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Church of Scotland’s Moderator of the General Assembly takes a turn on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

The Rt. Rev. Sally Foster-Fulton, who grew up in South Carolina, compares the Scottish church with its US counterpart

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rt. Rev. Sally Foster-Fulton is Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. (Photo courtesy of the Church of Scotland)

LOUISVILLE — The Rt. Rev. Sally Foster-Fulton, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, took her turn in front of the “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” microphone earlier this month, chatting with hosts Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe about some of the ways the “Mother Church” and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are similar and yet different. Listen to their 53-minute conversation here. Foster-Fulton is introduced at the five-minute mark.

Born and raised in South Carolina and married to the Rev. Stuart Fulton, a fellow Church of Scotland minister, Foster-Fulton shares at least one thing in common with Catoe: both hail from South Carolina. “I expect my accent’s going to get thicker and thicker as we talk,” she joked early on in the conversation.

Like the PC(USA), the Church of Scotland is working to be “as ecumenical as we possibly can be,” Foster-Fulton said. Seven years ago, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England signed the Columba Declaration, which Foster-Fulton described as “a declaration of friendship and partnership and an acknowledgement of our desire to move closer together and to work more intentionally in partnership.”

It’s also signed the St Margaret Declaration with the Catholic Church of Scotland. “We are meeting more regularly together, and we are working more closely together,” she said.

The Saint Andrew Declaration signed during the most recent General Assembly “moves us toward ecumenical partnership and working very closely together” with the Scottish Episcopal Church. “We have a similar partnership with the United Reformed Church,” she said.

“I’m incredibly inspired by this,” Foster-Fulton said. “What lights my fire is there’s a lot of potential for interfaith work.”

The Church of Scotland is moving from 43 presbyteries to 12, “and we’re moving the resourcing from the center into those more local spaces,” she said. “That’s not without its challenges. It also means that buildings will be closing, and churches will be amalgamating. It’s not a very good witness to our environmental commitments to have five Churches of Scotland you could throw a rock and hit from one place.”

“It’s about making those difficult decisions so that we can kind of put our money where our morals are,” Foster-Fulton said.

Denominations on both sides of the Atlantic are in different places on their journeys to environmental justice, she said. The Church of Scotland has divested from fossil fuel companies and is “trying to get our carbon footprint down to zero” in the next few years. “We’re trying to get our own house in order because the big house is on fire,” Foster-Fulton said. It helps that “the climate targets for the Scottish government are well ahead of other spaces.”

She said churches must be “on the forefront” of racial, gender and climate justice. “It matters what we do and what we say. That makes us relevant and gives our voice accountability and authenticity in those spaces. If we’re not actively working to bring justice for the poorest and most marginalized, then what are we about?”

In the runup to the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, Foster-Fulton helped create space for respectful dialogue between campaigners on both sides of the debate. “The General Assembly decided to remain impartial as to yes or no, but to be very proactive in empowering people to think and to make these decisions and to discern it so that when they did vote yes or no at that referendum, they had … all the information,” she said.

In public meetings under the theme of “Imagining Scotland’s Future,” attendees were asked, “What kind of Scotland do you want to live in?”

“What we found was people who voted very differently in that referendum wanted the same things,” she told Catoe and Doong. “And then we were able to say, ‘How then can we work now to bring that about in the reality we find ourselves in?’ I have a mentor who said, ‘You know, every time you look in the face of another human being, you’re looking into the face of God. What’s your response going to be?’ That pulls me up short every day. I fear when we get so disenfranchised, we don’t see each other like that anymore, or it’s easy to forget.”

In conversations that can become “quite fraught,” it’s important to say, “We are never going to find common ground if we spend too much time defending our corner,” she said. She told the story of one facilitator who asked everyone gathered to stand up if they could, telling them, “In your mind, think of all the baggage you’re bringing here with you. And he said, ‘Put it down. Let’s come clean into this space and really deeply listen to each other. There are so many things we are not going to agree on, but there are many things we do agree on already.’ It was a phenomenal experience.”

Both Scottish and U.S. Presbyterians work at holding “the grace in the room” even when people are discussing difficult topics, Foster-Fulton said. Because the countries are so different size-wise, U.S. Presbyterians have to work harder at forging and maintaining relationships, she said. “The potential for public voice and space and action in the PC(USA) is extraordinary,” she said. “There’s also that opportunity to find partners that share similar values … and magnify your voices.”

When people of many faiths call for peace in places including Gaza, “it has a much bigger impact than an Islamic statement and a Jewish statement and a Christian statement,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges [for people of faith] is not letting the bureaucracy drown us, and the moment passes.” We might find ourselves in this situation, she said: “I need to — and this is a very Presbyterian thing — I need to go back to this committee and then the other committee before I can come back and tell you, and then it’s done, it’s too late … What are the ways that we can speak and speak quickly or act and act quickly when we need to? If you’ve already decided we’re going to do that together, then that’s where you go first rather than to your own little corners … If you don’t have that conversation first, you’ll never get there.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

Foster-Fulton told the hosts she’s never had “a genuine encounter with someone of a different faith or belief and left diminished in my faith.”

“It’s challenging times all around,” she said, “but challenging times can be quite fruitful as well. It’s amazing what seeds get planted when things are challenging.”

The Church of Scotland is also doing work around repenting for the sin of slavery. Part of that work includes traveling to Jamaica, where a former moderator of the Presbyterian churches there is chair of a charity that’s identified seven issues the charity has traced back to the period of enslavement and has come up with seven ways to implement responses to enslavement there. “I just find that extraordinarily life-giving,” she said.

After Catoe thanked Foster-Fulton for her time and her insights, she thanked the hosts right back.

“You’ve given me a lot of thought fodder,” she said, “and so I’m going to go away and let it percolate.”

Find previous episodes of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” here.

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