The Minister and the Murderer

by Stuart Kelly, Granta, 342pp, £20

In 1969 James Nelson battered his mother to death. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Fifteen years later, when he had been released on licence and had studied theology at St Andrews, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland debated, and voted upon, his application to be ordained as a minister.

The debate divided the Church, for obvious reasons. On the one hand, Christ came to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance; on the other, ministers hold a special position. Would parishioners accept a murderer as their spiritual guide? And Nelson’s murder was peculiarly horrible. Kelly observes that there are many murders in the Bible, but not a single case of matricide.

This is a remarkable book. Nelson’s story is at the heart of it but it ranges far beyond that, into theological and philosophical questions, into matters of high culture – Kelly is a notably acute literary critic – and popular culture too. It examines the difficult question of forgiveness – who is entitled or required to forgive and on what terms? Nelson, it seems, could forgive himself. His father understandably could not forgive him.

The book is deeply rooted in the history and practices of the Church of Scotland and its democratic nature. Nelson’s application might be approved, but he would not be a minister until he had found a parish to accept him for, in the Kirk, parish ministers are chosen by the congregation. Nelson would eventually be called by two linked parishes, not far from where he had killed his mother. Many families there had been removed from Glasgow slums and given a second chance in new housing estates; they voted to give Nelson a second chance too.

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