Not Between Two Candles

Zomba Theological College ended the first week of the new semester on a high note with a lecture from the Moderator of the Church of Scotland General Assembly, Jim Wallace (Lord Wallace of Tankerness). It was a slightly bitter-sweet occasion since the original plan was for the Moderator to visit Malawi in person this month. The appearance of omicron and Malawi’s (temporary) assignment to the UK’s “red list” put paid to Plan A. Not for the first time during the pandemic we were thankful for digital technology that allowed the visit to the College to go ahead remotely.

Jim Wallace is an unusual Moderator in that he is not an ordained minister. The Presbyterian constitution of the Church of Scotland allows for elders (lay leaders) as well as ministers (clergy) to be elected to this leadership role. In practice, it has nearly always been a minister who has been elected but perhaps Jim’s election reflects the growing importance of lay leadership in the life of the church.

In his lecture Jim used his own political career, as a member of Parliament, party leader and government minister, as a basis on which to reflect on the role of faith in politics. He recalled Lloyd George’s advice to an aspiring parliamentary candidate: “You can go to Westminster, or you can go to heaven, but you can’t do both.” Against this, Jim maintained that political service can be a Christian vocation and cited a range of current political issues where Christian beliefs and values are highly relevant.

He concluded by quoting from one his predecessors as Moderator, George MacLeod, who visited Malawi in 1959 at a decisive time for the country’s political future.

I simply argue that the Cross be raised again at the centre of the marketplace, as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and in Greek, at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died. And that is what he died about.

George MacLeod, One Way Left.

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