Memorial tribute by William Storrar in honor of Duncan Forrester
Duncan Forrester came both early and late to practical theology.
As the son of the professor of practical theology at St Andrews University in his native Scotland, he grew up in a family immersed in the ministry of the Church of Scotland and the concerns of the ecumenical movement. His own university studies in politics and divinity took him abroad to do postgraduate work in political thought at the University of Chicago, before serving as a professor of politics at a Christian College in India. He then returned to the UK as Chaplain at the University of Sussex, where he also continued teaching in political science.
It was in mid-career that he came to work in our field, when he was appointed to the Chair of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh in 1978. He joined a strong department in pastoral theology that had developed a distinctive approach to hospital and practice based pastoral education and applied ethics under his predecessor, Professor James Blackie, and senior colleague, Alastair V. Campbell. Duncan’s distinctive contribution to the field was evident from his inaugural lecture. There he set out a larger vision for practical theology to include the practice of justice in an unequal society and mission in a changing culture, both practices rooted in his concern for worship and ethics.
As generations of grateful students appreciated about this gifted teacher and caring supervisor, Duncan had been profoundly influenced by his encounter with the human face of poverty in India and his conversations with social scientists in a secular university. The distinctive research methods of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI), which he founded within the Department of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at Edinburgh University in 1984, were in turn shaped by these transformative experiences in Duncan’s earlier life as an educational missionary and university chaplain.
Duncan believed that practical theologians should never talk about poverty behind the backs of the poor. And he thought that practical theology had much to learn from dialogue with social policy experts who did not share his faith. When CTPI did research on poverty or on penal policy, for example, it always included the expert views of people from poor communities, and prisoners in the penal system, as well as social scientists. This way of doing practical theology is his lasting gift to our field. Yet Duncan’s commitment to including marginalized voices and expertise did not diminish the importance of making his own distinctive theological contribution, as his major writings on justice, equality and the public relevance of theology testify.
Duncan Forrester may have come late to the professional field of practical theology, but he came early to the global issues that rightly concern practical theologians around the world today, especially issues of injustice and inequality. His distinctive way of addressing them is his enduring legacy in the International Academy of Practical Theology, of which he was a proud and committed member.