Born: 5 October, 1910, in Hamilton
Died: 11 November, 2002, in hospital in Edinburgh, aged 92
DR DAVID Steel, who was Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1974-75, was a statesman-minister, playing a prophetic and decisive role in the life of the Church of both Africa and Scotland. His way of "getting things done" could ruffle feathers, whether in the local communities of Nairobi or Linlithgow, or in the courts of the Church - and even in government ministries. Listening to a group of younger ministers speaking about the Church’s "new" discovery of consultation, he reminded them that the New Testament had little to say about consultation, but a great deal to say about leadership!
He was certainly a leader among men. As one of his closest friends once put it: "This man Steel has nerves of steel."
He was born in Hamilton but subsequently moved to the north-east, where he was educated at Peterhead Academy, Robert Gordon’s College and the University of Aberdeen, from which he graduated in Arts and Divinity. Many years later, in 1964, the same university honoured him with the degree of Doctor of Divinity.
After his ordination in 1936, he became minister of the Church of Scotland’s mining area extension charge in Denbeath, Fife. He moved to Bridgend Church, Dumbarton, in 1942, but his wartime ministry was interrupted by service with the church’s huts and canteens work in Belgium and Germany.
From 1946 to 1949, he was the Kirk’s home organisation foreign mission secretary before being called to St Andrew’s, Nairobi, where he served for eight years.
His appointment to Nairobi came at a time when it was a colonial charge, quite separate from the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, which was founded as a result of the Church of Scotland’s mission in East Africa. David Steel worked tirelessly to bring the two together in one denomination and over the doorway of the new St Andrew’s, the building of which was his vision and which he masterminded in a venture of faith, there was engraved the text : "My House will be a House of Prayer for all nations."
He was not afraid, in the midst of the Mau Mau emergency, to be critical of the policies of the colonial government, upsetting many white settlers and even provoking an editorial in the East Africa Standard, headed with Henry ll’s words, "Who will rid us of this turbulent priest?" David Steel’s standing for the rights of Africans to have a say in the running of their country was an encouragement to many, black and white, in the struggle for uhuru (freedom), and one of those so encouraged by his preaching, which he heard on radio while in prison, was Jomo Kenyatta, who became the first president of Kenya. On his visits back to Kenya, David Steel was always a welcome visitor at State House.
On his return to Scotland, he served as associate minister at St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh, until his call to St. Michael’s Parish Church, Linlithgow, in 1959.
On his arrival in Linlithgow, he immediately to set in motion a programme of restoring much of the external stonework of the church. This was completed in 1964 with the erection of a crown on the tower to replace the stone one removed in the early 19th century because of its weight. Designed by Geoffrey Clarke of Coventry Cathedral fame, with advice from Sir Basil Spence, it was made of laminated wood and ionised aluminium, and represented the Crown of Thorns. Its controversial design followed the medieval tradition of each generation adding something in the idiom and material of its time.
The erection of the crown was very typical of Dr Steel’s ministry in the parishes he served: he had both the vision and drive to do exciting - though often controversial - things and succeeding generations have welcomed his imaginative enterprises.
In Linlithgow, Dr Steel saw that St Michael’s was ill-equipped to serve the thousands of new residents coming into the town, and again with vision, enthusiasm and little regard for opposition, developed what was by then a dilapidated 18th-century town house at the town Cross as a centre to be used by church and community. He wanted the church to be at the heart of the community in mission and service.
He retired to live in Edinburgh in 1976, but continued a very active ministry as a visiting professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta for several terms, as national vice president of the Boys’ Brigade and as locum minister in the Scots Kirks in Lausanne and St Columba’s, Pont Street, London.
Dr Steel believed firmly that worship was the church’s most important activity and that preaching had a central place. His gifts in preaching were recognised beyond Scotland, and he was regularly invited to preach and lecture in the United States - and to write a book on preaching, Preaching Through the Year, now in its second edition and still much appreciated.
For me, it was both a daunting and exhilarating experience to be one of David Steel’s successors in St Andrew’s, Nairobi, and in St Michael’s, Linlithgow. He was in each place a builder and restorer, but he also helped to shape the life and work of both congregations, enabling them to adapt - in the one case to a rapidly changing political scene in pre-independence Kenya, and in the other to a small Scottish town that was to grow fourfold as it became a favourite commuter town for Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Dr Steel’s wife, Sheila Martin, of Aberdeen, who was his staunch helper and supporter, predeceased him in 1993 and he is survived by their five children: Lord Steel of Aikwood, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, Professor Michael Steel of the University of St Andrews, daughters Felicity, a nursing sister, and Gillian, an occupational therapist, and former Chief Inspector Ian Steel of the South Yorkshire constabulary. Dr and Mrs Steel had 13 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
A Thanksgiving service for Dr Steel’s life will be held in St Michael’s tomorrow, 15 November, at 11:15 am.