THE GREATEST CHRISTIAN COMMUNICATOR.
A DINNER ADDRESS TO “Christians In the Media”. Dr Moyes was Australia’s best known media presenter with national radio and television programs every week for decades, and award winning international films. When asked to speak on the best media presenter, Dr Moyes gave the following address. It had previously appeared in a number of magazines.
With the death on January 24 1978 of the Rev Dr Professor William Barclay CBE, the church lost one of her greatest communicators. More people have read his commentaries on the scriptures than any others ever published. He was the most popular speaker ever on the BBC, The ABC and similar telecasters. Probably only Sir David Attenborough on the nature series has taken his place.
William Barclay was born in 1907 in Scotland, the son of an elderly bank manager, who had a local reputation as a lay preacher and a great reader. Neither the poverty of his family nor the limitations of the area were sufficient to diminish the inherent qualities of the young Barclay. He graduated with first class honours for his M.A., in the classic languages. He read and translated many ancient languages and was thoroughly at home in the New Testament world.
When he retired as Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at Glasgow University, William Barclay had been responsible for the training of hundreds of preachers since 1946. He then accepted a role as Visiting Professor of Biology at the University of Strathclyde, an appointment which allowed him to present occasional lectures on Christian Ethics.
Barclay was known around the world because of his writings which commenced in a very innocent fashion. He had written some earlier small handbooks for Bible School classes, some of which came into my possession in 1952. I was immediately attracted by the freshness and insight of this new writer. Following these, the Publications Manager of the Church of Scotland came and said to Barclay bluntly, “Would you be prepared to do us a volume of daily Bible readings as a stop-gap until we get someone decent to do them for us?”
It was typical of Barclay’s humility that he was prepared to be a stop-gap until someone decent came along. Those daily Bible studies of the New Testament were to sell 1.5 million volumes. They became the foundation of a world-wide ministry. He made his own translation of the New Testament, worked on the translation of the Apocrypha for the New English Bible and was working at the time of his death upon an extensive series of commentaries on the Old Testament.
More than any other contemporary religious writer, Barclay understood the enormous revolution in Christian publications with the development of the paperback market. He had over 80 books on popular religious themes printed and published in the paperback market.
Apart from this were his voluminous writings for Christian magazines especially “The British Weekly”, and “The Expository Times” where for years many of us looked for his full page articles.
It was part of the wisdom of the university, and partly of his own evangelistic and teaching desires that Barclay became a scholar at the service of the public. It was natural that he would become a radio broadcaster, preacher, and television personality.
Yet everything was against him. He was stout, far from handsome, spoke in a heavy Scots accent, had a harsh voice, wrote Greek and Hebrew words up on a blackboard, and wore a large hearing aid in his top pocket with the wire going up to his ear. Yet people listened every week in the millions all over the world.
Of his Christian work on television Barclay said, “This is the most important work that I have ever done”. It was estimated that there were more people watching his Bible exposition series on television than were in all of the churches of Great Britain put together.
As a parish minister from 1933-1946 he knew both the delight and frustration of working in local parishes. To ministers engaged in parish work he would constantly say that one of the most important lessons he learnt in pastoral visitation was the need ‘to show the man upon the Cross’ to those he was visiting. Always a disciplined personality because of his inherent self-confessed laziness, Barclay had his sermons written out in full and finished by each Thursday.
He was not essentially a creative theologian, but his precise, succinct and orderly mind was such that he used the insights of the great theologians of our time, “I have an essentially second-class mind. It is the simple truth that I never had an original idea in my life. In all the books I have written I have explained and expounded other men’s ideas”.
That was the genius of Barclay. He was able to understand greater scholars, and having assimilated their insights, write them in an easily understandable form for people with little technical education.
He worked to order, meeting deadlines for printing with absolute faithfulness. “I believe in work” and his writings indicated the immense labour that went into his activity. Like Karl Barth he was still producing great material in the last years of his life. He applied the principle to himself that “the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
While this over-simplified his own enormous capacity to appreciate the writings of others and his own first-hand knowledge of the Classical Greek and Roman world and their languages, and Greek New Testament, it nevertheless points to an essential ingredient in Barclay’s ability to communicate: the willingness to spend long hours in hard work to make clear what he understood to be true.
There is an inner integrity in Barclay’s theology that is appreciated by all who have studied him at length. While many claimed Barclay to be a fundamentalist and others a radical, Barclay saw himself as a rational theologian who could look at various sides of critical issues and, as a reasonable man, wrestle with the problems of faith and scripture.
He rejected those people who had either a closed mind or those who possessed a mind which was open at both ends. His was essentially faith for a rational man, “I believe and I think”.
‘Home is where they know us at our worst and still love us.’ His own personal life was wrapped up very much in his concept of home, marriage and the family. His devotion to his wife, Kate, who he married in 1933, was known to all who knew them. He freely admitted that he was domestically helpless, “a handless creature”, yet he claimed his wife, who never read any of his books, kept him from pride. “Without her, life for me would be impossible”. Apart from sickness early in life, he had 50 years of good health, being an active participant in soccer, cricket, golf, stamp collecting, music and choir conducting. His choirs were renown.
Throughout his life he was unconcerned about money, and the royalties that came from his writings were never at issue in any discussions with his publishers. He read widely as his hundreds of book reviews in the “Expository Times” indicate. He had a careful and precise memory, was tolerant and placid by nature. Possessing many acquaintances, he shared in depth with few friends.
For the last 45 years of his life he was totally deaf. He used his deafness to advantage, although he wished that he had better hearing. Possibly his public example of wearing his hearing aid with its old fashioned cord and ear-piece on his television program did more to encourage deaf people to publicly admit their dearness than any other public figure. “I have never found that being deaf has stopped me from doing anything I have ever wanted to”.
“When I die I should like to slip out of the room without a fuss, for what matters is not what I am leaving, but where I am going.’ In later years of his life, he suffered from ever increasing emphysema. That breathlessness limited much of his activities, but allowed him still to write and talk.
However, as the years went by his breathlessness caused him to be more and more confined to his desk. “I look upon heaven as a place where there are no stairs”, he commented with a smile.
In one beautiful letter to me in 1976 when I had been organising a speaking tour in Australia and a series of national telecasts, as well as a lovely holiday for himself and his wife, he wrote, “Because of lung trouble which is causing increasing breathlessness, I now find that far from travelling around the world, even crossing the street has become a problem”.
In his last years the words of Paul, “The time of my departure is at hand” became meaningful to him. I am sure he would approve if I mentioned that this word “My departure – analusis” was used by the seamen for unloosening the ship tied to the dock to let it go out to the high seas; by the ploughman for unloosening a team of tired horses from harness and turning them out to rest; by the traveller for unloosening his tent and going on towards the pilgrimage back home; and by the philosopher for unloosening those ravelled problems that have perplexed him over the ages.
Of all people, Barclay rejoices in each of the truths mentioned here, “When I die, I should like to slip out of the room without a fuss –for what matters is not what I am leaving, but where I am going”.