't surfaced until he had been put out to pasture, but with resignation and goodwill he steers his parish through the subject and, on a proud day at the General Assembly, shares his open-hearted views with the rest of the Kirk. The hero's name is taken from two apostles – Paul, who was fiercely conservative, and Luke, who was more tender and compassionate. There's a touch of each in this gentle, thoughtful man.
Macdonald's matter-of-fact and very ministerial novel is an attempt to address the various sides of the question as fairly and calmly as possible. And while there's little doubt that the author leans towards the liberal wing, this is not a manifesto for gay clergy or gay marriage, or anything as crass as that. In many ways this is a fictionalised reflection on the subject, as seen through the eyes of parishioners and ministers of all persuasions and views. There are no car chases or murders (though of course there may be a sequel), but there is a sermon, produced verbatim, as is Luke's address to the General Assembly. In addition, each chapter comes with an explanatory preface about the workings of the Kirk, although I imagine its main readership will be church-goers. If so, they will find many of its characters, and their dilemmas, exceedingly familiar.
Macdonald's idea is a highly original response to a debate that some fear could be cataclysmic, leading to a splintering of the Kirk. A work inspired by pastoral concern, it's an attempt to keep all sides of the argument together as they find a workable way forward. I can't think of another novel that's been written with such a practical purpose. Luke Paul isn't likely to be a poolside bestseller this summer, but it should be in every pulpit and pew. For reasons of petty bureaucracy, in which the Kirk excels, those attending the General Assembly won't be able to buy it from the Assembly bookshop. It is however available online, or from Cornerstone Bookshop in St John's Church at the west end of Princes Street, Edinburgh.