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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

XVI. Religion and Sectarianism

115. The First Female Moderator of the Church of Scotland, 2004

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1Each court of the Church of Scotland is chaired by a moderator: at the local level, the moderator of the kirk session is the minister. Presbyteries and the General Assembly elect a moderator each year. The Moderator of the General Assembly serves for the year as the public representative of the Church but is neither the head of the church nor its leader—the function being honorary. The moderator chairs the meeting of the General Assembly that is held in May each year. This is how the Scotsman reported the election of the first female moderator, Alison Elliott.

2Text: The Scotsman, 10 May 2004.

Moderation in all things

She broke the glass ceiling to become the first female Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Now as difficult questions about the Kirk’s view on homosexuality and the War in Irak, Dr Alison Elliot finds the job is more about healing rifts–which is turning out to be a delicate balancing act.


  • 12 John Knox (c. 1513-1572) played a major role in the Reformation. His outstanding achievement was h (...)
  • 13 The words “monstrous regiment” refer to The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regim (...)

For a pioneer, Dr Alison Elliot has a surprisingly bemused air. As the first female Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland she carries the pent-up expectations of generations of women. Things came to a head a year ago when 140 lady stalwarts of the church, who had hitherto confined themselves to the odd grumble and a bit of militant flower arranging signed a letter to The Scotsman denouncing the Kirk for its sexism. Now 450 years after John Knox12 sounded a warning blast, his monstrous regiment13 has finally got its colonel-in-chief.

Anybody expecting her to rally the troops will be disappointed, however. Far from leading a revolution within the Kirk, Dr Elliot gives the impression that she has stumbled by accident into a relay race and been left holding the baton. “I’m fascinated by what is going on, but I don’t identify myself with it,” she says. “It’s as if I’m looking at it from the outside. It’s a very strange feeling. It’s very difficult to imagine it is me that it is happening to.”

Sitting in a depressingly bare room in the Church of Scotland’s George Street offices—which with their strange tiling make you feel as if you are entering an old-fashioned municipal swimming pool rather than the powerhouse of the national church—the first impression of her is one of softness.

The secretaries and receptionists are all clipped brusqueness and chilly disapproval—I am inadvertently late—but Dr Elliot is tranquillity itself. Her grey hair is cut in a short, feathery crop, she is dressed in an informal beige linen suit with more beige underneath and she smiles a lot. There is none of the stridency we have come to associate with those who have spent their lives attempting to smash glass ceilings.

Compared with other traditional organisations, the Church of Scotland’s approach to women has been radical. It ordained the first female minister in 1968, when the feminist movement was still in its infancy and the Equal Opportunities Act had yet to be passed. It’s bizarre, then, that it has allowed the lack of a female Moderator to become such a huge and divisive issue. But that’s the Kirk for you; full of contradictions.

More important than her gender is the fact that Dr Elliot is not ordained. She is an elder and a session clerk at Greyfriars, Toolbooth and Highland Kirk in Edinburgh and has been associate director of Edinburgh University’s centre for theology and public issues since 2001. The last non-minister to be appointed Moderator was George Buchanan, tutor to King James VI. Her term as Moderator will inevitably have a different emphasis from usual. Her work for the Church has not centred on Sunday service but in the community and she is keen to make that one of her strengths.

Dr Elliot is amazed at the interest in her appointment. The Church of Scotland, she maintains, is important to Scottish identity. “It is the carrier for so much of Scottish culture,” she says. But the Moderator’s position is mainly ambassadorial. She has very little power. “The role of the Moderator is defined in a negative way—the Moderator is not the head of the Church; the Moderator is not a Church leader or a spokesman for the Church. They say he…” and she stops and laughs and corrects herself.

Even within the Church, the job is sometimes seen as little more than a 12-month sabbatical encompassing some foreign travel—Dr Elliot has opted for South Africa and Bangladesh—a bit of light entertainment, a stint at Balmoral and a couple of Holyrood garden parties. But this year in particular, as fundamental groups and religious extremists dominate world news and Britain is embroiled in the bloody aftermath of the war in Iraq, the Moderator’s role ought to have a wider significance.

Dr Elliot, a psychologist by training and an academic by instinct, has a keen interest in international affairs and has represented the Church on a number of bodies in the UK and Europe. “I’ve been to more consultations than I would have liked on wars here, there and everywhere,” she says. “I suspect there is quite a lot of influence that the Moderator can bring to bear, on behalf of the Church, behind the scenes.”

What that influence will be remains to be seen. Her desire to remain neutral on controversial issues until after the General Assembly is understandable but frustrating. Her predecessor Rt Rev Professor Iain Torrance used his tenure as Moderator to condone the ordination of homosexual clergy and to speak out about the Kirk’s homophobia. Dr Elliot refuses to outline her position on what is proving to be one of the most controversial areas for the Church. She is also wary about giving her personal views on the Iraq War.

“There is a very strong report coming to this year’s General Assembly calling for a public inquiry into why the war happened,” she says. “As for the war against terror, how we cope with vulnerability is a crucially important question. If you are invulnerable, you are inhuman. So much of our approach to security is to try and ensure that we are invincible, that no-one can get at us. But our vulnerability is a source of strength because it is when we are vulnerable that we realise we need other people.”

How does the Church reconcile George Bush and Tony Blair’s very public professions of Christianity with their role in the Iraq War? “The Church has a whole range of views within it,” she says. “George Bush is not from the mainstream church and his relationship with the mainstream churches in America is very fraught. He has a black-and-white, good-and-evil view of the world, which is not one that would recommend itself to the mainstream churches either here or in the US.”

And Blair? She laughs uncomfortably, aware that she is likely to meet him in her role as Moderator. “I really don’t know. I think he is much more discreet about the Christian basis of his politics. “What would she like to say to him when she sees him? “I’d like to meet him as a person and not talk politics,” she says diplomatically.

But the fact remains that despite the two leaders’ strong religious beliefs, the churches collectively appear to have had very little influence on them. “Our policy is one which is respectful of people’s right to be different and disagree with the church,” she replies. It sounds like the classic Church of Scotland fudge.

“Not at all,” she says. “The Church has been very critical of the government’s decision to go to war.”

Does she think it is possible to be a Christian and be instrumental in causing the War in Iraq? “Yes, it is possible,” she says. “These are complicated issues. There is room for doubt and disagreement. Tony Blair would say that his approach is also about promoting peace. Religion has the power to both heal and to enflame. It is part of the tension you live with as a person of faith.”

The even-handed, all-encompassing approach of The Kirk, which Dr Elliot appears to embody, has long been a source of frustration for those within the Church who want more clarity and cohesion and less latitude. They have accused the Kirk of a lack of authoritative moral leadership. But in an era of religious extremism, this universal tolerance could prove to be one of its strengths.

The danger is that more tolerant religious voices get subsumed or lost in the heat of the debate. “It may be harder for them to be heard,” Dr Elliot admits. “But the vast majority of people are motivated by their faith in ways which are more reconciling and more complex than the extremists would like.”

So what does she see as the role of the Church of Scotland in modern Scottish society? She talks about its importance historically as “a keeper of the memory” and as a force for good in local communities. “I think there is a lot more potential to be developed there,” she says.

Her own community spirit was fostered at a young age. Her father, a forensic psychiatrist, was superintendent of Bangour Hospital in West Lothian and the family lived in a house in the grounds.

“I was immediately part of a community that had a lot of people who were weak or rejected and that was a gentle introduction to what I consider fundamental to the Christian faith,” she says. Her Christianity has always been an important aspect of her life. “I’ve never had a crisis of faith as such but it has come and gone a bit,” she says. “There are times when it has been more in the background.”

Church music plays a big part in her life – she plays both piano and organ – and she has made a CD of her favourites from the new hymn book which she will take as a gift on her presbytery visits. She has an impressive academic record. After school at Bathgate Academy she studied mathematics and linguistics at Edinburgh University before studying experimental psychology at Sussex University and doing a PhD in children’s language development back in Edinburgh, but she wears her considerable learning lightly.

In an interesting juxtaposition of God and mammon, she is married to Jo Elliot, chief executive of the merchant bank Quayle Munro. She values the insights into finance and economics which her marriage gives her but it has led to the occasional uncomfortable situation. “One tense moment was when the Church and Nation Committee [which Dr Elliot chaired] produced a report on the Private Finance Initiative because that is where Jo does much of his work,” she says. He will accompany her on trips when he can. It helps that her children are grown-up. Her daughter Christina, 20, is studying English at Cambridge and her son John, 17, has been offered places to study history at Oxford and York.

“Because I am both a woman and not a minister there is more scope for me to question the way things are done,” she says, and she is already breaking the mould in minor ways. She will not move into the Moderator’s fancy residence in Rothesay Terrace, preferring the family home in Morningside. “The thought of moving a mile away with all the upheaval that will involve didn’t make sense,” she says. “It’s very important that the Church has accommodation for the Moderator but as I don’t need it, they are free to do something else with it.”

Nor will she wear the traditional knickerbocker outfit–the purple knickers as they are irreverently known. “I don’t have the legs for it,” she quips, though that hasn’t stopped previous incumbents. Instead, she has commissioned a brooch in the shape of the burning bush from the jeweller Eva Lynch and she has asked a friend, the designer Betty Davies, to make a grey sleeveless gown with gold lining.

“The grey is very light and I would hope that lightness would be a characteristic of my year,” she says. “The culture that surrounds the Moderator is very male and pretty heavy as well. I’d like to lighten things up.” She is, however, worried about the expectations for her term in office. “There are times when I panic about it,” she says. “People are expecting a lot more change to happen than is possible. If there is change it is going to be because people elsewhere in the church are encouraged by this appointment. What has really surprised me is the number of people who have no connection with the Church who see my appointment as important.”

Those who see her as a feminist icon or a champion of women’s rights may well be disappointed. Dr Elliot is no revolutionary firebrand but what she brings to the role of Moderator may prove to be considerably more relevant than her chromosomes in these turbulent times. She is the model of moderation.


12 John Knox (c. 1513-1572) played a major role in the Reformation. His outstanding achievement was his History of the Reformation, an invaluable source for the Reformation era.

13 The words “monstrous regiment” refer to The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a tract written by John Knox while he was in exile in Dieppe in 1557. The main subject of Knox’s attack was the rule of Queen Mary Tudor of England, whom he considered as an oppressor of the Protestant faith.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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