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The Minister and the Murderer by Stuart Kelly

29 March 2018

Ian Bradley considers a strange episode in the Kirk’s history

THIS is an unusual book, and I am not sure quite what readership the author, a Scottish literary critic and author, had in mind when he wrote it. Ostensibly, it is a piece of high-end journalism, centring on a debate in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1984. This was on whether John Nelson, who had been released on parole from prison after serving nine years of a life sentence for having, at the age of 24, beaten his mother to death at their home in Glasgow, should be allowed to become a minister of the Church of Scotland.

Stuart Kelly probes Nelson’s family circumstances, faith, and motives both for murder and ministry, and chronicles in some detail the impassioned debate within the Kirk about whether one who was apparently unrepentant of his terrible crime should be ordained. In the event, the General Assembly voted by 622 to 425 in favour of his ordination and he served for 17 years as minister of two linked parishes in Lanarkshire before his death in 2005.

Nelson’s story does not, however, occupy the greater part of this book. Most of its pages are devoted to a detailed exposition of Scottish church history, and long excursuses into Old and New Testament exegesis, philosophy, Greek mythology, English and American literature, and systematic theology.

Perhaps the most recurrent theme is the author’s own loss of faith, which is described in candid and exquisite terms: “it was like a Victorian butterfly pinned behind glass, or a slightly gauche child’s sampler left in a chest, or a set of crocus petals pressed in a family Bible — most likely around the Second Book of Chronicles, which nobody really likes or reads . . . perfect and preserved, intact and entire, nothing of it had decayed except everything.”

Towards the end of this rather haunting and disturbing book, deeply and characteristically Scottish in its rugged honesty, eloquent intellectualism, and fascination with the Kirk in all its ambiguity, the author notes: “I would have been a rather good systematic theologian — it would not have made me a better Christian.” The final sentence reads: “In the absence of God, the Church must be enough for me. Amen.”

The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

The Minister and the Murderer: A book of aftermaths
Stuart Kelly
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