Tributes paid to the Principal Clerk of the General Assembly as he prepares to retire

By Cameron Brooks

Tributes have been paid to the Principal Clerk of the General Assembly who is retiring next month.

The Rev Dr George Whyte, pictured right,  said it has been a “privilege” to serve in so many different Church of Scotland settings and alongside so many “wonderful” people over the last 41 years.

He has held the position of Principal Clerk, which requires in-depth knowledge of church law, history, practice and procedure, since 2017.

Colleagues said they were “indebted” to him for his long service to the Church and expressed “gratitude” for his expertise and support.

In addition to advising the General Assembly, the Principal Clerk also supports the Moderator throughout the year as well as providing training courses and advice to Kirk Sessions, presbyteries, ministers and other church bodies.

Dr Whyte, a Chaplain-In-Ordinary to Her Majesty the Queen, is part of a select group of people – around 40— who have served in the role since the 1570s.

Described as a man with a sharp mind and an excellent sense of humour, Dr Whyte is credited with “holding the Church together” during a global pandemic and a time of enormous structural change.

He is the secretary to the Assembly Business Committee and its convener, Rev Donald McCorkindale, and vice-convener, Susan Pym, said: “All Principal Clerks face challenges in their day-to-day work.

“But very few will have had to face the enormity of supporting the Kirk through a global pandemic whilst facilitating and encouraging presbytery reform.

“In these worrying and demanding times, he has held the Church together, helped and encouraged us all with new methods of communication such as Zoom and Teams meetings, culminating with the first ever online General Assemblies.

“The legalities and technologies of such were bewildering but he pressed on with determination and vigour.”

The conveners said Dr Whyte’s office in the Church offices on George Street, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was a welcome space to find sound advice, sensitivity and diplomacy with a “dash of his excellent sense of humour”.

“His knowledge of the Church, its people and his understanding of the Church’s place in Scotland and beyond has served us greatly,” they added.

“We are indebted to George for his years of service to his beloved Church.”

Dr Whyte is married to Moira who is a great support to him and she has made her own “significant contributions” to the Church over the years.

Originally from Barrhead in East Renfrewshire, he was ordained as an elder at the age of 21 and studied science and then divinity at the University of Glasgow – with a year as a police officer in between.

Dr Whyte was ordained as minister of Kilchrenan and Dalvich with Muckairn in Argyll in 1981.

He then served at Langside Parish Church in Glasgow before becoming the spiritual leader of Colinton Parish Church in Edinburgh and later taking on the role of clerk of the Presbytery of Edinburgh in 2008.

Dr Whyte served as the Depute Clerk to the General Assembly between 2010-2017 and was convener of the Board of Ministry between 1996 and 2000.

In 2014, he stepped in, at very short notice, to be Acting Principal Clerk when the Very Rev Dr John Chalmers became Moderator of the General Assembly.

A strong supporter of the Boys’ Brigade, Dr Whyte received his doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2004 and was the creative mind behind the Heart and Soul festival in Edinburgh – part of the General Assembly.

Dr Whyte is the secretary to the Legal Questions Committee – a role described by colleagues as “invaluable”.

Its convener, Rev Dr Grant Barclay, and vice-convener Victoria Linford said that the Church at all levels had “good reason” to be glad that he was the Principal Clerk during lockdown when restrictions were imposed on meeting for worship, fellowship and decision making.

“George brought the knowledge and experience gained through a lifetime of service and willingly placed it at the service of the Kirk,” they added.

“His swift, assured and knowledgeable response through this period has enabled the Church to continue to function securely and effectively in worship, service and mission.

“Bringing not only a sharp mind but an equally acute sense of humour and realism to his work, George has led the Church through a dizzying array of state legislative changes as he has engaged with government at all levels.

“He oversaw the calling, and holding, of the first online General Assemblies in the Kirk’s history.

“Moderators, presbytery clerks, ministers and elders have been guided, supported and persuaded through George’s direct, clear-sighted advice.”

The committee conveners said Dr Whyte has enabled the Church to “add to the richness of public life in demanding days.”

“The Church in expressing its gratitude to George for his expert and willing support of its law and practices over these years of office wishes him, and Moira, joy and enrichment in this next phase of their lives,” they added.

Dr Whyte said: “Looking back on 41 years of ministry, I would say it has been a privilege to serve the Church in many different settings and alongside so many wonderful people.

“I have always been surprised at what I have been called to do and where I have been asked to serve.

“I am glad that I answered God’s call to the ministry even if, at the time, I had no real idea of what I was taking on.

“I am also pleased to be laying down the responsibilities of being Principal Clerk.

“I have no idea what the future holds but, as that has always been the case, I am very comfortable waiting to see what is in store.”

Pictured at top of page are Principal Clerk George Whyte and the Very Rev Susan Brown, past Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

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