Church pays tribute to former Moderator the Very Rev Dr Sandy McDonald
Published on 17 March, 2016
The Very Rev Dr Sandy McDonald, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland from 1997-98, has died aged 78 in the early hours of 17 March after a long battle with lung disease at the Erskine Care Home for ex-servicemen in Bishopton.
Beloved by those who knew him, Dr McDonald's fearlessness, generosity and irrepressible high spirits made an impact everywhere he went.
"Sandy didn't just preach. He put his whole self into it— his arms, his voice, his whole body went into his sermons," said Very Rev Dr Lorna Hood, Dr McDonald's lifelong friend and minister since his retirement. "People loved it when he preached."
"He was a great pastor and he held parish ministry at the heart of the Church."
As Moderator from 1997-98, Dr McDonald's friendly, approachable and outspoken manner left behind some of the formality that had characterised the role, setting a new tone that heralded the 21st Century. He has sometimes been referred to as "the people's Moderator"
Born in Bishopbriggs, Glasgow, to Jessie Helen Low and Alexander M. McDonald, Dr McDonald worked in the timber industry as a trainee manager from 1952-1958. During that time he took a two-year break when he was called up to do national service, enlisting in the Royal Air Force where his duties included operating ground radar for the 617 Dambusters. He worked in the timber trade from 1958 till 1962 when he responded to God's call and decided to train for the ministry.
Dr McDonald studied theology for the ministry at the University of Glasgow and Trinity College, graduating later with a BA from the Open University, which subsequently granted him a Doctorate, in honour of his work as Moderator of the General Assembly.
He served as an assistant minister at Merrylea Parish Church in Newlands, Glasgow, before being called as minister to St David's in Bathgate, in 1968. As chaplain to the town's British Leyland plant, he spoke out for workers during a period of industrial action.
In 1974 Dr McDonald went to became minister of St Mark's Oldhall Parish Church, Ralston in Renfrewshire, Paisley, where he helped found a young ministers' fraternal group that still meets today as part of the Presbytery of Paisley. He served as President of the Glasgow and Paisley Battalions of the Boys Brigade. He had a BB badge on every jacket he owned.
One of Dr McDonald's passions was for the Church's Summer Mission, which every year took hundreds of young people to the seaside.
As General Secretary of the Church of Scotland's Board of Ministry, from 1988 until his retirement in 2002, Dr McDonald was an advocate for ministers. During his tenure ministers' stipends were raised, benefits were improved and ministers were encouraged to see themselves as uniquely qualified professionals.
Very Rev Dr Lorna Hood said Sandy impressed staff with his caring approach from his very first day in office. Learning that a minister had died, he asked about the payment due to the man's widow. He was told it would take some time to process, but he urged speed, saying, "Get it done today. That woman needs to know she'll be looked after and doesn't have to worry about funeral costs."
"He was a minister's minister who knew what it was like to support a wife and three young children in a manse with very little money," said Dr Hood.
"He did everything he could to make sure ministers were supported. He did everything in his power to make sure ministers didn't have to struggle and worry."
Very Rev John Chalmers, the Church's Principal Clerk, has known Dr McDonald since the 1970s and worked with him during the 20 years he served as Secretary of the Ministries Council.
"Working with Sandy Macdonald was one of the great pleasures of my career in ministry," Mr Chalmers said. "Sandy would be best described as an enthusiast and the Church of Scotland benefited from that enthusiasm from the day and hour that he committed his life to its ministry."
"It was no surprise to me when Sandy called for a serious dialogue on the right to die, he was a man who tempered his views in the light of reality; he was a man who sat lightly to dogma and who preferred faith in action. The Church of Scotland needs a new breed of Sandy McDonalds who catch a passion for the good news of Jesus Christ, but whose understanding of the faith is not frozen in time, but develops and matures with new revelation and understanding."
Rt Rev Dr Angus Morrison said Dr McDonald was so generous and cheerful that even during his final illness visitors would leave feeling uplifted and encouraged.
"'Dr Sandy McDonald was a wonderful man and minister," Dr Morrison said. "Genuine love for people was a defining mark of his ministry. He had a special concern for the well-being, at every level, of his fellow-ministers. Sandy's memory will be cherished by many."
Retired minister John Campbell, one of Dr McDonald's closest friends, was his partner in Summer Mission for close to 20 years.
Together their churches would take up to 40 children to Ayr, Girvan or Millport, where the group would stay in a church hall and enjoy games, dressing up, pageants, musicals and barbecues on the beach. Parents would visit on the weekends and on Sundays as many as 200 people would attend the open-air afternoon service.
Through Bible study and discussion young people would gain confidence to share their faith, Mr Campbell said:
"Sandy and I always have always maintained that whatever we would achieve in our ministries –and Sandy of course achieved so much—that probably our most significant achievement would be what we did with young people in seaside mission.
"Sometimes in ministry it is hard to see results, but to see young people coming to faith and getting involved in the life of the church. We still bump into people who remember summer mission with great affection.
"It's been a very great privilege to have been part of that with Sandy."
Rev Robert S.T. Allan, minister Falkirk Trinity Church said it is thanks to Dr McDonald's influence that he became a minister. Mr Allan said:
"Sandy was like a father in the faith to me. He was an outstanding and inspiring preacher, bursting with energy and commitment. He touched many, many people with his infectious sharing of the Good News of the Gospel. He was down-to-earth, a real man of the people, a minister to whom all ages could relate.
"Sandy was a man of humility and graciousness, a man of real compassion, and ministers throughout the country will mourn his passing for he was devoted in trying to secure support for the women and men of ministry."
Pauline Wilson, Dr McDonald's personal assistant for some of his time at 121 George Street, became a lifelong friend. His caring, encouraging personality made a difference to everyone he worked with she said.
"His pastoral concern for those experiencing a personal crisis or difficult time in their ministry was shown in very practical ways. He would travel for hours each week to visit people personally, and the love and care he showed to his minister colleagues across the country was really appreciated by all of those concerned.
"He saw the potential in people and encouraged them to reach it. Having Sandy spur me on was just what I needed when I lacked a bit of confidence. I think he was the same with everyone. Time spent with Sandy always made you feel better about yourself, and that's a rare gift to possess."
In 1974 Dr McDonald went to St Mark's Parish Church, Ralston in Renfrewshire. He was one of a group of young ministers that included Dr Hood and Very Rev Bill Hewitt. The group created a "Young Ministers' Fraternal" where they could to talk to one another about their challenges.
"It was a place where people could be honest about their ministry," Dr Hood says. The fraternal s are still held today.
A few ministers in the group also started a monthly Christian Celebration on Sunday evenings. Buses brought church members from seven different churches to the event that included workshops, worship and singing.
"The Church would be mobbed and Sandy was in his element leading the singing," Dr Hood said. "Because of his drive and enthusiasm Sandy's church became one of the most vibrant and busy churches in the area."
The celebrations continued for six years.
A natural media personality, Dr McDonald co-presented STV's religious magazine programme 'That's the Spirit' during the 1980s, and was a guest on other religious shows. Later on he also appeared with his actor son, David Tennant, as a guest on Ready, Steady Cook and in a background role on Dr Who.
In early 2015 Dr McDonald disclosed he was fighting the degenerative lung disease pulmonary fibrosis. He spoke out for the "right to die," despite the Church's official position against the proposal.
Dr McDonald was married to his wife Helen, daughter of footballer Archie Mcleod, for more than 40 years until her death in 2007. Their strong marriage was widely seen as a true partnership of two distinct individuals who loved one another and also cared deeply about the lives of those around them.
Dr McDonald is survived by his three children: Karen, a schoolteacher; Blair, a music industry executive; and David, the actor who works under the name David Tennant; and by nine grandchildren.