2012: Alistair Vannett - Presbytery of Angus

This was my second year at the general assembly. This year I didn’t just about set fire to an ancient church, similarly I managed to control the amazing refilling glasses at the palace! It was very different to last year. Firstly, there were many new youth reps, actually making me one of the more experienced out of the bunch, a worrying prospect! As is custom the moderator had also changed, this year it was Albert Bogle, now Rt Rev Albert Bogle. He brought a passion to proceedings and a more contemporary feel, including a General assembly choir and also a small worship band. His passion was engaging and captivating as his voice rung around the assembly hall ringing in the rafters as he struggled to stay still and became more and more animated! When he met us on Thursday night he was certainly keen to leave an impact, encouraging us all to take part in his charity the vine trust. He also said something that struck a chord with me, he was interested in us not because we were young people, he was interested in us because we were people. This strikes a chord to me as I have to say I’m not overly keen on the phrase “young people” do we say here come the old people? It doesn’t provide inclusiveness and in my opinion it sets up barriers, we are all people. The moderator also accepted the moderators challenge. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the moderators challenge, the youth reps give him three words to include during the day on Friday. These in past years have included fish finger, swizlestick, starfish and cape. This year they were mollycoddle, Jelly baby and wisdomising. Albert took it in his stride telling one convener “You know I love jelly babies, but I don’t want to mollycoddle you” and in the closing ceremony telling the new youth and children’s worker she was “wishdomising”. As you can imagine we were all in stiches banging the floor and clapping, many of the commissioners looked up wondering what those dam youth reps were up to again!  Moreover it shows that people are down to earth, are willing to share and to interact. If there is anything that attracts younger members of our church it is engagement and a down to earthiness that we are standing together, it’s a sign that things are moving forward, the contemporary sign of change. Uniting us all together and breaking down barriers.

To me the most interesting of the reports this year was the world mission report. It showed that Scotland and China have more in common than Pandas! The theme of the report was “Love never ends”. This certainly was the case with the Church of Scotland in China. The church supports the work of the amity foundation, who were founded “to give practical expression to the Christian obligation to care for the least in society”. One aspect of amity is amity printing, who in April 2012 celebrated printing their 100 millionth bible! Another string to amities bow is baking, and may I say they make a cracking shortbread in China! All the commissioners got a sample! Also, if you want, the recipe was on the back of the card! The bakery trains and employs people with learning difficulties who otherwise would be pushed into the margins of society. They learn how to bake all kinds of goods and it gives them meaningful employment and a higher standard of living. This shows the worth of amity in China, and is a worthy cause for the Church of Scotland to support. At the general assembly Helen Zhou, Deputy Director of Amity Foundation brought about one of the most heart tugging moments during the assembly. Helen talked of how they had to fight against the prosecution of religion in China; this brought the moderator almost to tears, welling up as he gave his reply, not quiet to tears but you could hear the emotion in his voice. On a similar note, the business convener Janet Mathieson talked of how preaching in Myanmar, commonly known as Burma, was still illegal. It was risky that she found this out as she left the pulpit after preaching to a large congregation! The support the church gives to this charity should not be underestimated, there are also opportunities for people to go out and work in some of these places and support the on-going work. It is a fantastic opportunity to get people involved in the life of the church and the Christian believe of standing with and supporting those who are in the margins of our society.

On Wednesday morning, this distinguished strange man attended the assembly in the lord high commissioners box. Or as one of the chaplains put it, we have a visit from a bearded lefty. It was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowen Williams. What followed was a most interesting address. The archbishop talked of how the Church of Scotland was a national church, meaning we have contact with every community in Scotland. Dr Williams question was how do we hold the door open to our community to access God?! How does the community know we care and that we are here? This can also be seen to show how can the Church let children, teenagers and young adults know they are here and the door is open? It was his opinion to keep the church visible in the community. Groups like Mother and Toddler, holiday clubs and coffee mornings are good examples of this! How does this impact the younger ages in our church? Well it gets them involved in the life of the church, it shows them that people care, and it shows them they are not alone.

Heart and Soul was a follow on from the successful Roll away the stone that attracted so many people in 2011. It was a bigger version using all of princess street gardens. Various stalls were on display from the breadth and width of Scotland. St Andrews were in attendance, along with various others. I regret to tell everyone I did horrifically badly on the Dunfermline Abbey quiz considering I am a history student, but they gave me a sticker, more out of pity than anything else! In addition there was a battle of the bands, and a soup kitchen plus much more. In St Cuthbert’s church at the end of princess street gardens there was a time of quiet and reflection with a small labyrinth, St Cuthbert’s is an awe inspiring place! There were three tents that caught my interest in heart and soul. The first of those being the Church and Society Council tent. Church and Society looks at and has a very broad ranging remit. The part of the tent that interested me was about food air miles. It talked about how food is flown into this country and how this leaves such a big impact in terms of air miles and carbon footprint. Indeed it was a section of deliverance in the church and society’s report to encourage people to buy locally produced food. It is slightly misleading, as many people would think that a locally produced piece of lamb would be quite environmentally friendly. In fact, it is very unfriendly as the cow produces methane which is a very unfriendly greenhouse gas. This was part of a game in the tent where you guessed where the food had come from and then put it in order of harm to the environment, the results were quiet surprising. There was also a strange looking operation game, but I just stayed away!

The second tent that caught my attention was a tent on domestic abuse. All around the tent were these shoes, of all different types, male and female and with quotes attached. They were in fact the shoes of those who had died of abuse in the past year, over 200 people. The thing that was striking was the shoes were of all types, from expensive ranged shoes, to the simplest types. Quotes accompanied these shoes, some of these quotes you could only imagine what the people had gone through, one ornate pair of gold shoes had the quote “Shiny and full of hope, by the represented shattered dreams” another pair of normal everyday shoes had underneath “These shoes are not comfortable………….a bit like my life”. It shows that domestic abuse is a classless and genderless crime, it affects everyone in society. It is something that shouldn’t happen.

Thirdly was the World Mission Council tent. Outside of the tent was this big silver cladded structure. To stand and look up gave you a crick in your neck. In fact it represented the Gaza Israeli wall, a huge structure that separates the two countries. It very appropriately had the motto “Build bridges not walls”. Inside the tent it was a multi ethnic atmosphere, what attracted many people was the African dancing and singing. There was a vibrant and energetic atmosphere and it was indeed engaging! A reprehensive from the Japanese Presbyterian church unfortunately broke his ankle; this was because he became too enthusiastic in the African dancing and hurt himself! Heart and soul is a departure to anything that has been done in the past. It is change. There were thousands of people there, it catered for all ages, and it also brought the church into the community. When walking along the gardens you could look up and see people on princess street looking over too see what was happening, with some people coming into the gardens to look at the stands or stop and watch. It was an event as Rowan Williams stated that held the door open. People of all ages mixed and there was something for everyone.

From the youth reps point of view the general assembly is a very different experience from that of other comissioners. It is also very influential in inspiring young people in the church. We are all in a group, which means we may know people and meet new people. We stay in the same place and eat breakfast together. This builds a fellowship among us. We also prepare at night from 8-10 for the next day’s debates exchanging ideas and thoughts. This means that we spend a lot of time together sharing our thoughts and views on different issues and debates. I think the staff in Pizza hut on the royal mile in Edinburgh are still wondering what our theological discussion was about one night! This fellowship really is a bonus for the younger members of our church, getting to know one another and creating friends. The general assembly is an excellent way for younger members of the church to learn more about the church and its processes. The worship within the group is different to a normal service, being in a small group it’s more interactive and also shorter.  It also allows younger members of congregations to meet those younger members from other congregations. Moreover it gives a chance to meet people from the wider church; you meet some of the kindest and most genuine people you will ever meet. Truly giving a glimpse of Gods people in Gods church.