Obituary: The Right Rev Alastair Haggart
Monday 19 January 1998
In Scotland a bishop is elected by the clergy and lay representatives of the diocese, a democratic process which can frequently lead to a stalemate when the clergy and the laity back different candidates. When Alastair Haggart was put forward as a candidate for the Edinburgh diocese, there was no such wrangle. He was the first and obvious choice of clergy and laity, and the election process was one of the shortest.
In an age of religious doubt Haggart stood out as someone whose confidence in the faith was unshaken - not because doubts did not exist, but because he had thought them through and had reached firm conclusions.
Slightly magisterial, in preaching, he recognised that the Christian faith could exist at various levels. For some a simple faith as learnt in childhood remained adequate, while for others it required intellectual wrestling and a search for deeper meaning and justification. Haggart would on occasion preach to both elements in the congregation, making it clear when those already satisfied could switch off. With anyone struggling with the faith he would happily listen and argue, not thrusting forward his own views, but modestly meeting arguments put forward. He inspired not only respect, but a great affection, and his kindness and sense of humour won him many friends.
Although he was not brought up in the Episcopalian Church but in the Free Presbyterian Church, his clerical career was very much along traditional lines. Trained at Edinburgh Theological College with a degree from Durham University, he served his curacy at St Mary's Cathedral in Glasgow, then held a brief charge at St Mary's, Hendon, before returning to Scotland in 1948.
From Perth he went west again to be Rector of St Oswald's, King's Park, Glasgow, and eight years later was instituted Provost of St Paul's Cathedral, Dundee, for 12 years. Then, after a period as Principal of the Theological College in Edinburgh, he was elected Bishop of Edinburgh in 1975. To no one's surprise he was chosen by his fellow bishops as Primus of the Episcopal Church in 1977, the equivalent of an Archbishop in England; as junior bishop he was thus preferred to the office which normally was filled by the most senior.
He had shown how sensitively he could handle the situation in Dundee where his predecessor as provost had become the bishop of the diocese. Changes and reorganisation would, he knew, be carefully watched, but he made his changes tactfully and renewed the life of the cathedral. At the Theological College at a time when clergy vocations were booming, he inspired the ordinands and modernised their training. His ability was apparent, as his tenure as Primus confirmed, and as did his subsequent appointment to organise many of the arrangements of the Lambeth Conference.
Alastair Haggart was a leader, and one of his first steps as primus was to reorganise the government of the Scottish Church. Finance and doctrine were determined by different bodies, the Representative Church Council and the Provincial Synod. In the council every charge was represented by both its rector and its lay representative; it decided all financial matters, while the Synod debated doctrine and liturgy.
Haggart pushed through the amalgamation of the two bodies into the General Synod, an omni-purpose gathering, reduced in number but increased in power. Traditionalists resisted, but he knew that in the course of every debate there comes a time when impatience, and even boredom, induce tractability and a better decision-making body was created and the expense of convening it reduced.
In his few spare moments his interests were walking, reading and listening to music; to these he added in his Who's Who entry - and one can imagine his smile as he did so - "asking questions". That he failed to wait for the answer, or gave it himself, was an accepted characteristic. Happily, to the end his intellectual vigour and this quest for knowledge never failed.
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