“It’s been a great privilege”

After 10 years as Principal of New College, Professor David Fergusson reflects on past highlights and future opportunities as he hands over to Professor Susan Hardman Moore.

Professor Fergusson standing in New College garden
Professor Fergusson standing in the garden at New College

David says: "I was approached to be Principal of New College in 2008 after Graeme Auld stepped down. I was just finishing a stretch as Head of the School of Divinity so I suppose I was seen as the natural successor, or maybe it was a case of 'faute de mieux'.

"It’s been one of the great privileges of my career to serve in this capacity, not least in light of the distinguished list of former Principals, including John Baillie and John McIntyre, my two most recent predecessors in the Chair of Divinity. I hope that Susan Hardman Moore enjoys the work as much as I have – she will be excellent in the role.

"Since my student days at New College, I have been personally committed to the partnership between Church and University. This has served both institutions well since the foundation of the University of Edinburgh in 1583. Although times have changed, I believe that the partnership has a future. As Edmund Burke insisted, a tradition worth maintaining is one that we should be prepared to reform. While I was Principal of New College, I was asked by Sir Tim O’Shea, the University Principal, to oversee the merger of the University with the Edinburgh College of Art. This was realised in 2011. He took the view that a representative of one happy merger might persuade people that another one was possible!"

Challenges of change

"New College has been evolving as long as I have known it. We are now more ecumenical and multi-faith than at any time in the past. This is certainly a good thing. But, while I welcome the wider ecumenical make up, the better gender balance, the stronger multi-faith dimension and the growing importance of our religious studies programme, I also regret the steep decline in the number of ordinands. This has created a very serious crisis for the Church of Scotland with only one recruit now replacing every four retirees. Whereas in my student days the ministry candidates dominated the student body, they now comprise no more than 5%. Greater diversity is to be welcomed, but the number of ministry students is now too low.

"The Church is facing major challenges in the years ahead which will place heavy demands on our ministers. But, at the same time, there will be opportunities to adjust our forms of church life, worship and mission. The challenges will enable greater flexibility and innovation in the years ahead, as well as recognition of what continues to serve us well. I hope that will be part of the excitement of ministry for the next generation. And I want to argue that strong commitment to theological education will need to underpin any successful programme of change."

From parish to Professorship

"Given my interest in academic study throughout my student years, I always attracted to the prospect of a university career. The route from parish to university was well trodden in the past, though perhaps less so now. I enjoyed lecturing part-time in Glasgow while I was a parish minister, so when offered a full-time post in Edinburgh in 1986, I decided to take the opportunity. I haven’t spent all my career at New College. I taught for over a decade in Aberdeen, another rich and enjoyable time, before returning to Edinburgh as Professor of Divinity in 2000.

"I find lecturing and preaching most rewarding when you can connect with your audience. That often involves having an awareness of their context and a pastoral relationship with the people you’re addressing. The places I’ve wanted to speak have tended to be those where I live and work, and so have a stronger connection with the people. Preaching to a congregation of 50 people can be just as – or more – rewarding than preaching to 500.

"Having said that, I should add that the opportunity to visit churches, seminaries and universities in other parts of the world has been immensely enjoyable and instructive."

Chaplain to the Queen

"I was privileged to become a Chaplain to the Queen and to join the Chapel Royal in Scotland in 2015. I have enjoyed the role though it is a modest one. We appear occasionally at civic and ceremonial occasions attended by the Queen or other members of the royal family in Scotland, such as the kirking of the Scottish Parliament in St Giles’. I have preached once at Crathie Kirk, the parish church of Balmoral Castle. This took place on the Sunday before the independence referendum in 2014. With the result remaining uncertain, I sought to reflect on the need for both sides to find common ground in the time ahead, no matter the outcome. I’m not sure whether this has yet happened."

Memorable moments

"Amusing stories – most of them I can’t retell! But I do recall the time three pigeons found their way into the Martin Hall one morning and took up position on the curtain rail. I arranged for the Estates department to have them removed but afterwards, I discovered, they had spent a full hour listening to a lecture on Noah’s Ark by Professor Auld.

"Highlights of my time as Principal would be the live broadcast across the UK on Radio 4 in 2008, the annual overseas study tour, and the greater ecumenical enrichment provided by the candidates from the Scottish Episcopal Church. The generous response to our fundraising efforts has also been a welcome feature of the last decade.

"The live Radio 4 broadcast took place on Advent Sunday. It also happened to be St Andrews Day. In the wake of the financial crisis, I spoke about the future uncertainty facing students whose prospects seemed less clear that they were in my day. The student choir sang, and the event was shared and hosted by own congregation at Greenbank Church. A large number turned out in sub-zero temperatures to rehearse before sunrise. Altogether it was a memorable occasion.

"The annual overseas study tour for ministry candidates is funded by the Jane Jeffrey bequest. It’s organised expertly by Alison Jack as Assistant Principal of New College. In a triennial sequence we visit Jerusalem, Rome and either Wittenberg or Geneva. Students remember these trips long after they’ve forgotten anything I taught them! Miss Jeffrey bequeathed £5,000 in the late 19th century to endow a scholarship for ministry students. The fund now covers the full cost of the annual study tour – it’s an outstanding example of the benefits of a legacy.

"The generous response to our fundraising efforts for ministry students has been quite remarkable. It’s given us an extra £1m in endowed scholarship funds, which will stand students in good stead for years to come. Apart from its obvious benefit to hard-pressed candidates, it is also very encouraging for those of us who teach here."

Looking forward

"Although I’m stepping down as Principal, I’m looking forward to continuing as Professor of Divinity.  I enjoy teaching, research and the supervision of doctoral students as much as ever. My book, The Providence of God: A Polyphonic Approach, has just been published by Cambridge University Press and I’m currently co-editing with Mark Elliott in St Andrews a three-volume History of Scottish Theology, due to be published by Oxford University Press in 2019/20.

"In the medium term, I also plan to write a one-volume systematic theology.

"And I look forward to continuing my involvement with the Church of Scotland, which will no doubt find other things for me to do!"


Professor Fergusson's web page


The generous response to our fundraising efforts for ministry students has been quite remarkable.

Professor David Fergusson