The Very Rev Dr John McIndoe reflects on the legacy left to the church by William Barclay. (Originally published in the August 2010 edition of Life & Work.)
How much would anyone have to achieve to become a legend in his own lifetime? And how much more would he have to do to be still a legend 30 years on?
If there is one Scottish churchman who fulfils both these criteria it must surely be Professor William Barclay: teacher, preacher, author and life-long expositor of the new Testament.
Those readers with good memories will recall his riveting TV performances: the gravelly voice, the genial personality, the clear and straightforward message. And there are multitudes more across the world who have become acquainted with Barclay through the medium of his writings. His books have never been out of print.
How to account for Barclay’s continuing popularity? Clearly he had a masterly command of his subject as well as an outstanding gift as a communicator; but what was the secret spark that set everything on fire?
It was not that Barclay had an easy life.
It is well known that he suffered from a life-long deafness which he coped with only with the help of a full-scale hearing aid. But fewer people may be aware that he and his wife had to bear the great sorrow of the loss of their daughter in a yachting accident at the age of 19. Such a blow bore heavily on Willie, yet somehow he continued to devote himself with undiminished vigour to his prodigious workload: university teaching, authorship and journalism, extra-mural classes, pulpit supply, summer schools and, perhaps as a relaxation, conducting his beloved student choir.
But what was his motivating force? It can be stated as simply as this: love of the Lord and love of ordinary people. This was the inspiration behind all his work and its roots ran far back and very deep.
On the title page of his very first commentary, that on the book of Acts, he set down a dedication in these words:
In grateful memory of WDB and BLB
From whose lips I first heard the name of Jesus
And in whose lives I first saw Him.
Could any son ever have paid a more gracious or heartfelt tribute to his parents? That early faith continued to inspire Barclay throughout his life: that and a warm-hearted affection for ordinary men and women. To call someone a ‘plain man’ was an honour in the eyes of Willie Barclay.
An anecdote will illustrate the point. On one occasion, driving to an evening function where he was to be the speaker, he found himself short of cigarettes. Stopping at a wayside pub, the only place open at that time of night, this dinner-jacketed figure was an object of some curiosity until one of the customers recognised him as ‘that man on the telly’. In no time Willie was sitting surrounded by a crowd answering a host of questions and engaged in passionate discussion. It could have gone on all night if Willie had not finally managed to drag himself away. When he left, it was to a chorus of cheers and, what’s more, as he described it himself: “They wouldn’t even let me pay for my cigarettes”.
Another evidence of his appeal to the Plain Man is the astonishing sale of his publications worldwide. Barclay himself was never quite sure how many books he had written. His biographer James Martin, doing a careful count in 1984, traced 68 titles in print plus some 20 ‘also-rans’.
By general consent his crowning achievement was (and continues to be) the 17 handbooks of commentary on the books of the New Testament. Since first publication total sales of Barclay’s books worldwide have reached some 20 million. Within this number are translations into a range of languages including Spanish, Korean and Japanese.
But the memory of Barclay has not been forgotten in Scotland either. Every year since his death a public lecture has been held in Glasgow under the auspices of the Barclay Lectureship Trust, a fund established by his friends to further the central aim of Barclay’s life: the Communication of the Gospel.
The most recent lecture, in October 2009, was given by Dr Robert Martin, the American pastor with whom Barclay ran the annual Summer Institute at St Andrews.
As a friend and former colleague of Barclay, Dr Martin was able to speak from personal knowledge, but inevitably, as the years go by. fewer people are available who remember Barclay in this way. For this reason the Barclay trustees have recently decided that it is time to make a change in the format of the lecture.
Instead of the annual lecture being addressed to the public at large it is proposed that in future the target audience should be the men and women preparing themselves for ministry in its various forms: regular students, auxiliaries, deacons and readers.
The object of the change is to provide some input of an instructional and inspirational nature to supplement the regular training provided by college and university.
As recently as Easter 2010 a pilot programme was launched at Glasgow when John Bell conducted a seminar for students on the role of praise in the setting of public worship.
The trustees are assured that this change fits well with the original intention and our hope is that it will serve to channel the great legacy of Professor Barclay into new and creative avenues for the future benefit of the whole Church.