Theologian who led radical experiment in ministry in Gorbals Born: October 11, 1928;
Died: January 19, 2019
WALTER Fyfe, who has died aged 90, was a theologian known for his radical approach to inner-city ministry. Inspired by a ground-breaking experiment in Harlem that challenged the traditional church approach to areas of deprivation, Mr Fyfe moved to Gorbals in the 1950s so he could immerse himself in the neighbourhood and improve the lives of the people who lived there.
Brought up in Govanhill, he lived almost all his life within a mile of the area, living in Gorbals, East Pollokshields and, finally, Govanhill again. He graduated with an MA (Hons) from Glasgow University and went on to study divinity at Trinity College in Glasgow. While at university, he met Elizabeth Simpson. They married in 1953 – a marriage that lasted more than 65 years.
He won a scholarship to the Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he graduated summa con laude, and it was during their time in New York the Fyfes became involved with the East Harlem Protestant Parish. East Harlem was a notorious slum but shortly after the war, some young ministers and their families moved to live there, convinced that the traditional church approach to such an area was not working. They immersed themselves in the neighbourhood, sharing the lives, hopes and fears of their neighbours, and sought to set up small store-front meeting places for tiny local communities of faith.
This radical approach to inner-city ministry struck a chord with Walter Fyfe and his fellow Scottish student there, Geoff Shaw.
On returning to Glasgow, he worked as a labourer at Harland and Wolff’s shipyard and with Glasgow Corporation Roads Department. For a short period, he was the locum parish minister for Dalmarnock. Mr Fyfe and Mr Shaw then linked up with John Jardine, another young minister with similar concerns, and eventually persuaded Glasgow Presbytery of the Church of Scotland to allow them to try something like the Harlem approach in Gorbals.
The Fyfes moved to live in the Gorbals in 1957 at a time when it was considered one of, if not the, worst slum areas in Europe. Crumbling 19th century tenements, overcrowding, chronic unemployment, ill-health and associated social problems were compounded by the snail’s pace of change, and a general laissez-faire attitude of the authorities.
The Fyfes lived there, as part of the Gorbals Group Ministry, sharing all their money, their homes and their lives for the next 10 years. Mr Fyfe himself worked during that time as a labourer in the local iron works. His brief exposure to “normal” church work, together with his time in East Harlem, had convinced him that the formal structures of church and society were not the ones through which ordinary people could bring about the changes that were so desperately needed.
For his whole time in the Gorbals, he, with other members of the group, battled, alongside their neighbours, with slum landlords and landladies, council officials, and politicians, trying to better the lives and the living conditions of people in the area. He was a regular writer of often searing letters and articles to The Herald, as well as going to court with friends and neighbours and doing everything he could to shine a light on the appalling conditions of the area.
Gradually the slum housing was demolished, and the first of three attempts to rebuild Gorbals took place – the high-rise flats. Watching their neighbours being removed as their homes were demolished, he was later to liken it to the action of the then South African regime, “tearing down our homes and sending us to the townships.”
He was also an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), taking part in many demonstrations and being arrested for his part in a sit-down protest at the Holy Loch.
In 1968, the Fyfes moved to East Pollokshields. By then Mr Fyfe worked for the General, Municipal and Boilermakers Union (GMB). He was branch secretary for the biggest trade union branch in Scotland – the 12,000 non-teaching employees of the Glasgow Corporation Education Department “where the cleaners and school meals employees were the friendliest people in the world”.
He then worked at Falkirk College teaching general studies to apprentices – or, as he put it, “teaching young people about the world outside Falkirk”. He became the first senior community relations officer for Strathclyde, again tackling inequality and discrimination. During this time, he and Elizabeth organised each summer for 12 years a summer school which brought together over 100 children whose home language was not English with the same number of tutors from the fifth and sixth years of schools across Glasgow.
Early retirement certainly did not mean a let up in his thinking, writing or working with people. He became involved in housing again through membership of the management committee of Thenue Housing Association. He established the Centre for Co-operative Education and supported local people to establish credit unions.
All his life he loved the outdoors. In his youth he cycled huge distances in Scotland and cycled round Europe shortly after the end of the Second World War. He had a soft spot for north-west Scotland and for some years he and Elizabeth split their life in Glasgow with crofting in Sutherland.
He was a great family man. He led a moving service when his son, David, pre-deceased him. He is survived by Elizabeth and two sons, Andy and John. He has four grandchildren and five great grandchildren.