The Rev Martin Fair, the Moderator designate of the Church of Scotland.
By Cameron Brooks
A minister who set up a mental health support service following the suicide of Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchinson has been chosen to be the next Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The Rev Dr Martin Fair, who will take up the ambassador role next May, said he was left “devastated” after the singer of one of his favourite bands took his own life and decided he could no longer stand idly by and do nothing.
The 55-year-old, minister of St Andrew’s Parish Church in Arbroath, Angus, oversaw the roll-out of three services delivered by the congregation’s social action project, Havilah, earlier this year.
Dr Fair said faith groups and other bodies have an “obligation” to fill gaps in public provision because the level of statutory support for drug addiction and mental health in Scotland is “desperately short” of what is needed.
He said too many vulnerable people were being failed and politicians must redouble their efforts to address the crisis.
Dr Fair, who was ordained and inducted into St Andrew’s Parish Church in 1992, said he hoped to highlight addiction and mental health issues during his year in office.
He will be the first Moderator from Arbroath to serve as the Kirk’s ambassador at home and abroad during what will be the 700th anniversary year of the Declaration of Arbroath.
Dr Fair and his congregation set up Havilah in 2006 and paid staff and volunteers have helped around 1,000 people to date.
Open five days a week, it used to predominately help addicts but services have been broadened with the introduction of a community choir, a therapeutic garden and a drop-in service.
The new service provision was designed by six members of the congregation– three mental health professionals and three people who have struggled with their own mental health.
Dr Fair said: “Suicide is a horrendous endemic problem and we decided, as a church, that we had to do something.
“I have buried too many people who have taken their own lives over the years because they felt alone and helpless in the darkness which many think is their only friend.
“I am a big fan of Frightened Rabbit and was absolutely devastated by Scott’s death.
“When his body was found something snapped within me and I decided that I could not go on merely saying ‘isn’t it terrible’ every time someone took their own life.”
Official figures show there were 1,187 drugs related deaths in Scotland in 2018, up from 934 the previous year while there were 784 probable suicides last year, 104 more than in 2017.
Earlier this month, The Royal College of Psychiatrists warned that a UK-wide shortage of psychiatrists is forcing troubled youngsters to wait longer for NHS care.
Dr Fair, who grew up in Thornliebank on the southside of Glasgow, said: “The statutory provision to support people with drug additions and mental health is desperately short in terms of what is needed to address the epidemic.
“There must be much more investment in mental health services to address gaps in provision which includes a shortage of practitioners.
“I am not knocking the providers of mental health services – they are doing their best to support people but they are so stretched.
“Churches and the wider voluntary sector have an obligation to step in and fill the gaps until they are able to access the appropriate services.”
Dr Fair said faith groups can provide therapeutic, welcoming communities that are full of people who care and are prepared to listen to people without judgement.
“Havilah, which is referenced in the Bible as an area of the Garden of Eden where treasure of great worth is found, is a light in the darkness,” he added.
Dr Fair was brought up in Spiersbridge Church, now called Thornliebank Parish Church, and his wife Elaine, a primary school teacher by profession, was his childhood sweetheart.
The couple, who grew up on the same street and attended the same school, have three sons, Callum, 23, Andrew, 20 and Fraser, 18.
Dr Fair said his passion for social justice was ignited by a favourite aunt and his time working for the Church of England as a youth worker in a deprived area of Leeds.
“My Aunt Margaret was very motivated by her Christian faith and social conscience and told me that I have a responsibility to try and make our society better,” he added.
“My faith has always motivated me and In respect of Havilah, I absolutely fundamentally believe that what we have to offer drug addicts is more than a methadone programme, it is actually Christ.
“The biggest success stories we have had in getting people clean is folk who have understood that their freedom is in Christ and for me, that is the Kingdom of God.
“Yes, we campaign for social justice, we work against exclusion and we work for fairness but we are motivated by our belief that is what the Kingdom of God demands for us.”
“My favourite Frightened Rabbit song is ‘Living in Colour’ which is a brilliant anthem and a metaphor for what is possible in life.
“For me, that is what Jesus meant when he said ‘you can have life in all its fullness’ – it is living in colour as opposed to monochrome and that is what my ministry has been all about.”
Dr Fair said he is excited and a bit daunted about becoming Moderator and his one regret is that his beloved parents, Ena and Bill, who were born and bred in the Church, did not live long enough to see him take up the 12 month role.
“I am really excited about the future of the Church and quite frankly, if I solely focused on statistics that suggested terminal decline I would have quit the ministry years ago,” he added.
“It is at a key crossroads and we are letting go of some of what has been and embracing what is to come.
“I am looking forward to getting out and about and being alongside folk in the local church and hope to be an encouraging voice to help prepare all of us for what God has in store.
“There is a wonderful opportunity for the Church right now to rediscover its meaning and purpose for the people of Scotland and beyond in the here and now.
“I am totally fired up as a minister and as Moderator, I want to communicate that excitement and positivity.”
Dr Fair, who spent a year as a youth minister in Bermuda before swapping the island for Arbroath, said claims that the Kirk is in its “death throes are well wide of the mark”.
“As I travel round the country even now, I see green shoots of growth and live in hope for what is going to come,” he added.
“What we will see emerge will be fresh and new and to quote a phrase, God is not finished with Scotland or His Church.”
In addition to his doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary, New Jersey, USA, the Moderator Designate holds a degree in Politics and Geography from Strathclyde University in Glasgow and a Bachelor of Divinity from the University of Glasgow.
When he is not engaged in ministry in all its permutations, Dr Fair enjoys exploring the great outdoors and is a keen hill walker, mountaineer, camper, football fan and golfer.
As a teenager, he had a handicap of two and a favourite family story is the time he forfeited the chance of winning a club championship by walking off three holes early because he feared he would miss a cinema date with his now wife.
Golf continued to be a passion into adulthood but a “life changing” accident in August 2017 now means Dr Fair’s handicap of eight has slipped.
He tripped and fell in the street in Arbroath and broke his left arm which has never properly healed despite three operations.
His left hand does not function properly and he is unable to tie his own shoelaces and necktie and relies on a specially adapted car to get around under his own steam.
Dr Fair said: “It has been a huge learning curve and for the first time in my life I have had to ask for help.
“While I wish this had not happened to me, good things have come from it because when you are dependent on people for help you take on a different view of life.
“The support I got from my family and the Christian community was phenomenal and I think I am a more rounded person because of that experience.
“My attitude is ‘ok, let’s get on with life’ and I am not going to let it stop me or define me.
“I am now learning how to play golf one-handed.”