The Very Rev Professor Robert Craig

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The Independent Online
Robert Craig, theologian: born Markinch, Fife 22 March 1917; Professor of Divinity, Natal University 1950-57; Professor of Religion, Smith College 1958-63; Professor of Theology, University of Zimbabwe (University of Rhodesia) 1963-80 (Emeritus), Principal and Vice-Chancellor 1969-80; Minister, St Andrew's Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem 1980-85; CBE 1981; Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1986-87; married 1950 Olga Strzelec (one son, one daughter); died Falkland, Fife 30 January 1995.

Once a year, every year, on a Wednesday afternoon, to coincide with Scottish Question Time, there appears in the Distinguished Strangers' Gallery of the House of Commons a gentleman accoutred in knee breeches and immaculate fluffy white muffler. A fuddy-duddy out of Victorian England? Not so. He is the year's Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in London for his annual visitation, which usually includes tea in 10 Downing Street, and a welcome in the Speaker's Apartments. Far from being fuddy-duddies, Moderators alternate biannually between being distinguished parish ministers and eminent academic theologians. Not one of us who was there on that autumn Wednesday in 1986 will erase the scene from memory. Conservative MPs were pointing up to the Gallery with an accusing finger, muttering ``That's him!''

"Him" was the Very Reverend Professor Robert Craig - and the reason for the flurry on the floor of the House was that he had preached the customary sermon at the customary service in the Crypt of the House, the Chapel of St Stephen, the Martyrs and St Mary Undercroft, that morning; only the content had been far from customary, and had consisted of an eloquent demand for stronger action on unemployment, and a scorching attack on Margaret Thatcher's creation of two nations. When Craig finished, we Scottish Labour MPs could hardly restrain ourselves in rising to give him the ecclesiastical equivalent of a standing ovation. Craig had struck a chord by saying: ``We are in serious danger of becoming again two nations - a few rich and many poor. We mobilised the best in human nature for justice and peace during the war. We are challenged to do now the same for justice and peace today.''

Some Conservatives (e.g. Sir Nicholas Fairbairn) were incandescent with anger; others (such as the late Alick Buchanan-Smith) were not. Certainly Craig's rebuke to Parliament was ill received by Bernard Ingham, who made it only too clear to the Lobby that Professor Craig confirmed (yet again) the Prime Minister's ill-regard for the Scots - a feeling which was mutual among Scottish divines.

Anyone who was in the least surprised by the Moderator's outburst could have known little about the gentleman in the white muffler. He was the author of Social Concern in the Thought of William Temple (1963), a book which enjoyed a considerable impact among my senior colleagues when I was first elected to the House of Commons. Craig wrote: Temple was striking at the very heart of the accepted economy, and both he and his opponents recognised this. ``We are challenged,'' Temple said, ``to find a social order which provides employment, steadily and generally, and our conscience should be restive until we succeed. Christian sympathy demands this.

Robert Craig's father, John Craig, was a stone-mason, specialising in gravestones; Craig himself was much concerned about how cemeteries should be maintained in an age when families had become more mobile, and when memory of the family of the deceased had probably vanished in a community where generation previously had succeeded generation. His mother, Annie Peggie, was a weaver of linen from flax.

St Andrews University was the making of Robert Craig. He graduated MA in 1938, and in 1941 completed a Bachelor of Divinity with Distinction in Systematic Theology. At St Andrews, ecclesiastical scholarship mattered.

After a brief spell awaiting call-up in St John's Kirk, Perth, as an assistant minister, Craig became an Army Chaplain (4th Class, as he ruefully put it, meaning most junior and designated for the sharp end of battle). His experience with the Scottish infantry battalions gave him a perspective about comradeship and personal behaviour which prompted him years later to say to Scottish MPs that they should have better regard for opinions different from their own. ``For a generation that fought in battle together, it is natural to offer respect to political opponents.'' He was an admirer of Harold Macmillan, who expressed his public regard for the miners, who had been with him on the Somme, and outrage at Mrs Thatcher's ``the enemy within''.

In 1944, Craig was mentioned in despatches for his courage during the Normandy landings - when 40 years later he became Moderator, one of his commanding officers opined, ``That fella should have got an MC or VC!'' Soldiers who were in Normandy say that Craig was impervious to his own safety in ministering to the mortally wounded in the front line.

Craig always led his life as if he were living on borrowed time. No less than 13 chaplains to Scottish regiments had been killed in Normandy in the course of military actions. ``I am just lucky to have been a survivor.''

So well was Craig thought of by the Scottish Lowland Division powers-that-were that he was invited to be Chaplain of the King's Own Scottish Borderers in Palestine, from 1945 to1947. This was to be a seminal experience. It enabled Craig to get to know the biblical places - Jerusalem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee. A better posting for a young theological scholar could hardly be imagined.

Returning, as it turned out briefly, to Scotland, Craig combined finishing his PhD at St Andrews with the deputy leadership of the Iona Community, run by the redoubtable Dr George MacLeod, later Lord MacLeod of Fuinary.

In 1950, he married Olga Strzelec, who from 1942 had served as a nurse with the Polish Forces in the Middle East under the command of General Andrews, and whom Craig met in Palestine. Olga Craig, owing to the circumstances of the war years, preferred on health grounds to live in a warmer climate than Scotland; Craig himself said, "There are too many theologians after the available jobs in Britain, and I'm one for export.'' He decided to accept a post in Natal, as Professor of Divinity at the university.Among Craig's sponsors was Reinhold Niebuhr, William Bennett, Jan van Huzen, and Paul Tillich, who had taught Craig when he was Hugh Black Fellow at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, and the American Institute for Biblical Studies.

It was the high regard of the American theologians which brought him to the Professorship of Divinity at Smith College, Massachusetts, in 1958-63. But the call of Africa was paramount, and Craig forsook the attractions of the United States to return, becoming Professor of Theology at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, of which he became Vice-Principal in 1966, and Principal in 1969.

Ian Smith declared UDI in 1965. Rhodesia became the epicentre of British politics. Harold Wilson, as Prime Minister, saw it as his Vietnam. There was pressure from politicians and, indeed, from more than one heavyweight of the Church of Scotland for Craig to resign. He refused. He said he opposed Ian Smith's action; he believed in multi-racial education, as steadfastly as ever - but ``because I, rightly or wrongly, consider that the interests of the continuation of the college, and the new Department ofTheology, take priority over my private conscience, I am not offering my resignation''.

Craig was hurt when the Congress of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, meeting of all places in Edinburgh, asked the University of Rhodesia to withdraw from participation, in the face of a threatened boycott from other participating countries.Craig knew that what he regarded as posturing would resolve nothing in the real problems of southern Africa.

Returning to Israel-Palestine in 1980, on his retirement from the University of Zimbabwe, Craig became Minister of St Andrew's Church. Along with many Scots, I have received hospitality from this valued outpost of Scotland. The Craigs enhanced its reputation, and won golden opinions when he was Moderator of the Presbytery of Jerusalem in the early 1980s. He struck up a lasting friendship with the long-serving Mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek, whom he invited to St Andrews on St Andrew's Day 1986.

Uniquely, since the Second World War, the Moderatorship of the General Assembly was offered to a retired minister. But Craig's activity belied any notion of retirement. Unstintingly, Robert and Olga Craig toured the parishes of Scotland. Controversy attended him, not least when he took the opportunity afforded by an official tour of the Dumbarton Presbytery to make a spontaneous visit to the Faslane peace camp, the home of protesters against the Clyde submarine base on the Gareloch.

Criticism was strident to the effect that the Moderator had failed to visit any of the military establishments around Dumbartonshire. Dignified as usual, Craig replied that he had in fact met the wives and families of men working at the base, and had indeed been greeted by the senior naval officer in charge. As criticism persisted, it was pointed out that Craig, with experience of Normandy to the Rhine crossing, was not one to be lectured on pacifism. He made his own position clear: ``There is a place for Christian pacifist witness. It is not a witness which I personally could subscribe to. But Christian pacifism is accepted as a possible interpretation of Christian teaching in the modern situation. Whether you agree with these people or not in their principles or action, that is another matter. It is accepted as a possible Christian witness in the world today.''

Tam Dalyell