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Looking Back

Looking Back: Barclay Retires

Professor William Barclay, acclaimed theologian, writer and broadcaster, retired in September 1974. In that month's Life and Work Dr Ronald Falconer, who worked with him in radio and television, paid this heartfelt tribute.

 William Barclay in a pulpit, filmed by a BBC cameraman

Willie Barclay says he owes it all to an old woman. That marvellous and unique ability of his to communicate Christian teaching, whether in print or on the T.V. screen. She lived along in a single end in his only but much-loved parish of Trinity, Renfrew. When she took ill, for a whole winter he visited her until she was well again. Then, after the manner and privilege of old Scots womenfolk, she said to him: “When you’ve been here, talking to me, and sometimes putting up a wee prayer, it’s been grand and I’ve understood every word you’ve said. But man, when you’re in yon pulpit on the Sabbath, you’re awa’ o’er ma heid!”

He was so disturbed by his failure to communicate to this simple, Christian soul – and who knows how many others – that he radically examined his whole teaching and preaching methods. Chiefly, he turned to the stories Jesus told which the common people heard so gladly. As a result, you and I, with a whole host of people right round the world, have been enriched by this man to whom the General Assembly accorded one of the only three standing ovations it has given since the end of World War II.

There was that tall, courteous, Fijian pastor who waited on me after a seminar in Suva. “Sir,” he said, “when you meet Professor Barclay again, will you express to him the gratitude of a pastor whose faith has been immensely strengthened by his Daily Bible Study Guides.”

And in case this confirms what some sceptics hold, that Barclay communicates only to the unlearned, there was the Director of New Zealand Television, a man of wide culture, who told how, in moments of stress, he locked his door and spent twenty quiet minutes with the teacher and his Master. Or again, that extraordinary gathering of American Churchmen, each, it would seem, with at least three degrees after his name, the last inevitably a doctorate, who have made an annual pilgrimage to St. Andrews each July, there to sit, enthralled, at his feet.

But it was Television which gave Willie Barclay to the ordinary folk of Scotland, especially those who had never bought a religious book in their lives. There is the now-classic story of his unexpected entry into a Dumbarton pub to buy cigarettes in the days when, on his own confession, he smoked far too many. He was clad in evening-dress, en route for a learned society in Helensburgh.

The shipyard workers stared at this gleaming-fronted apparition. Then one said: “Here, I ken you, mister! You’re yon fella Barclay that does thae talks on the telly – and I’ve got a question for you!”

The pub erupted around him; when he finally had to leave, they lined up and insisted in shaking hands with him, and, “paid for my cigarettes, forby!”

Some opposition

It’s a chastening thought that countless non-church folk have sat, like the Americans, at the feet of this superb communicator of New Testament teaching; chastening, because the Kirk, over the eight years of his regular Television Lectures, seems to have done precisely nothing about it, except in some individual congregations where dramatic things happened through local imagination and initiative.

Indeed, in the early years there was much opposition, especially from ministers who disliked his theology. Once a conference of them told us, by an overwhelming majority, that there should be no more Barclay on T.V. About the same time, a B.B.C. –Scotland Programme Board, with more than its share of honest agnostics, was equally unanimously all for him, including a Departmental Head who said: “If there’d been more ministers like him around when I was young, maybe I wouldn’t be an atheist today!”

So humble

A fantastic pile of documentary evidence with stories like these has been flooding in from all over the world, in the letters enclosing donations to the Barclay Testimonial Fund. From the young student-lassie, about to commit suicide yet forced to think again by a broadcast, to the O.A.P. of 83 who sent her widow’s mite with the recommendation that every kirk in the land should have a Retiring Collection, “just to show him what we think of him”.

Once, when I told him of these kinds of reaction to his lectures, he found difficulty in speaking and finally whispered, “It makes you feel so humble”.

Such is our popular acclaim that we are inclined to forget that his principal life’s work has been teaching students, albeit to understand and to preach his beloved New Testament. He has cared for his students with a deep compassion. They have taken their troubles to him, as to a father-in-God.

There were the half-dozen able young men, for example, who were determined not to offer themselves for License to Preach because of their theological objections to the Westminster Confession. As a last resort, they took their troubles to Professor Barclay when they felt others had let them down. They left his home at five the next morning. Some of them are now amongst our best younger ministers.

How can one begin to explain the attraction and success of William Barclay and all his works? The stories, the illustrations, taken straight out of everyday living, the flashes of humour, the easily-forgotten but brilliant scholarship behind the straightforward teaching, all these, plus his enthusiasm, his conviction, spill out over all he does, to wash, in turn, over us. All these and one vital thing more – his profound love for the Jesus he seeks to share with others.

What an immense debt we owe that old woman of Renfrew!

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