Obituary: Elizabeth Anne Cameron ‘Betty’ Walls, former general secretary of the Overseas Council of the Church of Scotland

Elizabeth Anne Cameron Walls
Elizabeth Anne Cameron Walls
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Born: 26 April, 1914, in Glasgow. Died: 26 May, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 99

Elizabeth Anne Cameron Walls was Glasgow-born and educated at Hutchesons Girls Grammar School before going up to Glasgow University where she graduated MA. She began her working life as a primary teacher. From 1940 until 1942 she was central president of the Girls Association.

In 1947 she turned from teaching to become the assistant to the general secretary of the Women’s Foreign Mission and would work in 121 George Street, Edinburgh, for the Kirk for the next 28 years.

She moved to Edinburgh and bought a house in Morningside, where she lived all of 65 years. Her mother moved with her and lived with Betty until she died. This responsibility prevented Betty working abroad, so she channelled her energies into working for the Church overseas instead.

In 1950 she became associate general secretary of the Women’s Foreign Mission. Five years later she was made general secretary. When the Overseas Council was formed in 1964 she became one of its general secretaries, along with the Rev John M Hamilton and the Rev Dr Alexander King. When Mr Hamilton retired in 1972 she became general secretary, the first woman in sole charge of an Assembly committee. She once said of this: “It is amazing they appointed me to the job and not a minister.”

At that time she was responsible for organising 200 missionaries, as well as missionary associates and the administration of the Overseas Council. She always had a great interest in people and followed their “careers” with interest.

She travelled widely, especially to Africa and India, in order to appreciate fully the work being done and the needs of the different regions. One of the needs she identified was to provide a grant for missionaries to afford a local holiday while overseas. She also ensured that missionaries who had died were mentioned, alongside deceased ministers, at the final session of the General Assembly each year.

Betty’s wide knowledge of mission affairs and gift for administration earned her the respect of the Church here and in many parts of the world where she travelled in the course of her duties.

She contributed significantly to the ecumenical movement – she was a delegate to the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches at New Delhi in 1961 and to the meeting of the Commission of World Mission and evangelism in Mexico City in 1963. In 1965-66 she was chair of the Conference of Missionary Societies in Great Britain and Ireland (known as the British Missionary Society) only the third woman to hold that position in more than 50 years.

In 1966 the Women’s World Day of Prayer was prepared for the first time by a Scottish committee drawn from ten different denominations. Their material would go to 150 different countries. During the week Betty was asked to give the Thought For The Day on BBC radio on the theme of: “You are my witnesses”. Later, when she did a series on Late Call broadcasts in 1974, the producer, Nelson Gray, commented that her series was firmly rooted in every­day life. Given that one of her themes was “How wonderful was the invention of the electric blanket” his point would seem well made.

Betty was held in affection by colleagues both at home and abroad. She retired from 121 in May 1975 aged 61. She was always very self-effacing preferring to talk about others than herself. She refused to accept that her career had been distinguished: “I am part of a team” she insisted, “a very big and dedicated team of people”.

Throughout her life Betty had a curiosity and a willingness to try things out. She was interested in people and enjoyed meeting them. She was sharp and knew her own mind. She enjoyed going out to dine. Her main form of relaxation was oil painting.

She also played golf as the Merchant’s Company Golf Course and was a member and a past president of the Edinburgh Soroptimist Club for which she was awarded a special medal and made a life member.

She loved the theatre, took out a season ticket to the Lyceum and visited Pitlochry Theatre regularly. She enjoyed travelling and playing bridge. One of the people she played with was her best friend Ella Turnbull. When Ella became less mobile Betty installed a chairlift in her flat so that Ella could continue to visit and play the game they both enjoyed. She also generously supported a lot of charities.

When she came to Edinburgh in 1947 Betty joined the Palmerston Place Church where she remained a member until she died. She was ordained an elder in 1972, the first woman elder in the congregation, ordained six years after women elders were introduced in 1966. Later she was Preses for the board of managers in Palmerston Place in the early 1980s and led with customary good sense and vision.

When her cousin Elfred’s wife died in 1999, she and ­Elfred deepened their friendship and were great fun to be with – two 90-year-olds whose questioning minds and curiosity were matched by the love of life and their ability simply to have fun. Finally she moved just over three years ago to Cherry­holme House where she was well looked after and where she settled remarkably well. Staff there said she was a joy, as she was so thankful for everything. Of course she had her down moments and could be despondent but she quickly rallied and was always grateful to see visitors. Her mind was fresh to the end.

She had a deep vein of common sense and made the best of whatever happened to her in her life. On top of that she had a real and living Christian faith which shaped her outlook on life and her attitude to life, and she lived out her life exceptionally well. Her mind was alert to the end, even if her body showed the impact of almost 100 years.

Let the final word on Betty be with the World Mission Council. The council secretary Rev Ian Alexander wrote the following words:

“The WMC recognises Betty as a key figure in its development, leading the Overseas Council in the early years of its formation, after many years of service in the Women’s Foreign Mission Committee, but working closely with the Foreign Mission Committee.

“In New Delhi and in Mexico City, Betty was in the Church of Scotland delegation, in conferences which changed the shape of mission and encouraged a new theological emphasis on and a greater engagement of the laity.

“MM Thomas of India wrote that after New Delhi, ‘old patterns of relationships – which the words “Mission”, “Christendom” and “non-Christian world” represented – are dead and gone and new patterns have to be worked out’. Betty was part of that working out of new relationships with new churches, no longer Church of Scotland abroad, but indigenous-led churches in an exciting new world. Having the first woman to be general secretary of an Assembly committee gives WMC much delight. That is was someone as sharp, focused, yet engaging as Betty is even more special. We give thanks for her and a rich, full and long life lived in synergy and sympathy with the World Church.

“This year the World Council of Churches meeting in Busan, South Korea, will receive a report on Mission and Evangelism whose key text is John 10:10 when Jesus said ‘I have come that you may have life and life in all its fullness’. Betty Walls knew exactly what that meant and lived it out for nearly 100 years.”