Nevile Davidson: A Life to be Lived

Andrew Ralston

Wipf & Stock, £17

Review by Rosemary Goring

Glasgow Cathedral is such a towering influence within the city that, despite the abundance of parish churches (about 140) its incumbent is entitled to the designation “Minister of Glasgow”. When Nevile Davidson, minister of the Cathedral from 1935 to 1967, signed himself into a Presbytery meeting as such, the person behind, thinking him presumptuous, added “Cathedral”. For such pettiness is the Kirk renowned.

Andrew Ralston, an elder at the Cathedral, has written a scrupulous biography of a minister who, while not without his blind spots, was a remarkable figure in the history of the country’s religious affairs. Ralston’s account encompasses Davidson’s entire life, from childhood in North Berwick where his father, minister of Blackadder Church, was head of a household that consisted of “a cook, a young housemaid, an elderly laundry maid, and my sister’s governess”. In later life, Davidson found it worth noting in his diary that, one afternoon when his housekeeper was away, he made himself a cup of tea.

Those who remember Davidson, invariably with fondness, remark on his misleadingly aloof demeanour. Born into relative privilege, he never lost the air of an Edwardian gentleman. An early and increasingly sought-after broadcaster, he rose through the church’s ranks, becoming Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1962.

Step by step, using Davidson’s autobiography, and the papers and diaries his widow Peggy lodged in the National Library of Scotland after his death in 1976, Ralston takes us through his subject’s life. From lacklustre university years, early uncertainty about his vocation, through his first parish charges, and his relatively late and happy marriage, it reaches a pinnacle when he enters Glasgow Cathedral. At this point he was speaking out on national and international affairs in newspapers and on air, his radio broadcasts reaching on on occasion three quarters of a million listeners.

The minutiae of a story such as Davidson’s is inevitably dull on occasions. There are moments of high drama, such as his time as chaplain to the 5th Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. In France in 1940, he stood on a bridge about to be blown up by French sappers to prevent German pursuit, thus allowing rearguard soldiers, still some distance away, to escape over it. By so doing, his thought to have saved the lives of half the battalion.

War aside, Davidson’s was not a life of action in the ordinary sense. Inevitably, this biography has longueurs – holidays, days ill in bed, and the interminable committee meetings and parish squabbles with which the Kirk then, as today, hobbles itself. Davidson, considered a Scoto-Catholic Presbyterian for his love of ceremony and “papist” features such as Christmas trees and Nativity plays, appears to have been a gifted pastor and preacher. In person, he had the common touch, able to relate as easily to Townhead parishioners living in near poverty as to the King and Queen, when he was royal chaplain. His diary entries, however, are remarkable mainly for their prosaic tone.

Ralston offers a conscientious record, not wholly without criticism, of a clergyman who loved shopping, clothes, antiques and cars, which he frequently scraped or crashed. By its end, he has drawn a portrait not merely of a dedicated Christian’s spiritual and professional journey but of the Church of Scotland itself in the middle years of the 20th century.

When Davidson embarked on the ministry, the church was a pillar of society. By the 1960s, it had begun its decline, from 1.3 million members in 1956, to 350,000 today. In the ethical and political battles he fought – mostly taking the traditionalist side – you see the staging posts of the Kirk’s abeyance from public life. In the late 1950s, issues such as homosexuality, artificial insemination and nuclear weapons were to torment and divide the church. Pacifists, such George MacLeod of the Iona Community, are now legendary for their stance. Those like Davidson, who took a more pragmatic line, are mostly forgotten.

Yet while the Minister of Glasgow had trouble initially accepting the idea of women taking an active role in church affairs beyond the sale of work (“That was women’s province” he remarked), he was ahead of his times in his ecumenical outlook. In this, his sister Cois’s conversion to Catholicism contributed. Her father never forgave her for becoming a nun, but her brother saw this as evidence that there are many paths to God.

He also, unexpectedly, welcomed Billy Graham’s revivalist meetings in Glasgow in 1955, when the American evangelist wowed the crowds. A photograph shows the reserved, austere Davidson, like a figure from Trollope’s Barchester Towers, beside the forceful Graham. These days, evangelicalism flourishes in the US, while the Kirk’s candle grows dimmer by the year. As Davidson’s experience suggests, the Church of Scotland has lost its dominance in part because of institutional inertia and infighting but mainly because of a series of cultural shifts that have, almost incidentally, pushed it to the sidelines. Church-goers anxious about the future could do worse than visit Glasgow Cathedral. A landmark to more than eight centuries of belief, it has withstood far greater turbulence than that of today.