Wal­ter Fyfe


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.

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