Obituaries: Duncan Forrester

Duncan Forrester. Picture: Contributed
Duncan Forrester. Picture: Contributed
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Rev Professor Duncan Baillie Forrester, theologian and minister.

Born: 10 November, 1933 in Edinburgh.

Died: 29 November, 2016, aged 83

Duncan Forrester, Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology in the University of Edinburgh (1978–2000), died on 29 November, 2016 aged 83. An academic theologian, university leader and minister of the Church of Scotland, in 1984 he established the first Centre for Theology and Public Issues, an inter-disciplinary think-tank that sought to bring theological insights to bear upon a range of political and social challenges.

Leading the centre until his retirement, he pioneered work in public theology across the world. Today an international network connects 24 such centres around the world.

Born on 10 November 1933, Forrester grew up in St Andrews, the youngest of five siblings, where his father, Professor William Forrester, held the Chair of Practical Theology and Christian Ethics. His mother, Isobel McColl, was a noted ecumenist within the national Kirk. Educated in politics and theology in St Andrews, Chicago, and Edinburgh, Duncan Forrester proceeded to chart his own course, by combining a commitment to social justice with a strong ecumenical theology. These influences endured through a distinguished career in India, Sussex and Edinburgh.

At Madras Christian College from 1962, he taught politics and was ordained in the Church of South India. During this time, he married Margaret McDonald, who shared his lifelong concern for the local and international church. Returning to the UK in 1970, Forrester served as chaplain and lecturer in the School of African and Asian Studies at Sussex University.

Following the untimely death of Jim Blackie, he was appointed in 1978 to the Chair of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at New College in Edinburgh. If his elevation at a relatively young age and without much experience of parish ministry aroused some scepticism, this was quickly dispelled. As professor and head of department, he established Edinburgh as the leading centre for practical theology in the UK. His initial partnership with Alastair Campbell and Robin Gill, before they left for chairs elsewhere, was to prove crucial in this respect. The Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI) brought together representatives of different churches and scholars from across the academy. Tackling issues related to poverty, social justice, and nuclear disarmament, the Centre inevitably attracted criticism for promoting a centre-left agenda, particularly during the Thatcher years. Undeterred by such criticism, Forrester never apologised for his faith or his politics, firmly believing that he and his colleagues had a responsibility to speak for those at the sharp end of government policy.

Despite his anxieties around the marketisation of higher education, he proved remarkably adept at recognising opportunities for academic innovation. Generating substantial sums of external income, he expanded his departmental base and was instrumental in attracting funds for Masters programmes in theology and development, and in theology and media studies. Later serving as both Dean of the Faculty and Principal of New College, he exercised a strong pastoral sense in his dealings with colleagues and students. Though often unnoticed, his commitment to ordinands remained paramount. He spent much time introducing them to the ecumenical breadth of the church in its liturgical and missional expressions.

In welcoming students from around the world into their home, his family displayed an unflagging hospitality. Evening seminars were also held in his house – a practice almost unheard of nowadays. Years later, students still recall the conviviality and intellectual stimulus of these occasions.

Forrester’s own academic output reflects an integration of themes and interests in Christian worship and political theology. The ministry of his wife in the Edinburgh parish of St Michael’s, Slateford, with areas of multiple deprivation, was surely influential, though Forrester increasingly stressed the importance of conversation across disciplinary and religious boundaries together with the need to accommodate the best insights of the secular world.

Author of ten monographs and essay collections, his most creative contribution may be in developing the concept of ‘theological fragments’. Even in the drift towards a post-Christian society, fragments from earlier systems of theology retain an arresting and sometimes discomfiting capacity to generate fresh insight and moral vision. An example he often cited was the language of forgiveness and reconciliation in relation to the rehabilitation of those who had served time in jail.

Energy and enthusiasm were words readily associated with Duncan Forrester. Cycling, jogging and hill-walking, he maintained a high level of fitness. On student retreats, he would be seen marching a bedraggled group to the top of Schiehallion in all weathers. His range of commitments and activities would astonish colleagues.

As a speaker, writer and facilitator, he was in high demand for more than 30 years. He delivered lecture series in several continents, presided over three scholarly associations, served on the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, and chaired the Theology and Religious Studies sub-committee in the 2001 UK research assessment exercise.

He was awarded honorary degrees by the universities of Glasgow, St Andrews and Iceland and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2007.

Forrester anticipated a retirement full of activity in 2001. Sadly, this was not to be. The onset of Parkinson’s disease, evident even before his demission, slowed him both physically and mentally. When Margaret fell and broke her hip in 2012, he resolved to enter a nearby care home the following year. Visitors became aware of an increasing frailty, though combined with his characteristic determination to encourage others in whatever path they pursued. Assessments of his work are likely to rank him as one of the leading public theologians of the late-twentieth century who made a decisive contribution to the School of Divinity in Edinburgh.

He is survived by his wife, their two children, Donald and Catriona, and their families.

DAVID FERGUSSON