Obituary: Murdoch MacKenzie, minister

BORN: 23 February, 1938, in Glasgow. Died: 3 February, 2015 in Edinburgh, aged 76.

Compassionate man of the church who took on challenging roles, both globally and ecumenically. Picture: Contributed

Murdoch MacKenzie, who has died in Edinburgh from leukaemia aged 76, was a global person, at home in many different cultures. An ordained minister in the United Reformed Church, his was a prophetic and wise voice within the British ecumenical movement, and in the Church of South India where he worked for several years.

Throughout his life he worked alongside those who knew poverty and oppression first-hand. Both in church and society here and overseas, he championed global justice, nuclear disarmament, and for an understanding of the Christian faith which took seriously the modern world in its plurality and uncertainty.

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From a young age he sought to follow Christ, but it was not some comfortable Christianity that he embraced. It was a faith in God which actually involves sacrificial living on a daily basis and which is grounded in a disciplined prayer life.

This hinterland of a deep personal faith propelled him to fight for a fairer world at many levels and to fearlessly confront situations where truth was absent. He valued the technological age but also spoke out about the bland options that are markers of affluent societies.

He understood human frailty and the fears which confront us, while at the same time tenderly reminding people that in reaching out to others we discover new depths in ourselves. He believed passionately that God matters, that the world matters and that we matter to God, and that we all share a common heartbeat.

Murdoch MacKenzie was born in Glasgow in 1938 and ten years later the family moved to Birkenhead. Along with his younger brother Kenneth, who later had a distinguished career in the 
Scottish Office, he cherished his Highland roots in Skye and Torridon. Following national service with the RAF he went up to Oxford and later studied divinity at Edinburgh, after which he took a course in Marxism at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Shortly after leaving Edinburgh University in 1965 he became a member of the Iona Community and retained this membership until the time of his death.

In 1966, along with Anne whom he had married two years previously, he went as a missionary of the Church of Scotland to the diocese of Madras (now Chennai) in the united Church of South India. The MacKenzies remained in Madras for the next 12 years, working alongside Bishop Lesslie Newbigin – the last British bishop in that large diocese and a leading figure in the world church.

With his fluent Tamil and boundless energy Murdoch became a major figure within the CSI, always recognising that it was the poor and the marginalised who could teach him much about God and life in general. His ministry in India, supported by Anne, was in many ways unique.

With Indian colleagues he established a range of innovative projects alongside the poor in Madras and in rural Tamil Nadu. Some of these have today developed into important non-governmental organisations.

His preaching was valued in both poor and richer parishes, and at St Andrew’s Church in central Madras his ministry which connected vibrant worship with commitment to society, influenced all of the church in South India.

The years in India were followed by ministries in a Church of Scotland parish in Glenrothes, and in a local ecumenical parish in Runcorn. In Runcorn he valued working ecumenically and also the challenges of a new town in which people often felt rootless.

With his colleagues he enabled the church to become a focus of community for folk of all ages. In 1988 he was called to Carrs Lane Church in central Birmingham. There, in a multi-cultural situation, he was able to exercise a far-reaching ecumenical ministry. This led to important links with those of other faiths, especially with the worshippers at the Central Mosque during the break-up of Yugoslavia. Within the church he encouraged those who were exploring issues of belief to share their questions and doubts.

By this time Murdoch was widely recognised as a visionary leader in the United Reformed Church and within the British ecumenical movement; eight years after going to Birmingham he was appointed Ecumenical Moderator in Milton Keynes.

As Moderator from 1996-2003 he was responsible for the pastoral care of the clergy of all denominations, embracing a hundred churches, some of which dated from the 13th century and others brand new.

His creative leadership brought new dimensions to the partnership between Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, URC and Independent churches. Alongside this was his passionate commitment to interfaith relationships and in networking with civic and political leaders. Given the conflicts of our time he recognised that such bridge-building was essential for a healthy community.

After retiral from Milton Keynes, the MacKenzies moved to Connel in Argyll. This enabled Murdoch to be much more involved with the extensive work of the Iona Community on the island of Iona, with the ministry of local churches, and with strengthening the outreach of Fairtrade in the area.

His international and ecumenical commitments and connections continued unabated, and almost until the day of his death his advice and deep compassion for others was a source of inspiration to people across the world.

Eighteen months ago Murdoch and Anne moved to Edinburgh to be nearer their family. Soon he was facing major health problems and in time knew his illness was terminal. The way in which he faced up to this situation was truly inspiring, and the many people who visited him during this time were delighted that his mind was as engaged as ever.

Right to the end he was global in his outlook and concerned for those on the margins. In his death the British churches have lost both a wise and a visionary leader and a humble, loving man of God.

Murdoch is survived by Anne, daughters Ruth and Catriona, son Iain, two grandchildren and his brother Kenneth.