The Rt.Rev Professor James A. Whyte, a Prince of the Kirk, and my mentor and guide at University

As Moderator, Whyte was called on to preach at the memorial service for the victims of the Lockerbie disaster on 4 January 1989. This sermon was widely cited in the press and had a great impact:

“That such carnage of the young and of the innocent should have been willed by men in cold and calculated evil, is horror upon horror. What is our response to that?
The desire, the determination, that those who did this should be detected and, if possible, brought to justice, is natural and is right. The uncovering of the truth will not be easy, and evidence that would stand up in a court of law may be hard to obtain.
Justice is one thing. But already one hears in the media the word ‘retaliation’. As far as I know, no responsible politician has used that word, and I hope none ever will, except to disown it. For that way lies the endless cycle of violence upon violence, horror upon horror. And we may be tempted, indeed urged by some, to flex our muscles in response, to show that we are men. To show that we are what? To show that we are prepared to let more young and more innocent die, to let more rescue workers labour in more wreckage to find the grisly proof, not of our virility, but of our inhumanity. That is what retaliation means.”

The full text of this sermon was published in Laughter and Tears pp 92–5.


Filed under The Ramblings of a Reformed Ecclesiastic

5 responses to “The Rt.Rev Professor James A. Whyte, a Prince of the Kirk, and my mentor and guide at University

  1. Messrs Bush and Bliar should perhaps have read this (aren’t they both supposed to be uber Christians?)


  2. Christine Sime

    Jim was Associate Minister at Hope Park, St Andrews, when I was ‘on probation’ with Bill Henney. Two ‘giants’ in ministry whose humility and wit were inspirational. Jim had the knack of being very forthright, never missing and hitting the wall, wrapping up the truth and the real meat of the gospel in true gentleness, honesty and real love. An amazing example and role model for what Christianity is, or should be, about..


  3. I’ve re-read “Laughter and Tears ” umpteen times and always get something new from it (admits pinching bits in the past for sermons)


  4. Guardian Obituary:
    The Very Rev James Whyte
    Anglican priest (?) who preached forgiveness at Lockerbie and Dunblane

    Thursday 28 July 2005
    The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and Clarifications column, Friday July 29 2005

    In the obituary below, we described the Very Rev James Whyte in the standfirst as an “Anglican priest”. The Church of Scotland is Presbyterian and has ministers not priests. We said he was survived by his second wife and two sons, and by a daughter from his first marriage. All three children were from his first marriage. Apologies.

    The Very Rev James Whyte, who has died aged 85, moved and inspired a vast international congregation when he preached the sermon at the memorial service for the 270 people who died in the Lockerbie disaster in 1988.

    Two weeks after Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky, to land on the small Dumfriesshire town, he stood in the pulpit of Lockerbie’s parish church to preach an uncompromising message of forgiveness and reconciliation. This was Britain’s most extreme encounter with terrorism, and the task of making sense out of the bewilderment and anger that ensued could hardly have fallen to a clearer Christian thinker.

    “Justice, yes; retaliation no,” he declared. “For if we move in the way of retaliation we move right outside of the fellowship of Christ’s suffering, outside of the Divine consolation. There is nothing that way but bitterness and the destruction of our own humanity.”

    Whyte preached the Lockerbie sermon because the disaster occurred during his year as moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Unknown to most of those who heard him, he was himself deep in personal grief; his wife for nearly 50 years had died just five months earlier and this was Whyte’s first public engagement following that loss.

    He had just been fitted with a pacemaker, and his family feared for his ability to come through the Lockerbie ordeal. In fact, his own experiences and deep natural humanity contributed to an oratorical and theological tour de force. So great was its impact that, after the Dunblane school massacre seven years later, it was to Whyte that the families turned: requesting that he should preach that memorial sermon also.

    The prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was in the Lockerbie congregation, but this was not Whyte’s only encounter with her in his moderatorial year. In an effort to confront her intense unpopularity in Scotland, where the Tories had been almost wiped out at the 1987 election, she accepted an invitation to address the General Assembly, at which Whyte introduced her with the words: “Perhaps you have never been in the presence of so many people who regularly pray for you.”

    In what proved to be a momentous misjudgment of her audience, Thatcher delivered a speech based on her own distinctive interpretation of scripture, and in particular, the parable of the Good Samaritan. The response to her “Sermon on the Mound” was icy, and Whyte captured the mood of the occasion by presenting her, in response, with copies of the church’s reports on homelessness and the welfare system.

    Whyte was born in Leith and graduated with a first in philosophy from Edinburgh University in 1942 before being made a bachelor of divinity three years later. He was then a chaplain to the Scots Guards before being inducted to the parish ministry in 1948, serving congregations in Oban and then Edinburgh.

    In 1958, he became professor of practical theology and Christian ethics at St Andrews University and held this post for 29 years. Whyte was never an ivory tower academic and his theology was of a practical nature. He took a close interest in international affairs through church organisations and upheld the Church of Scotland tradition of involvement in social and economic issues.

    In the early 1990s, he was a member of the commission, established by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which produced detailed recommendations for the establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament. The convention itself was mainly made up of Labour and Liberal politicians, so the involvement of respected public figures such as Whyte was crucial to creating the “broad church” that gave its recommendations credibility.

    Whyte remarried and lived in retirement in St Andrews, where a neighbour in recent years was Prince William. Sharing a tenement block with royalty was an appropriate conclusion to the life of a great egalitarian.

    He is survived by his second wife and two sons, and by a daughter from his first marriage.

    · James Aitken Whyte, priest and academic, born January 28 1920; died June 17 2005


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