James Philip

Pastor and theologian

Born: 11 January, 1922, in Bucksburn, Aberdeenshire.

Died: 12 March, 2009, in Edinburgh, aged 87.

JAMES Philip arrived in Edinburgh in January 1958 to take over a run-down church in Abbeyhill. He was not the congregation's first choice, nor even its fifth choice – 19 others had been approached before him, and each had declined. This was no attractive appointment.

Philip had left a fruitful ministry in Gardenstown, Banffshire. Within weeks of arriving in Holyrood Abbey Church he was walking the parish streets in the evenings with a desolate heart. Opposition to his style of preaching was palpable.

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The turning point came as he stood one day on Salisbury Crags, surveying the city, and struggling with his new call. If this moribund church was going to influence lives in Edinburgh, it would need divine intervention. He walked home that afternoon with a deep sense of expectancy.

The following week Philip initiated a Saturday evening meeting with a single focus: to pray. The meeting began in the vestry but, as numbers grew, it quickly had to move into the church hall.

Prayer was to characterise the life of Holyrood Abbey Church. Jim Philip prayed with a deep sense of dependence, and of awe. In each church service he would lean forward to the microphone, his hands open, as he ushered the congregation into the intimacy he shared with the triune God; it was an experience not to be forgotten. Then, as the congregation sang the hymn before the sermon, Philip would be on his knees in the pulpit; this was no formal gesture.

Philip had a huge mind. He was a man of searing intellect and of broad intellectual reach. He preached a reasoned gospel, as had the Apostle Paul, one of the most gifted academics in the Greek world. The Letter to the Romans, the Apostle's passionate apologetic for reasoned faith, was possibly Philip's favourite Bible book, certainly his most preached.

By the early to mid-1960s, students from Edinburgh University and Moray House were piling into the gallery on Sunday mornings and evenings, soon to be joined by fifth and sixth-formers from schools across the city.

In the evenings his Geneva gown gave way to a collar and tie. He always dressed with care, even a sense of formality.

Philip's preaching appealed to nurses, businessmen, academics and blue-collar workers. All would sit with their Bibles open in front of them, engaging with the passage he was expounding. With his distinctive style – always serious, always urgent, always controlled in its delivery, he would place the passage in the context of the whole Bible, and work to apply it to the social and political trends of the day.

Where the original Hebrew or Greek was not easy to translate, Philip would explain why; he would quote, sometimes at length, from commentaries or articles to throw light on the original meaning or its application. The congregation actively engaged with him, taking notes as they expanded their grasp of scripture, and developed a faculty to think theologically.

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Scores followed him into ministry in the Church of Scotland or served in mission work overseas.

James Philip was the second of three children born to James Philip, a lithographic printer, and his wife, Isabella. Aged 12, he won a bursary to Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen. He was a keen sportsman and an able young musician. While still a teenager, he would play the organ for meetings held by the great Scottish evangelist of the day, D P Thomson.

Philip read arts and classics at Aberdeen University, graduating MA in 1942. It was in his time at university that his career path was set, but first came service in India and Burma with the RAF.

He married Mary Moffat, great-great-granddaughter of the pioneer missionary Robert Moffat, in November 1960. She had grown up in northern Rhodesia and was completing her medical training in Edinburgh. It was a strong and supportive marriage for a demanding ministry of study, writing and travel.

While vocally critical of the Church of Scotland when he sensed it was moving from the historic faith, Philip always exercised grace, and was held in esteem by churchmen of all stripes for his careful thinking and diligent work in the Presbytery.

He served in the Church's selection school procedures, for many years as a director, renowned for his scrupulous fairness. It is one expression of Philip's legacy to the Church of Scotland that his son William is presently the minister of St George's-Tron, Glasgow, and his daughter is married to the minister of Torrance. (His brother George was minister of Sandyford Henderson Memorial Church in Glasgow.)

Philip leaves a huge corpus of work, in writing and on tape. Many of his sermons are available on the web, and his writing has been translated into major languages.

The late Professor David F Wright of New College, and David Stay, on the staff of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, co-edited a Festschrift, Serving the Word of God, in honour of Philip's 80th birthday in 2002.