This week, Alison Elliot makes history as the first female in a key Church of Scotland post. Olga Wojtas asked her about breaking the stained-glass ceiling.
When Alison Elliot was a schoolgirl in the 1960s, she studied maths so that she could become an actuary. "One of the reasons was that there were fewer women there than in other professions at that time," she says. "In some ways, my parents were very conventional, and I was schooled in all the domestic graces by my mother. But at the age when I was saying 'I'd like to be a nurse', she was saying strongly, 'You're going to be a doctor.' She was not going to let me short-change my academic career just because I was a woman."
At university, Elliot dropped her actuarial ambitions as she developed an interest in pure rather than applied maths. But it is in another field altogether that the Edinburgh University academic will this week make history. On May 15, she will become the first woman to break through the Church of Scotland's so-called stained-glass ceiling, when she takes up the post of moderator of the general assembly.
The elected post, which involves chairing the general assembly, then travelling in Scotland and abroad in an ambassadorial role, lasts for a year. "The Church of Scotland doesn't believe in church leaders," Elliot says. "One of the biggest Scottish sins is to be above yourself and so they're very suspicious of people who put themselves in a leadership role unthinkingly. They're also very suspicious of power and what it does to people and therefore you're only allowed to be moderator for a year because you might get a taste for it."
More seriously, she admits having felt angry when the Kirk passed over talented female candidates in the past. "The fact that the Church of Scotland was not appointing a woman when it could was a double slap in the face for women in other churches who were not even at the stage of being ordained. Latterly what was very difficult to cope with was the apparent dishonesty of having a position that said women could do this and yet we didn't seem to get to the point of appointing somebody," she says.
Not only is Elliot female, she is the first moderator since the 17th century not to be an ordained minister. Many academics have been moderators in the past -Elliot succeeds Iain Torrance, professor of patristics and Christian ethics at Aberdeen University. But these academics have been theologians, while Elliot, a Kirk elder, is a social scientist. Her mathematical interest drew her into linguistics at the height of the Chomskyan revolution, and then to the psychology of language. Armed with an MSc in experimental psychology and a PhD in children's language development, she became a lecturer at Lancaster University a year after it set up a psychology department.
"It was great because it was a young department. You would come back after your first lecture and flop in the coffee room and everybody would want to know how it had gone. There was tremendous peer support and encouragement and training," she says. "When I came back to Edinburgh to lecture, I had experience and didn't need that kind of collegial support, but because everybody was much more well established, it would have been difficult to get that sort of training."
She gave up the Edinburgh lecturership when she started a family, but was then approached to help set up a Centre for Theology and Public Issues in the faculty of divinity. "I came in as a social scientist. When it comes to the purely theological perspective, I feel I would still love to be able to do a proper degree in theology rather than just coming in at the end and reading all the books my friends have written, which is the way I pick it up."
Elliot's work at the centre led to her being appointed to the Church of Scotland's influential church and nation committee and to increased involvement in the Kirk's work. Her academic background in developmental psychology has imbued her with a sense that life is constantly in flux and that to be human is to change. "The church is often described as the body of Christ. It's important, I think, that we have there a biological metaphor that entails both interrelationship between the different parts of the working body, but also the importance of growth."
Although she seems reluctant to be drawn on the homosexuality debate that is pulling the Church of England apart, she is very aware of the issues, having worked with other churches - she was awarded an OBE last year for her services to the Church of Scotland and ecumenical relations. She says that the same splits - between conservatives and liberals - are at play within many British churches.
"Within the British context, many of the real divisions in the churches go through them rather than between them. (The conservative-liberal division) is a stronger division than is the case across the churches when it comes to matters of faith and position."
She also acknowledges the widespread hostility to organised religion: even many people with a strong Christian faith do not belong to a church. But she sees the churches as "keepers of the memory", offering a rootedness for faith.
"In a postmodern consumerist age, there is the temptation for people to see spirituality as another bit of consumption and go for what they fancy best.
The trouble is that the Christian faith has costs to it; it's not all sweetness and light. You have to take on a lot of hard sayings like loving your enemies, which is a very rigorous kind of requirement," she says.
"Although Christianity is all about love, it's a love that puts demands on you, not just a love you can wallow in. It challenges our understanding of the nature of power and powerlessness, and many people don't have an appetite for hearing that message. It challenges us in the way in which we are stewards of resources."
The churches have been horrified, she says, at the scapegoating of asylum-seekers. A human-rights issue is being confused with security issues and issues of administrative competence. "Within the Scottish context, we're very conscious of the fact that we have migrated round the world, and it ill behoves us to shut the doors peremptorily to people who are looking for precisely the kind of security and fulfilment that we have sought elsewhere."
And she is highly critical of the emotive language of the "war on terror".
Talk of good and evil, she says, is extremely superficial. "The line of good and evil runs through each of us, not between people."