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Tribute to the Rev Professor Duncan Forrester

Monday December 5

Lesley Orr pays tribute to the Rev Professor Duncan Forrester, founding director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI) at Edinburgh University, who died on Tuesday November 29.

 

Duncan Forrester was Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh from 1978 until his retirement in 2000.

Previously, he had worked in South India (as Professor of Politics at Madras (now Chennai) Christian College), and at Sussex University (as chaplain and lecturer in Politics and Religious Studies). During his notable and pioneering career in Edinburgh, he was Principal of New College (1986-96) and Dean of the Faculty of Divinity (1996-99).

In 1999 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for his commitment to 'extending theology into public life'. This was recognition of Duncan's ground-breaking work in establishing the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at New College in 1984. He imagined the Centre as a forum of people in the academy, public life and in the churches, attending to the voices of those who were marginalised, ignored or impoverished in diverse contexts - and attempting to exert some positive influence on public affairs.

Justice was Duncan's prevailing concern - in his thinking and crucially as praxis, and he was determined that neither theology nor public policy should be done 'behind people's backs'.

With characteristic energy, discipline and care, Duncan led the Centre as a productive model of public theology, tackling a wide range of issues and drawing on an ever-expanding network of inter-disciplinary colleagues, practitioners and supporters - in Edinburgh, in Scotland and internationally (for Duncan's faith was truly and properly ecumenical). Generations of New College students (including me) knew him as an inspirational and encouraging teacher. And his body of writing has been of enduring significance in developing practical and public theology, Christian ethics and liturgy for, and in dialogue with, the contemporary world.

I have been privileged during the past two years to hold a fellowship which bears Duncan's name. I first got to know him properly when we were both delegates at the World Council of Churches sixth Assembly in Vancouver, 1983. He was a great friend and mentor during that inspiring gathering, and continued to be so during my subsequent years at New College. I was a student representative on the first CTPI committee, and in the 1990s had the opportunity to coordinate a project (Christianity and Violence Against Women in Scotland) under CTPI auspices.

Duncan was also a great friend and supporter of my father Jack Orr, and his innovative ministry at St John's Parish Church, Oxgangs. And a few years ago it was a pleasure to spend an afternoon recording an oral history interview with Duncan for a research project. So I have many reasons to be indebted to Duncan, as a theologian, a colleague and a friend, and I know countless others have likewise been influenced.

During the interview, Duncan reflected on his context as a Scottish ecumenical theologian in the post-war years, and these words ring true to the man and his character: “We felt we were at the start of a new age, rebuilding society in a more just and honest and decent way, in which there was special concern for the poor, the marginalised and the forgotten...and that Christianity had to engage with the issues in the world...It had to be passionate about theology with liberation at its centre...[I found it all] exhilarating - meeting wonderful people from different contexts, learning from and challenging one another. Oh, great days, great days!”

There will be a memorial service for Duncan at St Michael's Church, Slateford Road (the church where his beloved wife Margaret served as parish minister for many years) on Saturday December 10 at 11am.


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