‘THERE is not going to be a great schism.” The Rev Lorna Hood is sitting on a sofa in the drawing room of an elegant town house in Rothesay Terrace, the official home of the Moderator of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh.
With one sharp sentence she has fired a tranquiliser dart into the pink elephant in the room.
Officially, there is still a moratorium on discussing whether the Church of Scotland should ordain practising gay ministers but next Monday’s debate and vote at the General Assembly is set to be the most divisive the Church has faced since the Disruption of 1843 when a predecessor as moderator, Dr David Welsh, walked out with 450 ministers and founded the Free Church of Scotland. There has been suggestions that, once again, ministers are strapping on their hiking boots.
“There is not going to be a great schism” she repeats, with the force of her words as strong as the brightness of her smile.
“So it is all going to go rather smoothly?”
“The Church has always worked out its problems and there have been debates over the last few years and there has been a lot of grace in those debates and people listening to one another. And that is why we have had another theological commission, because we want to listen and to come to a decision and whatever the decision, people will be hurt and will feel the pain, but we will deal with that.
“My duty and responsibility is to make sure the debate is conducted with that same grace and that no matter the result, both sides feel they have been listened to. We talk about both sides because we polarise it but there is a whole lot of people in the middle saying: ‘what way do we go?’
“It is unfortunate that we have polarised it because a lot of people are still trying to make their minds up and find a way forward and in the way that God is leading us and the way the spirit is blowing through the Church.”
So which way does she think the spirt is blowing? “That would be very wrong of me to say, because I have to be completely neutral and make sure the debate is conducted in a right and proper manner.”
As only the third woman to take on the coveted role of Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland she will chair the debates in what may prove to be a historic week in the history of the institution. Born and raised in Kilmarnock, Hood lost both her mother and father before she had left her teens, an experience that would have made others reject any notion of God rather than answer his call. Her mother, who worked in a knitwear factory, died of cancer when Hood was 15. It was in the years before chemotherapy and adequate palliative care and she spent her final days in a geriatric ward. Her father died four years later of a heart condition.
When I ask why she didn’t turn away from the Church, she replies: “Where else was I going to get strength and help? It didn’t make me question my faith as much it made me express my doubts and take my anger out, but if you look at the prophets and psalmists, they were angry at God and they questioned him: ‘How long is this going to go on? Why are we suffering?’ But they never doubted him, that he was there. To be honest, I couldn’t have got through that time if it was not for my faith.”
A graduate in history and the principles of theology at Glasgow University, she was one of only two women who attended the Church of Scotland selection school in 1974 and she was ordained in 1978, the year she met Peter whom she married the following year. Hood has had a long and pioneering career.
When she became pregnant with her daughter, Laura, now 28 and about to complete her training as a GP, it was the first time the Church of Scotland had to consider the issue of maternity pay for a minister. “I have to say they were great, it was a case of: ‘lets do the best we can for our ministers’,” she says.
The issue of sexism was minor in the early years of her ministry and she insists the cultural gap between young ministers of either sex and the old brigade was more pronounced. “It was minor, nothing that was a huge problem. In my first year I was told there was a problem with me being a female – I couldn’t play Santa. There was one old crusty minister who said: ‘I don’t believe in female ministers’ and I said: ‘Tough, there is nothing I can do with that’. I didn’t suffer out and out prejudice.”
There were, however, male ministers who believed it was wrong to cry with those whom you are sent to comfort, but Hood believes that sometimes you do sit and sob with people: “You can’t always have the answers.” She tells one story about a housecall. “I remember going to a house, I didn’t know the family and the young mother had tragically died and there was a wee two-year-old, a wee red-haired thing and I went the next day and rang the doorbell and the wee thing ran to the door shouting: ‘mummy?’ She thought her mother had come back and I started to cry and I apologised to the people and it was afterwards I was speaking to one of my elders about how angry I felt at myself. He said: ‘Don’t be. They felt you were close to them in their grief. It helped.’ ”
The new Moderator believes strongly that the Church of Scotland still has a strong role to play at the heart of the nation. “Our role in society is to be that voice that is not a dominant voice, speaking of what you should do and what you should not do, or what you should believe or not believe, we have to be the voice for the poor and the vulnerable and the powerless and that is an important role that we carry out and we do have to have a moral compass.
“I think we still have a role to play in what is happening in our own land, such as the independence debate. The Church is not taking a side but what it is doing is saying that we have to facilitate the discussion on that and say, can we get the right information so that people can think it through?”
She has watched from the sidelines as the Catholic Church, which in recent years has become the loudest voice in Christian Scotland, has been rocked by the recent scandal involving Cardinal Keith O’Brien. “It is tragic, absolutely tragic,” she says, shaking her head. “Tragic for him and tragic for the victims and tragic for the Church. I’m just sorry it happened. I sat beside him during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Service. He was chatty and forgot he had met me afterwards, but he was fine. It is tragic for him, for his victims and the Church and nobody wins, but it has happened and the Church has to deal with how it happened and what is to be done, and our thoughts and prayers go out to all concerned.”
A Moderator with a Machiavellian streak might spot an opportunity for the Church of Scotland to once again become the more dominant spiritual personality in Scotland now that the Catholic Church has been so publicly humbled, but the Rev argues that the Church of Scotland never lost its role: “We always have had the voice because of history and heritage and the Church of Scotland has always had that role, but it would be wrong to say ‘Oh because you have been found out in some way’ we are going to say that.
“It should not be one church against another church, but Christians together and how can we be one voice?”
When Hood has the opportunity to relax, she would prefer that it be on a golf course in Florida, but there is unlikely to be an opportunity any time soon as she embarks on the busiest and most high-profile year in her long career.
The naysayers may insist that the Church of Scotland is on the edge of an ecclesiastical precipice, but the Rev Lorna Hood has far too much hope to agree. As the Moderator faced with the most poisoned chalice in over a century, she believes all will be well. When I ask what her favourite movie is, she gives a surprising reply: The Great Escape.