The Very Rev. John Ballantyne Cairns

Doctor of Laws


Madame Pro-Vice-Chancellor, it is a quirk of history that Her Majesty the Queen, as she progresses north to Balmoral for her summer vacation, starts her journey as the temporal head of the Church of England, a church that is both catholic and reformed; and that when she crosses the border into Scotland she becomes a member of the Church of Scotland, a church wholly reformed, presbyterian and free.

Madame Pro-Vice-Chancellor,  today we honour The Very Reverend John Ballantyne Cairns, who as a past Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland crosses the border to return to England, the country of his birth and to the University in which he gained his degree in Law. In his self-deprecating manner he claims to have been less than assiduous as a student, and his inadequacy in the eyes of his fellow Scots is that he is only an English lawyer. Yet.....

After a brief period in legal practice he responded to a perceived vocation to the ordained ministry in the Church of Scotland.  His has been primarily a parish ministry in Elgin in the Borders, in Dumbarton, on the Clyde and now in Gullane on the Firth of Forth.  His ministry has been characterized by working with and for the local community and not just his congregations. This wide perspective and inclusivity will be seen as a hallmark of his vocation as a minister of the Church of Scotland.

The Church of Scotland’s governing system is presbyterian, which claims that no one person or group within the Church has more influence, perhaps power, than any other. It is organised by a system of courts at local, district and national levels. It highest court is the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland which meets annually in Edinburgh and has the authority to make laws to determine how the Church of Scotland operates. In 1999 John Cairns was nominated and elected Moderator of the General Assembly for one year. It is not without significance that in that year the Scottish Parliament was reconvened for the first time since 1707. Moderators have little or no power, but have a platform in which to exercise considerable influence.

Madame Pro-Vice-Chancellor, during his time as a minister John Cairns has made a significant contribution to the life of the Church and People of Scotland. He was instrumental in reforming the Church’s ministry. Ministers with a virtual freehold can be and are independently-minded, making them difficult to lead and even more difficult to support. Theirs is often a lonely, isolated and work driven life, which leads at times to depression and burn out. It is said that John Cairns virtually single-handedly introduced a programme of continuing ministerial education, planned study leave and the provision of health advisers. Such innovations included, for the first time,  a recognition of the demands made on women ministers, who often combine the roles of wife, mother and full-time minister. Alongside this work, as Chairman of the Church’s Judicial Commission he was instrumental in bringing clarity, openness and the highest standards of human rights to those the Church chose to discipline. Such a contribution has meant that the Church as a whole understands the pressures on its ministry and the ministers and their families can feel justly supported. It is said of John Cairns that, ‘He is a robust and compassionate man, who has never been afraid to name incompetence, but then to assist those in need.’

As the Convenor of the Committee on Chaplains to Her Majesty’s Forces, John Cairns brought his ecumenical zeal to bear to ensure that the chaplains from numerous church traditions in the Army, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force worked together. This pattern of inclusivity has marked his ministry, wherever he has served. Good relationships with other churches and faith communities have not always been the patterns  of Scottish life. Indeed relationships have been in the past bitter,  and division endemic. Such sectarian divides have their public face in the ‘Auld Firm’ matches between Celtic and Rangers. Yet John Cairns’ commitment to inclusivity has always been to the fore.

The notion of building an inclusive society, Madame Pro-Vice-Chancellor, is not without its difficulties. The place of women in public ministry has not always been wholly supported by members of congregations, yet John Cairns has actively supported their place in the mission and ministry of the Church. Perhaps his most contentious commitment to an inclusive society came during his year as Moderator of the General Assembly, when the Scottish Parliament proposed to repeal Section 28, as it was known in England, of the Local Government Act 1988, which forbade the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. John Cairns argued that the Act was discriminatory and contrary to human rights. The debate was fierce, but it was John Cairns’ courageous public stance as Moderator of the General Assembly, that this was a bad law which was unworthy of Scotland, that gave the fledgling Scottish Parliament the confidence to repeal Section 28 in June 2000.

Madame Pro-Vice-Chancellor, this account of John Cairns’ contribution to both his Church and people might be thought to be a little parochial, but that would be to misrepresent the man. John Cairns has supported two Charities, Glasgow the Caring City, which provides material aid to those suffering in war zones, and perhaps more importantly the African Children’s Choir, which educates children in areas of conflict or those who suffer from the ravages of HIV/Aids. His first- hand knowledge of the rebel areas of the Sudan, Kenya and Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army has continued its insurgency for 17 years, abducting children to serve as soldiers, has given this cause an authentic immediacy.  For many these needs are known only too well, but often passed by because we do not know how to help. John Cairns’ public support has encouraged others to express their concern in action.

John Cairns, Madame Pro-Vice-Chancellor, is a courageous man whose ministry has been characterised by a continuing desire to build inclusive communities, to stand against discrimination and to care actively for some of the most disadvantaged children on this earth.

Madame Pro-Vice-Chancellor, I present to you the Very Reverend John Ballantyne Cairns as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.