Obituary: Rev Dr William Christman - Idealistic American who overcame a difficult introduction to the ministry in Scotland

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Born: 6 September, 1938, in Joplin, Missouri. Died: 27 December, 2011, in Joplin, aged 72

MOST young Church of Scotland ministers in the early 1960s encountered difficult times. It was a period of theological upheaval. The decline in Kirk membership – though not yet dramatic – had begun, while there were more newly-qualified ministers looking for parishes than congregations willing to call them.

This, perhaps, explains why, when a young American, ordained into the Presbyterian Church of the United States, was called to the parish of Richmond Craigmillar in the Niddrie area of Edinburgh, a letter appeared in the British Weekly from “an indignant minister’s wife”, complaining that “men brought up and trained in our own church and colleges find themselves without parishes. Surely the General Assembly should consider the members of our own church before admitting people from other denominations?”

The indignant correspondent was referring to the Rev Bill Christman, who had been studying for the ministry at New College in Edinburgh, where he graduated BD with distinction in church history. He then spent two years as an assistant lecturer in the subject under his teacher, Rev (soon to become professor) Alec Cheyne. However, Christman was unsure that he fully understood the atmosphere of New College, and sought admission as a minister of the Church of Scotland.

Niddrie then was largely a mining area. Though the congregation (which numbered an inflated membership of more than 800) had an income of less than £1,500 and, like many congregations in similar situations, it believed that success would be achieved when its worship and its congregational life reflected the markedly middle-class pattern of the majority of the Church of Scotland’s urban congregations at the time this was an aspiration that Christman was reluctant to share.

Instead, he increasingly found himself attempting to express his and the Church’s concern for the miners and their children, although few of them had any interest in religion or the institutional church.

Building on experience he had as a youth worker running camps in West Virginia, in the United States, Christman and his full-time assistant ministers – first Douglas Templeton, then John Miller, and deaconess Ena Finlayson – patiently made contacts and waited for suspicions about the American minister to dissipate.

To a remarkable extent they did, but the Kirk Session and congregation did not understand Christman’s approach. “He was in my stair,” one old woman said, “but he didn’t come to see me.” Members of the congregation shared the conventional belief at the time that they called a minister to look after them personally rather than the needs of the wider parish.

In The Christman File, a book he published 13 years after he left Craigmillar, Christman wrote that “some aspects of church life seemed positively harmful and destructive to faith.

“The eldership, for instance, had originally been intended to be an extension of the pastoral ministry of the church. However, it could easily be turned round and used to bolster petty egos and arrogant ambitions. Church activities and organisations could wreak considerable damage through internecine warfare.”

Christman was the first to acknowledge that things might have been different if he had not been an idealistic American. Young ministers tend to assume that the rhetoric they use in the pulpit matches the reality of their congregation’s faith.

However, it also has to be said that Christman felt he did not receive the backing from those responsible in the Church of Scotland for supporting the ministry. The perception of those days was that ministers should keep their noses clean and pass on their congregations’ full contribution to central funds.

Christman left Niddrie in 1970, originally intending to train as a teacher back in the United States at Harvard. But after six months he unexpectedly received a call to become minister of Lochwood Church in Easterhouse in Glasgow.

He had learned from his Niddrie experience, however, and did not allow himself to be seen as vulnerable and – as one of his colleagues in the housing scheme at the time put it – “ploughed his own furrow”.

Just over five years later he moved to Lansdown in Glasgow’s west end, which had been built in the mid-19th century as the city’s population moved west, under its minister John Eadie. “The Church is not for the poor and needy” the rhyme went, “but for the rich and Dr Eadie”. But while those days had passed by the time Christman became minister, it was a comfortable, gathered congregation.

In 1981, Bill Christman was called to St Columba Church in Ayr, comprising three congregations which had just united. Rev Fraser Aitken, the present minister of St Columba’s attributes the remarkable success of this three-way union to its first minister’s commitment and enthusiasm. “He certainly shook up the douce folk of Ayr during his ten years in the parish,” he said, “leaving a very strong, vibrant and welcoming congregation for his successor”.

The congregation still fondly remembers Christman carrying out his pastoral visits on foot, and frequently arriving at homes with a pair of socks in his brief case to change into, because his feet were soaked.

Christman was appointed national prison chaplain for the Scottish Prison Service and the first full-time chaplain at Shotts Prison. But he stayed in the role for little more than a year before returning to the United States – first to his native Joplin Missouri and then to pastorates in Tifton Georgia, Kansas and Mena Arkansas where until recently he made a four hour drive from Joplin to conduct worship, take bible studies and train a choir each weekend. He was awarded a doctorate by the University of Texas. In 1983 he was named Joplin’s “Outstanding Citizen of the Year” for his work as founder of the Community Clinic.

Christman was a complex character. Infectiously gregarious, he was distinctly introspective. Radical churchmanship combined with conventional theology, while a very high view of his ministry combined with liberal Protestantism. Personal vulnerability was matched by steely determination. That, however, is simply to say that he was like most ministers in that surface impressions rarely convey the reality of their personalities or their commitment.

In 1975, he married Gina, who survives him, along with their two daughters, Stephanie and Laura, one grandchild and his mother, Jane. JOHNSTON McKAY