Meet the Moderator

by | Oct 4, 2020 | People

John Dempster asks Dr Martin Fair about the convictions, vision, and gifts he brings to his role, the faith journey which has shaped him, and the sustaining wisdom of Christian faith in this year of crisis.

Meet the Moderator

I recently had a chat with Church of Scotland Moderator, the Rev Dr Martin Fair. I wanted to find out more about this man who seems an ideal Moderator for the year of COVID-19, ubiquitous on social media, gracious and encouraging, an excellent communicator.

He was chosen as Moderator back in October 2019 when no-one could have foreseen the challenges we would face in 2020.  Looking at the impact the minister of St Andrews Parish Church, Arboath is having in the role, it seems providential that he was the person chosen. He tells me many folk have said to him ‘”Gosh,you’ve just been the right person this year,” and if that’s the case then I thank God for it.’

There follows a lightly edited transcript of the interview.

The gifts Martin brings to the role

JD           I began by asking Martin what interests and gifts he felt particularly equipped him to be Moderator in the current circumstances.

MF         I think, on a very ,very practical level, I’ve been aware for many years of the absolute need to be digitally seen.  So, we’ve been live-streaming for nearly six years now as a congregation at St Andrews Parish Church, and we’ve been using social media widely. So when lockdown hit, and it was becoming evident that there would be nothing for me to do by way of face-to-face travelling and so on, then it was not a big leap for me to think ‘OK, fine, I’ve got my laptop, I’ve got my phone, I’ve got my camera. I can make that switch really quickly and easily.’

But more so than that, I’ve absolutely in my ministry been nimble and flexible, in other words not committed to ‘This is how we do things’ but always ready to experiment, always ready to adapt the approach to fit the situation. That kind of way of operating is pretty helpful right now to be honest when you can’t even see what’s coming next week, never mind next year.

And then, the final thing I would say is that my ministry was locally involved morphing the congregation from what was a good congregation – as if that was an end in  itself – to being a congregation that would be good because then it would be able to minister and mission in the wider world.  So that missional sense is one of my burning priorities, and therefore I’ve tried to lead on that. Because while we’re all very concerned right now about the life of the church and ‘can we get into our buildings again?’ and so on, if that’s all we’re caring about right now at the expense of our missional calling to be in the world with good news and addressing all the need, then we really will be closing in on ourselves and we will be furthering our demise rather than turning it around. So I think right now that missional sense is really important, and it’s certainly what I bring to the table.

Martin’s formation

JD           I wanted to explore with Martin the faith journey that brought him to where he is now. I began by inviting hm to tell me about his awakening to faith when he was young.

MF         I was raised within Sunday School and so on, but then when I was a young teenager a new minister came to our church (now named Thornliebank Parish Church ) and he invited the young people to go with him on what used to be called ‘seaside mission’ and then subsequently became ‘summer mission.’  So off we went for two weeks down at Girvan on the Ayrshire coast to lead a fortnight of mission among children and young people.  I did that for seven years in all, and absolutely that was foundational in the sense of call to ministry, and prior to that an awakening of faith. I would say that I appropriated the faith I had been raised in, and actually made it my own. And out of that summer mission team, seven of us became ordained ministers within the Church, so it really was very foundational in all kind of ways.

JD           Is that because you were seeing living faith in others in practical nitty-gritty stuff, and also being forced to test your faith by doing things you weren’t used to doing?

MF         Absolutely the latter.  I have a very, very vivid memory of the very first year, so I would have been about 13 or 14, and our then new  minister asking me to read the Bible Lesson in front of what was a crowd of a couple of hundred people. And I just crumbled. I said: ‘There’s no way I can do this!’ I’d never done anything up-front before in any walk of life.

And yet, I did. And so there was a new-found confidence, and that just blossomed in the years that followed by way of sharing faith, and confidence in faith. And I think the other critical thing about being on those teams was the sense of community that built up: we knew we were together in this endeavour and that has stayed with me ever since, as an antidote to any over-privatisation of faith. It was a realisation that God calls us not as individuals but to be part of family, to be part of the Church. I think all of that was awakened within me in these days.

JD           And then you have spoken about being awakened to the need for justice and equality?

MF         Absolutely, I had an aunt who carried with her through all her life a very heightened sense of the Christian call to work for justice. It wasn’t that my parents had another view, it just wasn’t to the fore at home, but my aunt would bring me books and encourage me to read this, and think about that. So she awakened that sense within me.

By the time I was a mid-teenager I really was looking around and thinking ‘This world is ill-divided’ and that for me was absolutely something that was coming out of faith – though it might be seen as a political statement in some way, for me it was a faith position.

So when I went to University I studied Politics as part of my degree, and took my first job was as a Youth Worker in a very deprived part of Leeds and Bradford . This was in the mid-1980s and that church was focused on addressing the inequality which was so evident. You’d walk into one housing estate there, and then five minutes up the road you were in leafy suburbs.  I was just seeing all of this, and thinking ‘This can’t be right!’  You know, ‘there’s something inherently not right about this.’

JD           And, Martin continued, the Bible speaks powerfully into this situation

MF         The Old Testament, and primarily through the prophets primarily is just laden with condemnations of those societies which are neglecting those realities around them, and particularly when religion is being exercised in a kind of ‘Sunday Morning’ kind of way.   Of course the prophets rail against the songs and the rituals and the religious acts and so on when it is devoid of any concern for justice and for the rights of the poor, the orphan, the widow. So those texts, prophets like Amos absolutely spoke to me and informed my growing sense of what the world was like, and my growing conviction that any fully-blown Christian ethic had to take that seriously.

The universal need for God

JD           You also spent time as a youth worker in Bermuda. Was that also in a deprived community?

MF         Interestingly, the very opposite. When I finished my academic training, Elaine and I were keen on going somewhere overseas and experiencing something quite different before we settled down, if I can put it that way.  So we applied to go overseas with the Church of Scotland under a programme called, I think, ‘World Exchange.’  But we were looking at Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania – somewhere where the Church was active in Africa. And that just seemed to us to be the right destination. But it didn’t work out. They couldn’t find a suitable place where both of us could go. So we just actually dismissed that, and said ‘OK, it’s not going to happen.’  

And then, on the back of that, when the minister at that time in the Church of Scotland in Bermuda contacted the Church of Scotland, and said ‘We’re looking for, maybe a probationer minister or someone who could come and work primarily with youth’  they phoned me up and said ‘Would you be interested?’ So we went.

But it was ironic, because having thought of going to one of the poorest parts of the world, we ended up in what was at that time the third richest country on earth per head of population. Totally upside-down from what we’d imagined!  

But it was a massive learning-curve as well, because there I guess I saw for myself that no amount of wealth can give life a sense of completeness. I became aware that even in that kind of community, people had need for spiritual truth and for God: there was a hunger for something more So that for me was a really important lesson, which shattered my preconceptions. And I realized that the gospel is relevant across the whole spectrum: from people who have nothing in the material sense to people who have everything in that sense.

JD           I suppose your perhaps found that the people who have lots of stuff ate harder to reach than the people who are aware of their need?

MF         Yes, there’s no doubt about that.  In the years since my church has been very involved first in Cambodia, and then over the last 14/15 years in Malawi, I have visited these countries as have many folks from the church. And you realise that when you’ve got no Plan B – in other words when you have nothing – you absolutely have no recourse other than to trust in God. And not just ‘trust in God’ as mere words – something you might sing in a song –  but ‘trust in God’  has to be the way you operate, you have to trust for your daily bread.

But when you are an independent person, a self-made man as you might consider yourself to be,  the whole business of trusting only comes to the fore when you’ve exhausted every other avenue, because you taught yourself to think that ‘I can handle life!’ 

So absolutely, I saw that for myself.  In Bermuda at that time there were terrible drink problems for example, more people in prison per head of population than almost anywhere else, all kinds of social problems, marital breakdown off the scale, drug problems. And yet it took a lot to break through some of the facades, for people to acknowledge ‘actually I am in need.’

Living the preached Word

JD           I’m interest in what you studied  for your Doctorate at Princeton  Was that related to Justice and Equality issues? Or was that more theological in its subject-matter?

MF         It was much more the latter. By then, I had been in parish ministry for about eight years, and I had been growing as a preacher. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s what got me up in the morning,  but of all the elements of ministry I was relishing the preaching task more and more.

So the theme of my doctorate was very much around what it is to preach, and how we can encourage congregations to live with the preached word. Its title was ‘What happens after the preacher says Amen at the end of the sermon.’   Because so often the reality is people will go out the door of the door and say ‘Oh thank you for that, minister. Thank you for that. Oh, that spoke to me today!’  But by the time they’ve had their lunch they’ve pretty much forgotten about it. So I was looking at developing small groups and all sorts of ways which worked with the sermon through the coming week My doctorate was about the Word of God and how we preach it and how people appropriate it and how we become accountable for living out that word of God.

Facing doubt

JD           I wanted to explore whether Martinever has doubts about the faith, so I asked him. ‘You speak a great deal about the life-transforming potential of Jesus Christ. Do you ever have doubts, and if so, how do you deal with them? I mean, doubts about God’s existence, doubts about the goodness of God?’ 

MF         I would say that I have almost pushed myself to face up to doubts. During the rise of  New Atheism, I deliberately was reading Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion, deliberately reading some of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and those guys. We’ve got to face up to the challenges, and to what the accusations are, and so absolutely I wrestled with that.  I think if you’re not prepared to test your faith in the face of battle then what’s it going to be in those moments when you really need it? 

So yes, I have, but I have to say that I am not shaken in my set of core beliefs, and that in fact I’m probably all the more certain of them. Not just through the academic rigour of debate, or of thinking things through but backed up absolutely by the personal experiences of what I’ve seen.

So take for example the work that our church has done among people with drug addiction problems, which we launched in Arbroath in 2006 – the Havilah Project. I couldn’t tell you now the numbers of folks who have recovered from addiction, and who prior to that had been through every programme that the health board was able to offer. And one after another those guys got nowhere. They just continued in the cycle of addiction.

And yet as we began to offer something different to that, or let me say complementary to that, one after another of them got free from drug addiction, got their lives completely turned around, transformed. Today they would credit that to the work of the Christ who breaks the chains. So I guess what I’m saying is: ‘Yes, I think the Christian faith is absolutely coherent and rational, and can stand up to scrutiny, but that belief is backed up by ‘Yes, and this is what I see happening.’

Care meets evangelism

JD           So there are two things going on in Havilah. You’re caring for people, and you’re also introducing them to Christ. How do those two balance? Or would you say they are one, because the care you are giving is a Christ-inspired care?

MF         I think that’s well-put. It’s definitely that. However, the ordering is important.  We were determined at the beginning that there would be no barriers put up to anyone coming in, and no preconceptions. So people could come into the project and might come for weeks even months, and never hear mention of God, Jesus, Scripture, Church, Prayer, nothing.  We were determined that our faith would be lived out in a welcome, non-judgemental compassionate approach. Our ethos was unshakable, but we were determined not to make it the presenting factor.

But what has happened without fail is that when people have experienced that welcome and that compassion, they have always been moved to ask ‘Why is it that you people are in this business? Why are you treating us like this, when ordinarily we get treated almost as if we were something that you stood on?’

So at that point we would say ‘Well,  it’s because we believe that you are a child of God, and that he loves you,’ so that comes, but it comes upon invitation. And I think it sort of chimes with that verse in Peter’s first epistle when he says ‘Always be ready when asked to give an explanation for the hope you have within you.’(1 Peter 3:15)  But the important bit in there is ‘When asked.’  So we don’t knock it into people’s heads, but they always ask.

They always ask, and we’re always ready to share. And sometimes to begin with in response to that people will say, ‘Ah, you know, I’ve no time for religious gobbledegook.’ Even then, they’ll come back to you a little while later and say ‘Gonna tell me a wee bit more about that?’  And so it absolutely is known, it becomes just who we are.

Love and theology

JD           I was interested in Martin’s view of the relationship between the love someone expresses and their theological perspective.  ‘What’s the balance between theology and showing love? Is showing love more important that the particular theological framework someone holds, whether they’re an evangelical or a liberal or whatever?  Or is important to keep the theology and the love engendered by that theology hand in hand?’

MF         I would say it’s impossible to separate them out. What we believe informs who we are and how we live. That said, some of the best expressions that I’ve seen across the church have been evidenced in all parts of the Church, so a having a liberal or a more traditional evangelical theology does not  guarantee a particular outworking and so I guess what I’m going to say is ‘by your fruits you shall be known’ ultimately.

And I think, if I could put it as crudely as this, that one day we won’t stand before the Throne and be asked so ‘Give me your 10 key doctrinal foundation points’ but it will be ‘I was poor and you helped me, I was naked and you clothed me,’ and I’ve seen those teachings expressed in action from across the Church, and I’ve seen them neglected across the Church. So I think in the final analysis, I will ally with those who will work it our firstly, even more than to ally with people who may share exactly a doctrinal formula.

Discernment in engaging with the community

JD           It would be easy for a church to look at you and say ‘Arbroath’s got this wonderful guy called Martin Fair, and he’s got this Havilah project. What can we do in our local community? We don’t have a Martin Fair. Our minister has different gifts. How can we discern what is the right expression of community engagement for us?’

MF         The first thing to say is to acknowledge that the Havilah Project is not, was not actually my idea.  And some of the best things that happen in our congregation by way of community engagement did not spring from me.  And I’m not just saying that by way of acknowledging that it was actually someone else. What I’m saying is that the role of the minister, to my mind, is creating an environment within the Church where others feel free to express themselves, where others understand that they are called into ministry and where it is quite possible for ordinary folk in the church to be coming to the minister and the more identifiable leadership and saying ‘This is what’s laid on our hearts,’ and to be given an open door to pursue that. 

What I did in ministry was to create that kind of environment. So it was a small group of folks within the church who came to me and said ‘Look around us in our community. There is so much need.  So much social exclusion. What are we doing about it as a church?’ And really my response to them at that point was ‘Well, you tell me!’  ‘You tell me what we might be doing about it.’ 

So I think what I’ve been as a minister is a facilitator and an enabler, and a creator of the space, whereby others have come up. Now the significance of that is this –  Havilah is owned by the church. If just the minister comes up with ideas, it’s a sort of top-down arrangement, and folks maybe ‘get it’  or not. But if it comes from the folk, people will ‘get it’.

So here we are, 14, 15 years later on and the thing is absolutely alive because it came up that way, and therefore I don’t think it’s dependent on me as such. So that’s the important role of ministry rather than I think leading all the time in terms of being the ideas factory. 

Many times people have asked me about Havilah, and I’ve said ‘Please don’t reproduce it. Please don’t think that this is a franchise. It might have no relevance in your community whatsoever.  And before you do anything like that, you’ve just got to immerse yourself in a community.’

If I was going as a missionary, maybe in more old-school days – let’s say to Senegal – the first thing I would do would be learn the language. Before I even started trying to work, I’d need to learn the language, I’d need to learn the culture – you know, ‘how things happen round here’. And in the same way, churches need to learn the language of the context they’re in, they need to know who’s who, what’s what and how it works around here. And only then they would begin to see where those missional opportunities might lie, where we can partner in what’s going on, where we can identify gaps in provision, and that’s when we begin to move. And what’s going on in Morningside will be totally different from Milton (a housing scheme in north Glasgow) It just differs. There’s no right, no wrong, but what we do has got to be applicable to the context.

Faith in the time of COVID-19

JD           How does Christian faith help us face the future in these uncertain times?

MF         Yesterday I had to write the upcoming article for Life and Work, the Moderator writes one, and that’s exactly what I addressed.  Faith is often confused with certainty – in fact the two are not the same at all.  Faith is crucial in so much as it doesn’t need to know what the future holds because it knows the one who holds the future. I mean that’s a little bit of a cliched phrase but I believe it 100%.  So, we have a God who says to us ‘I will provide manna for you for today. Don’t go storing it up for tomorrow.  Trust me that it will be there tomorrow.’  So you have ‘strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.’ That’s what faith offers us.

So I go forward confidently with no sense of what next week’s all about, what the church is going to look like in days to come, but absolutely rock-solid in my sense that God is in it, and that God has plan and purpose for his Church, for this country. I think if ever there was a time when Christian faith was important, it’s right now.  But again to say that should not be confused with any certainty, because anybody who claims certainty right now I think is deluded.

JD           Martin, thank you very much for your time, and for sharing so freely with us.