Obituary: Rev Dr Denis Duncan, minister

Born: 10 January, 1920, in Northumberland. Died: 7 January, 2014, in Sussex, aged 93

Rev Denis Duncan
Rev Denis Duncan

For 70 years the Reverend Doctor Denis Duncan was a devoted member of the Church of Scotland and served in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. For a decade Duncan was editor of the Church’s own newspaper, the British Weekly and was also much involved with the charity the Lin Berwick Trust, which administers holiday homes for the disabled. Duncan edited their monthly newsletter and proved a campaigning force in making the charity’s work better known.

The founder of the Trust, Dr Lin Berwick, remembers Duncan particularly warmly: “I am disabled and blind and I was interviewed for a post with the Westminster Pastoral Foundation 35 years ago. Denis took me on as a student counsellor and we became close friends. He saw potential in everyone and supported me, and many other disabled people, with his quiet and resolute charm. Denis took the ‘dis’ out of disability and was really my adopted dad.”

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Denis Duncan was brought up initially in Slamannan, near Falkirk. His father then ministered at St Thomas’s, Leith and he attended George Watson’s College, leaving in 1937. He was an able sportsman and sang in the choir. After gaining a degree in Arts at Edinburgh University, Duncan read Theology at New College. His first charge was at St Margaret’s, Juniper Green where he was ordained and inducted in 1944. This was prior to that kirk merging in 1974 with St Andrew’s to form Juniper Green Parish Church and Duncan is warmly mentioned in its history.

In 1949 he became the first minister to occupy the pulpit at Trinity-Duke Street Church, Glasgow, which had been created through an amalgamation of two churches. At the heart of Duncan’s ministry there, as elsewhere, was pastoral care. He struck an imposing figure in the pulpit: tall, handsome, witty and an elegant speaker. His sermons were always to-the-point and, as Timothy Fletcher at the Church of Scotland Crown Court in London’s Covent Garden recalled yesterday, “were unscripted, and based on personal experience – as someone found out when they eagerly discovered his sermon notes one Sunday with only a few words to jog his memory.”

In 1957 Duncan left the ministry to become the editor of the influential British Weekly, which maintained a strong presence in Kirk thinking. Duncan’s ten years with the magazine were immensely fruitful: he revitalised it and made it a platform for many renowned theologians in Scotland to air matters of controversy and interest. When the Church of Scotland sold British Weekly in 1967 he decided to move to London to work with the new owners.

During his time in Scotland he had become a well-known media figure, speaking with much enthusiasm on church matters on television and interviewing many leading political figures of the day. He contributed to many publications, working throughout the Kirk and for many charities in the community.

When Duncan moved to London he became a pastoral counsellor with the Westminster Foundation, an ecumenical organisation bringing together many city congregations. He was appointed deputy director of the Foundation and after meeting Dr Berwick worked tirelessly on behalf of her trust. In 1989 when the trust was founded, funds were not easy to raise and providing holidays for the disabled did not enjoy a high profile. Dr Berwick and Duncan persevered and thanks to one of Duncan’s regular social articles in the Daily Telegraph in which he mentioned Dr Berwick’s work, “we got” according to Dr Berwick “considerable donations flowing in.”

The first purpose-built home opened in Norfolk in 1989. Duncan’s greatest personal joy was in 1997 when Dr Berwick opened a home in Dirleton, East Lothian. To honour Duncan’s sterling work for the trust it was named The Denis Duncan Home. “Denis was so pleased about the Dirleton home” Dr Berwick recalls. “It’s in a beautiful location – a lovely village – and to raise funds we had a wonderful dinner on the Royal Yacht, Britannia in Leith. Dirleton is our flagship home.”

Throughout his life Duncan was devoted to the Church of Scotland and its work. He was a very present help at Crown Court, often taking Sunday evening and Thursday lunchtime services and also preaching regularly at London’s other Scottish Kirk, St Columba’s, Pont Street.

In 2010 when he was 90 there was a birthday tea party at Crown Court, which was a joyous and happy occasion with a personal message from the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

Duncan, a gentle, courteous and compassionate man, was held in high regard throughout the Kirk and admired for his modesty, charm and desire to understand and help others. His wife Henrietta and daughter Carol predeceased him. He is survived by his son Raymond.

Alasdair Steven