There was a time, in the days before devolution, when the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was seen as a de facto Scottish parliament: a place where the voice of Scots could be heard and where leadership could be provided on issues important to the Scottish psyche and philosophy.
It was why Margaret Thatcher's famous address to the Assembly in 1988 was so controversial.
Sadly, no-one could say that about the Assembly today; neither it nor the Moderator has anything like the kind of influence and importance they once had. In a world where everyone recognises the leader of the Catholic Church, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland would struggle to raise a flicker of recognition from most Scots, let alone around the world.
Now there is a welcome opportunity to change that with news that the Kirk is planning to overhaul the way it chooses its leader. Currently, he or she is appointed by a committee that includes former Moderators and representatives of the presbyteries. Under the proposed new system, Kirk members of every level would be able to nominate the Moderator. Not only would this be more democratic, it would be much more transparent. The current nomination process is conducted in secret; the new system would have the benefit of openness and therefore greater scrutiny.
Furthermore, a nomination process that reaches out to every congregation also has the potential to promote candidates who would otherwise never get noticed. Congregations tend to be ahead of their leadership on most issues and it is hard to imagine the kind of resistance to female moderators there was before the appointment of Alison Elliot in 2004 happening under a more democratic system that allows ordinary church members a say.
What is not clear is exactly why the Kirk is proposing this change now. It may be – although they deny it – that they are responding to a dissatisfaction with recent Moderators; it may be that the leadership of the church is seeking to narrow the gap that has emerged between them and the parishes – for that gap is real. There has been a growing dissatisfaction in the pews with those in power and the headquarters at 121 George Street in Edinburgh is seen as a remote and authoritarian place. This reform could change that.
The other important effect the change may have is to revive some of the influence the Moderator once had in wider society simply because the incumbent will have a stronger mandate from a more representative system. However, it may be that the reform will need to go further. Is the one-year appointment, for instance, too short? Would a longer term of, say, five years not give the Moderator more time to propose and see through reform and become a recognisable figurehead?
It may be that such a change is still a long way off, but at least change is beginning with how the leader of the Church of Scotland is appointed. It might even have begun the process of restoring the Moderator's power and influence in the land, and, more importantly, strengthening his or her power to do good.
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