The Rev Dr James Maitland: Obituary

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The Independent Online
It was peculiarly appropriate that at the huge funeral of the Rev Dr James Maitland, Doctor of Divinity and for four decades one of the most prominent ministers of the Church of Scotland, that a priest of the Roman Catholic Church, Father Tommy Greenham, should have been at the altar participating in the service alongside the Rev John Robertson and taking the key passage "Lord of life, conqueror of death". For Jim Maitland was the pioneer of Christian ecumenism in Scotland.

As the local MP I am in the position to know that within days of his appointment to the first charge at the birth of Livingston New Town, Maitland pressed the Roman Catholic hierarchy to set up a Catholic church in the new town, which they did as a result of his entreaties long before they had intended to do so. The facilities of the new St Columbas were made available to all denominations, and a joint arrangement was set up between Maitland, the Rev Brian Hardy of the Episcopal Church, the Rev Hamish Smith of the Congregational Church, and Father John Byrne of the Roman Catholic Church to share facilities.

It was Maitland's sadness later that the Roman Catholics, co-operating in everything else, chose to build a church of their own. But the co-operation and genuine friendship is in the view of informed opinion in Scotland the paramount reason why the religious divides of the west of Scotland and possibly Northern Ireland were not imported into what was to become the largest of the Scottish new towns.

In 1996, post-Sheppard/ Warlock in Liverpool, ecumenical joint action may not seem so remarkable. In the Scottish central belt, Maitland's initiative in 1966 was quite simply without precedent. A man before his time, he set an example. He would assert to Alec Eadie, MP for Mid- lothian, and me that a reformed church should ever be prepared itself to reform.

James Maitland was born one of three sons and two daughters of the gardener to the Bulloch family of Rhum at Fasnacluich near Oban. He was ever mindful of his strict upbringing in a devout household; his sermons were delivered in low, clear tones - his expressive eyes speaking volumes from the pulpit - and laced with earthy analogies from a life geared to the soil. From the pulpit, as in private, he was very direct, looking you hard in the eye, uncomfortably so for some.

After attending Oban High School, then as now a school with a serious academic tradition, he went to Edinburgh University and was ordained at Glenorchy in 1940 after a year at New College, the theological centre of Edinburgh University. His first charge was as assistant priest in Kirkcaldy in Fife, but typically he volunteered on a mission to Yoker in Glasgow as soon as the Clydebank bombing became serious. As his contemporaries stated: "Jim characteristically chose the hard way." He was a committed pacifist, though was determined to share dangers, not least because his brother Ian, who was awarded the DFC, had been killed over Germany as a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber.

From Kirkcaldy he went to St Bride's in Edinburgh and became very involved with the BBC in Scotland. He was a natural as a religious broadcaster. And he was later one of the pioneers of the television service, broadcast from different churches.

Between 1954 and 1958 he committed himself to the Iona Community, then under the direction of the Rev Dr George MacLeod and the Rev Dr Ralph Morton. His contemporaries at that time would say of Maitland that like Barnabas he was "a great encourager". The Iona Community brought an evangelism to some of the new areas of Scotland and nowhere more than from Iona Community House, the hub of the organisation in Glasgow of which Maitland was the warden.

In 1958 he was chosen to go to the Airdrie West congregation where his assistant, the Rev Douglas Lamb, remembers him as a champion of the vulnerable and the less well-off. "If Jim heard that a family, religious or not, had had to go as far as breaking down the doors in their house for firewood he would personally go to see them and make it his business to become involved. He was that sort of a man."

In 1966, called to Livingston, he established an atmosphere in the church which survives to this day. Towards the end of his life I asked him what was his ambition. He replied with a remark that might have been embarrassing in other people but was the essence of Jim Maitland: "Quite simply, to do the will of God".

This he did with the powerful support of his remarkable wife, Elizabeth.

James Maitland, minister of the church: born Fasnacluich, Appin 10 May 1914; ordained Minister of the Church of Scotland 1940; Minister of St Columba, Livingston 1966-88; married 1943 Elizabeth Simpson; died Livingston 20 August 1996.