“THE CHURCH is all about politics,” said Rev John Chalmers as he gestured towards the books lining his study in the headquarters of the Church of Scotland at 121 George Street, Edinburgh.
Bookshelves stacked full of ancient volumes assiduously chronicling the political intrigue and theological issues that have occupied the Kirk over the years, remind Chalmers that religion and politics are often inseparable.
It is an apt reminder for the 61-year-old as he prepares to become Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in a year that will see Scotland face one of the most important political moments in its history.
At the General Assembly later this month, Chalmers, the Assembly’s Principal Clerk, will be elevated to the head of the Kirk – an appointment that presents special challenges in this independence referendum year.
The Moderator Designate, however, is no stranger to challenges, whether it’s golf – the former pro tour caddie hits a mean ball – or the far more serious matter of the horrendous injuries suffered by his son while serving with the Royal Marines in Afghanistan.
As an “undecided” voter, Chalmers believes that it is vital that the church helps people understand which constitutional road is the right one for their Christian values.
He is also concerned by the rancour that has marked recent political discourse and sees a key role for the Church and its 400,000 members in soothing fevered brows.
“Healing and reconciliation” would be a theme of his year as Moderator, Chalmers told Scotland on Sunday. “I am never impressed when what I hear is name-calling. I am never impressed when I hear people trading on ideas without very much substance, dreamy ideas about the future. That’s why I want this to be located in real substance – what matters.”
At the heart of his agenda is a hope that a national service will be held to heal post-referendum wounds. He also sees a role for the Kirk in persuading opposing political leaders to make a public statement underlining their commitment to bringing the country together.
Making sense of the arguments on both sides of Scotland’s political divide will be a feature of this year’s General Assembly, which will host its own independence debate while maintaining its neutral stance.
“It is an important year for Scotland, probably the most important year in our history in peacetime,” Chalmers said. “It is an important year for the Church, because we have got very big internal discussions and decisions to make.”
The internal matters include the divisive issue of ordaining ministers who are in a homosexual relationship. A handful of congregations have broken away from the Church in protest over the issue, which will see the General Assembly consider a legislative measure to give individual congregations autonomy to make up their own minds about accepting a gay minister.
“The percentage of those who have left in terms of congregations is less than 1 per cent,” said Chalmers. “This room is surrounded in the history of a church which has been a broad church and has allowed different views on many aspects of doctrine and belief, and with this issue it is being tested to the limit. My view is the way in which we conduct our own debate needs to be gracious and understanding. In some ways that is not a lot different from what I am hoping will be the way in which the referendum debate is conducted.
“Clearly for some people it is a bridge too far to be even talking about the subject. That has prompted some to leave. By far, however, the majority of congregations are probably not even talking about this subject and are getting on with the serious business of being the church, serving their communities, working with young people, working with old people with dementia. Just doing what churches do and getting on with life.”
Getting on with life is something that Chalmers, his wife Liz and their three children have become expert in. In 2011, he nearly lost his younger son John-James in Afghanistan.
JJ Chalmers was serving with the Royal Marines when he was blown up by an Improvised Explosive Device. Two of his comrades were killed in the blast. Last week, the Marine was under the knife again to minimise the impact of the damage that saw him lose fingers on his left hand and a large chunk out of his right arm, and injure one of his eyes. The terrible injuries that befell his son and the tragic fate of his colleagues tested Chalmers’ faith.
“When we had no sense of what was happening – no sense of whether he was dead or alive, it felt as though the heavens were silent. But I don’t think we would be where we are today and pulled through all of that had it not been for the community of the church around us and the strength of our faith behind us.”