The Very Rev Fraser Mcluskey

SAS chaplain who became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
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The Independent Online

To read Fraser McLuskey's 1993 autobiography The Cloud and the Fire is to be confronted by what it means to have a strong sense of being called by God to a ministry. In McLuskey's case this was above all a call to a preaching, pastoral, ministry that was to lead him to occupied France with the SAS in wartime and thereafter to Broughty Ferry, near Dundee, Bearsden on the edge of Glasgow and ultimately to St Columba's Church in Pont Street, London - where he served for 26 years - and the chair of the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Growing up, in the 1920s and 1930s, in a family fraught with financial difficulty McLuskey came early to an awareness of the call that he would follow all his life. School in Aberdeen and university in Edinburgh he regularly referred to as having been more important for extra-curricular activities than for study, an example of another hallmark of his life, the constant genuine humility towards and underplaying of his own achievements.

In 1939 McLuskey married Irene Calaminus from Germany, whom he had met whilst studying there the previous year, and became Chaplain to Glasgow University. By 1942 came the conviction that he should offer himself for military chaplaincy, thus opening the door to an outstanding period of service. McLuskey volunteered for parachute training and was appointed Chaplain to the 1st SAS Regiment.

At his request he accompanied the regiment's A Squadron when it was parachuted behind the German lines in June 1944. Months of harsh warfare followed, as the occupying German forces tried to eliminate the French Maquis and the British troops supporting them in disruptive tactics. Through all the tragedies and the heroisms McLuskey ministered unstintingly and courageously to his "parishioners", describing this amorphous theatre of war with typical understatement as "a pretty wide parish!" His kindly and effective ministry to all ranks in the face of constant danger has never been forgotten by those he served.

The humanity in the man showed through his anxieties for Irene at home and what he himself described as homesickness. Admitting such feelings to his comrades built an even closer relationship with them: here was a padre not wrapped in an impenetrable saintliness but one who knew what it was to share and overcome anxiety and fear. Courage was abundant in Fraser McLuskey. The award in 1945 of the Military Cross was recognition of it and rejoiced in by his regiment. His citation read:

On 22nd June [19]44 the Rev McLusk[e]y dropped by parachute with the main body of "A" Sqdn behind the enemy lines. During the next three months he carried out all his duties with the greatest courage and determination. When the area was full of German Convoys and patrols, he made several long and dangerous journeys between the base and outlying patrols in a civilian car with only a driver obtaining most valuable information. His bravery, steadiness and cheerfulness in all situations, and complete disregard for personal safety served as an inspiration to the whole Squadron.

McLuskey's own account of his war appeared in his book Parachute Padre (1951, reissued with a foreword by David Stirling in 1985).

In 1945, entering Germany with the 2nd Army, McLuskey at Wuppertal discovered that Irene's parents and other members of the family had been killed in the last Allied air-raid of the war. His war experiences fashioned in him a determination to break down barriers between people and a human sympathy from which none was excluded.

Moving to Broughty Ferry East Church, McLuskey developed the urgency, style and power of preaching that would mark the rest of his ministry. He met the young evangelist Billy Graham, and thus began a lifelong friendship between the Grahams and the McLuskeys. Fraser McLuskey could never be pigeon-holed into any theological category: he had the openness to new ideas and academic insights of the liberal coupled with the burning desire of the evangelical to preach relevantly the good news of Christ to all who would listen and to some who wouldn't.

After Tayside came a call in 1955 to New Kilpatrick Church in Bearsden, one of the largest congregations in the Church of Scotland, with over 2,000 members. For the next five years the congregation enjoyed ever-increasing levels of activity and commitment. When Irene died of cancer, Fraser found renewed confidence in the power and comfort of prayer, and responsibility for his sons Kenneth and Andrew.

Called in 1960 to St Columba's, London, the pastor and preacher in Fraser McLuskey was further fulfilled. St Columba's is the younger foundation of the two congregations of the Church of Scotland in London, the other being Crown Court Church in Covent Garden, dating from 1711. St Columba's Church, off Knightsbridge, was a new building when McLuskey arrived - built in 1950-54 by Sir Edward Maufe to replace its Victorian predecessor, which was destroyed by an incendiary bomb in May 1941. McLuskey's military links were strengthened through services and chaplaincy to the Royal British Legion and the London Scottish Regiment. The activities of expatriate Scots were fostered through the Highland Society, Caledonian Society, the Royal Scottish Corporation and tennis and Highland dancing clubs. Ecumenical bridges were built particularly in the founding of the Chelsea Council of Churches and through discussion with Edward Carpenter, then Dean of Westminster. Outreach continued through McLuskey's active support of Keston College and the campaigns of his friend Billy Graham.

In Fraser McLuskey Scottish church life in London found a voice that disturbed the complacent, spoke of heritage with pride and called for practical and effective care for the rejected and the misfits of society. He was at home with royalty as with the tramps who were regularly to be found in the vestibule of St Columba's. His many friends rejoiced when he was elected Moderator of the General Assembly in 1984, but McLuskey's enjoyment of the post was more circumspect. He preferred the tours and the people to the General Assembly itself.

With his marriage to Ruth Briant in 1966 McLuskey was enriched and strengthened. Ruth declared him to be "Prince Charming" and so this man of gracious, unassumed charm was - to the highest and lowest.

John Cairns

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