Rev Professor D. W. D. Shaw (1928–2020)

Former Dean and Principal at New College in the 1970s.

We regret to announce the death of Rev Professor D. W. D. (Bill) Shaw at the age of 92 on Tuesday 14 July 2020.

Black and white head and shoulders picture of Bill Shaw

Bill Shaw was Scotland’s most senior theologian. A gifted sportsman and professional solicitor who turned to the ministry of the Church of Scotland, he exercised leadership roles in the Divinity faculties of Edinburgh and St Andrews.

Born in Edinburgh in 1928, the youngest of six siblings, Bill was schooled at Edinburgh Academy. He graduated BD from New College in 1960, having earlier worked as a partner in the legal firm Davidson Syme WS following degrees in modern languages in Cambridge and law in Edinburgh. After serving as assistant minister at St George’s West Church under Murdo Ewan MacDonald, he returned to New College in 1963 as a lecturer in Divinity, later becoming Dean of the Faculty and Principal. In 1979, he was appointed to the Chair of Divinity at the University of St Andrews, where he also served as Dean of the Faculty of Divinity and Principal of St Mary’s College, thus completing a unique double.  

A talented mountaineer, golfer, and squash player, Bill combined academic with athletic prowess. He was Scottish Amateur Squash Champion for three consecutive years (1950–52) and scaled the Matterhorn in 1958. He played golf regularly into his 80s and served as Chaplain to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. His academic achievements include publication of two fine and accessible volumes Who is God?(1963) and The Dissuaders (1978). He could communicate effectively without over-simplifying his subject, often displaying a quiet wisdom in his critical judgements. His readers, and perhaps Bill himself, regretted that he did not publish more. Awarded honorary degrees by the Universities of Glasgow (1991) and St Andrews (2005), he also received the OBE (2009). In retirement, he became the founding editor in 1994 of Theology in Scotland, a journal intended to bridge the gap between the academy and the church.

Bill spent some of his earlier years in Canada where he was evacuated during the war. He remained an intrepid traveller almost to the end of his life. While still an assistant minister, he was appointed by the World Presbyterian Alliance as their ecumenical observer at the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. An accomplished linguist, he learned some Italian and immersed himself in the business of the Council. With his gift for socialising, he came to know many of the leading figures around the Council and often spoke of the evenings they spent in a local hostelry. Since the owner had prohibited any nun from entering his premises, they named it the Bar Nun. Along with Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Bill was one of the last survivors of Vatican II. 

Notwithstanding his many achievements and the wide appeal of his lecturing and preaching, Bill will be remembered above all for his gift of friendship. Graeme Auld, one of his students and a successor as Principal of New College, writes that a ‘quietly generous hospitality was my enduring experience of Bill.’ Though modest and often reserved, Bill was highly gregarious. Students fondly recall evening study groups in his Murrayfield home to discuss contemporary novels, after which a lavish supper would be served. Others were offered pastoral support in the midst of a crisis. Impoverished undergraduates would sometimes be told by the Faculty Office that they had been awarded a bursary from an anonymous source, never knowing that this had been donated by Bill himself. Another student once told me that he had provided funds for her to contest a difficult legal case. Years later, numerous acts of kindness are recalled with gratitude; doubtless, many more remain unrecorded.

Bill was always good company. I always felt better after meeting him for lunch. He would often say, ‘Please stop me if I’ve told you this story before.’ But so good were the stories, noone never did.

Several former New College students have written in appreciation of Bill’s life and work:

Jay Brown remembers how ‘Bill was Dean when I was a Fulbright Scholar at New College, and I recall him at a New College Christmas party in 1976, dancing and having great fun.  He was entirely unpretentious, was confident in who he was, and always supportive of others.  He would light up a reception or gathering just by being there. He wrote a warm letter of reference to the Fulbright Commission, which helped to get me a (very rare) second year of the Fulbright.  This is turn meant that I was able to complete my work on the Chalmers papers, write a publishable thesis (actually the OUP biography that was submitted for the Chicago doctorate), which soon brought me back to Scotland.  I recall he took me out to dinner in St Andrews to welcome me back.’

Will Storrar comments that Bill represented an impressive generation of ministers from the professional classes of Edinburgh. With his gifts, he would have excelled in any field. But sensing a call to serve the church, he abandoned a successful career in law and turned in another direction to striking effect.

George Newlands writes of his theological style. ‘Many students had much for which to be grateful. Letters from Bill brought carefully thought through, immensely helpful counsel… In his writings, characteristically Bill explains issues with careful lucidity, often opening up dimensions of a problem that we might not have noticed. He affirms traditional doctrine, then takes things further in a plastic reshaping. He is always his own man, finding value where he chooses – not least in a nuanced appreciation of aspects of process thought.’

Russell Barr was Bill’s minister at Cramond Kirk. He recalls that, ‘I first met Bill in 1974 when I started my theological training at New College and it is one of the great privileges of my life to have known him as a teacher, mentor, colleague and friend. Bill loved sport, he had a really competitive streak, and over the years we have enjoyed many hard-fought battles on the golf course. Since returning to Edinburgh, Bill has been a faithful member of Cramond Kirk, rarely missing a Sunday, and always a source of encouragement and wise advice. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an obituary for the Old Testament scholar, Gerhard von Rad, Bonhoeffer said it was many years since von Rad had been his teacher but he would always be one of his students. Bonhoeffer captures perfectly what I feel about Bill, it is many years since he was my teacher, but I am eternally grateful to be one of his students.’

In 1996, A Festschrift – The Presumption of Presence, edited by Peter McEnhill and George B. Hall – celebrated Bill’s work. His former colleague Alec Cheyne wrote a moving appreciation, concluding with these words.

‘As those who know him best will testify, Bill is not an easy person to thank. But at least this once he must accept our gratitude and affectionate admiration, not only for his scholarship and his awesome competence in so many fields, but also for those other qualities which in the last analysis surely matter as much, or even more: his kindliness, his eirenic spirit, and his Christian grace.’

Bill once preached a memorable sermon in King’s College Chapel, Aberdeen, on the words of Christ, ‘I do not call you servants… but friends’. Many of us felt blessed to call Bill not only our teacher but our friend.

We offer our condolences to his extended family to whom he remained close throughout his remarkable life. A memorial service is planned once the current restrictions are lifted.

[David Fergusson]


Bill Shaw's Vatican Diary