Sermon - Sunday, 20 May 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 20 May 2018.

Scripture: John 16: 5-16 / Acts 2: 1-13

Text: When the day of Pentecost came they were altogether in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting   (Acts 2: 1,2)


On Tuesday lunchtime our new Moderator, the Right Reverend Susan Brown, has invited people to join her on the plaza between the two National Galleries at the foot of the Mound.

When everyone has gathered, Susan will lead the group up the Mound, through the gates and into the quadrangle in front of New College, people singing and waving banners and flags as they go.

Susan will then lead a short service, an act of thanksgiving, before proceeding up the steps and into the Assembly Hall.

And the reason for the event?

Next Tuesday will mark fifty years to the day since the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland finally agreed that women should become eligible for ordination to the ministry of word and sacrament on the same terms and conditions as men.

This historic decision opened the door to new opportunities and challenges for women, it changed the face of our church – and changed it for the better.

Today some 30% of the Church of Scotland’s ministers are women and these women have served – and are serving - in parishes and appointments throughout Scotland and beyond.

If the names of Moira McDonald and Lisa-Jane Rankin are familiar, two women who completed their ministry training at Cramond Kirk and are now highly respected and much loved ministers in Corstorphine and Hawick respectively, they stand in the footsteps of those who fought long and hard for the opportunity for women to be ordained.

Told by her family at the age of 8 years not to be silly, girls didn’t become ministers, and with her faith being nurtured at Scripture Union, Sunday School and Bible class Margaret Forrester also recalls being told at secondary school it was such a pity she wasn’t a boy as she would make a very good minister.

On Tuesday Rev Dr Margaret Forrester will be honoured as one of the women who brought about the change in the Church of Scotland’s policy.

As she describes her experiences in the May edition of Life and Work, her story is one of struggle, rejection, persistence and ultimate triumph.

Enrolling at New College in 1961 to study theology, and despite having taken the class, Margaret was refused permission to sit the New Testament Greek and Bible knowledge exam, part of the entrance qualifications for candidates to the ministry.

Only dogged persistence persuaded the invigilators to allow her into the exam hall where she passed the exams with flying colours, only to be appalled to discover several of the men, already accepted as candidates, had not passed. 

Failing Greek was understandable, Margaret thought – but failing Bible knowledge?

In 1963 Mary Lusk petitioned the Panel on Doctrine of the General Assembly for an Act to be passed enabling women to be ordained.

Four years later, frustrated at the continuing inaction of the Panel on Doctrine and their efforts to kick the matter into the long grass, Margaret and others sought permission to hand out leaflets to the commissioners – all men – attending the General Assembly.

Permission was refused – on the grounds that their leaflet was unofficial and might sway the vote!

Determined to press their cause, the women arranged a press conference.

To their delight the press turned out in force and, despite the General Assembly’s best efforts to silence them, their cause received far more public attention and support than might otherwise have been the case.

When the matter came to be discussed during the Assembly, the Reverend Graham Bailey proposed that under the Barrier Act, a process of consultation with the whole church, the Principal Clerk and Procurator be instructed to draft an overture …………….enabling women to be ordained.

The Assembly agreed, the consultation took place and the following year, 22 May 1968, the Act was finally passed.

By this time married to Duncan, and living in India where Duncan taught theology at a Mission School, Margaret was nursing their new born daughter on a verandah when a cable arrived.

Sweeping victory for the ordination of women

And what better day to celebrate a sweeping victory than the day of Pentecost, a day when the Spirit of God swept through the first disciples, a day that changed the church for the better - and changes it still.

Pentecost, the third great festival of the Christian calendar, describes the day when the spirit of God transformed a somewhat frightened group of women and men into a community of people, young and old, committed to spreading the gospel throughout Jerusalem and Judea to the ends of the earth.

The irony is given, the importance of Pentecost to the life of those first disciples and in the life of the early church, we actually know very little about it.

What we do know is that the followers of Jesus had returned to Jerusalem to celebrate the Shavuot, a harvest celebration and one of the great religious festivals in the Jewish calendar.

What we do know is that in the immediate aftermath of Easter these same disciples were bewildered and discouraged, their hopes and dreams of a renewed and restored Israel left in tatters by Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.

What we also know is that in Jerusalem and then back north at the Sea of Galilee, they encountered the risen Christ – and while many believed, some doubted.

Quite what some believed and quite what some doubted is what keeps Biblical scholars in work, suffice to say whatever the disciples made of Christ’s death and resurrection, as evidenced from today’s events, some of them remained together.

Then it happened, suddenly and without warning, an experience they could only compare to the sound of a violent wind and what seemed to be tongues of fire erupted among them.

And as St Luke records it, filled with the Holy Spirit the disciples began to speak in various other languages such that the crowd could understand them.

Were they speaking in tongues, the phenomenon often associated with the charismatic tradition where people pour out incomprehensible sounds?

I don’t think so, indeed, the very opposite appears to have been the case because Luke reports far from incomprehensible babble, people in the crowd heard the disciples declaring the wonders of God each in their own language.

So while we can’t say exactly what happened that first Pentecost, what we can do is point to the extraordinary transformation it wrought in a bewildered, confused and frightened group of men and women.

Suddenly they were filled with courage.

Suddenly they were blessed with hope.

Suddenly they found their voice.

Alarming in its intensity, the ancient Hebrew symbols of wind and fire signifying the presence of God, if there is something disturbing about the Biblical account of Pentecost, there is also something quite beautiful.

Pentecost frees our imagination to see the world differently, to celebrate diversity and not to be frightened of it, to realise that far from being the world of human design, we live in the world of God’s creativity.

Pentecost invites us to let go the old divisions, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, women and men, the old boundaries and barriers with their fears and suspicions, and embrace a new purpose in living, one grounded in the generous, compassionate, forgiving and hospitable love of our Saviour Christ.

Of course it didn’t happen overnight – and as many of Paul’s letters in the New Testament reveal, there were some painful birth pangs along the way – but slowly and surely a new understanding was born, of a church in which people were united not by nationality or education or wealth or social status or gender but by faith.

St Paul put it well when he said that in the church there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.[1]

On Tuesday next, as Susan leads the procession up the Mound, rather than the sound of a violent wind, the sound will be that of joyful celebration.

Catherine McConnachie was the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the Church of Scotland.

Effie Irvine was the first to be called to a parish.

Sheilagh Kesting was the first woman minister to serve as Moderator of the General Assembly with Lorna Hood the first serving parish minister to be appointed.

Susan Brown is our new Moderator, and having been ordained into her first charge in Sussex in 1974 by the United Reformed Church, in 1980 Margaret Forrester was appointed minister at St Michael’s here in Edinburgh where she served until her retirement.

Pentecost, a celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and as it continues to blow where it will, the spirit of Pentecost calls us all to trust in the purpose and providence of God whose promise, then and now, is to make all things new.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] Ephesians 4: 4-6