The Very Rev William Johnston

Religious broadcaster and scholarly Moderator of the Church of Scotland
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William Bryce Johnston, minister of the church: born Edinburgh 16 September 1921; ordained as Chaplain to HM Forces 1945; Minister, St Andrew's, Bo'ness 1949-55; Minister, St George's, Greenock 1955-64; Minister, Colinton Parish Church, Edinburgh 1964-91; Moderator, General Assembly, Church of Scotland 1980-81; Chaplain-in-Ordinary to the Queen in Scotland 1981-91, an Extra Chaplain 1991-2005; married 1947 Ruth Cowley (one son, two daughters); died Edinburgh 22 May 2005.

The pulpit and the broadcasting studio are hugely different milieus. Too often, not only learned divines but highly regarded preachers somehow fail to communicate on the airwaves. Over the last half-century, William Johnston was one of the consummate masters of the art of religious broadcasting.

He had a blend of simplicity and relevance that was compelling to the listener - with the not inconsiderable advantage of an extremely attractive Edinburgh accent. He was a frequent contributor to the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme, and throughout UK broadcasting Johnston's was a familiar voice for compassionate Christianity laced with pawky humour.

Bill Johnston was born into a professional family in Edinburgh and was educated at the rigorous George Watson's College - at that time well-known for its teaching in Classics. In 1942, he graduated with first class honours in Latin and Greek from Edinburgh University, but was urged, given the shortage of young wartime chaplains, to spend the following three years at New College, Edinburgh, where he gained a Bachelor of Divinity degree with distinction in New Testament Studies in 1945.

There followed a period of three years in which Johnston was a chaplain to the forces in the British Army of the Rhine. He used his time to take part in reconciliation activities with the German population. Applying himself to master the German language, he became an invaluable interpreter for several commanding officers who were inevitably involved in negotiations with the local population. This experience was to have an invaluable consequence. Such was his fluency in German that he was able in later years to translate some of the work of the great theological philosopher Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics, 1955).

Johnston told me that some of the most valuable work he had ever undertaken in a long life was in the garrison towns of Fallingbostel and Luneburg and in his subsequent deep involvement with the rehabilitation of prisoners of war who were returning to Germany from Allied hands and were the responsibility of the Prisoner of War Directorate of the War Office. He passionately believed that British and Germans had much in common and was subsequently an admirer of Noel Annan's fascinating volume Changing Enemies (1995), which described the work of the Allied Control Commission in Germany.

On demobilisation he was appointed to the charge of St Andrew's, Bo'ness. He is remembered to this day for his skill in comforting the bereaved - a skill with which he was to be associated all his life. In 1955 he transferred to the Parish of St George's at Greenock which involved being chaplain to Greenock Prison, then a female prison. A man of discerning compassion, Johnston championed the cause of those women for whom medical treatment was a more relevant consequence for their crime than simply being locked up.

After nine years on the Clyde, Johnston was appointed in 1964 to be minister of Colinton Parish Church, Edinburgh, where the congregation included many of Scotland's most influential parishioners. He is remembered as a wonderful parish minister and quite superb at selecting the mot juste at the many large funerals at Colinton.

The Church of Scotland selects its leader on an annual basis. He (or for the first time ever, last year, when Dr Alison Elliot was selected, she) is chosen on the basis of one year an eminent Professor of Divinity, the next year, turnabout, a parish minister. Johnston was in the latter category when he was chosen as Moderator of the church's General Assembly in 1980. But he had published a range of study pamphlets and theological articles, and most particularly the study Calvin, Commentaries on the Hebrews, 1 Peter (1960) which would have done credit to a Professor of Divinity.

From 1966 until 1988 Johnston was Visiting Lecturer in Social Ethics at Heriot-Watt University. Awarding him an honorary degree in 1989, Professor Anthony Keenan said:

This appointment came very soon after he had completed his period as prison chaplain. However, it is not clear from Heriot-Watt archives whether this was a coincidence or whether his experience with prisoners was judged at the time to be useful for teaching Heriot-Watt students.

In more serious vein, the Laureator continued:

While Bill Johnston's ability to broaden the intellectual horizons of so many of our students has earned him the admiration of his colleagues, it has also led to the occasional twinge of unease among some of us. Many of our past graduates have entered the world of industry and commerce and none of us yet knows for certain how far their careers may have been handicapped by the sound grounding in moral and ethical principles provided to them by Bill Johnston.

Every year, the Church of Scotland Moderator comes to spend an "official" day as guest of the Speaker of the House of Commons - and not only to sit in the visitors' gallery, kenspeckle in his black, ecclesiastical garment and britches with its white neckwear. After Johnston's visit in March 1981, Mr Speaker George Thomas (later Viscount Tonypandy), enthused to me about the powerful and ethical personalities not only of Johnston but of his wife Ruth. Johnston also made a great impression on members of the royal family, and he was made a Chaplain to the Queen in Scotland in 1981.

He was a member of the British Council of Churches, 1970-90, and a delegate to the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1975. On many inter-church bodies, Johnston was the face of the Church of Scotland.

Tam Dalyell

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