THERE are some who become powerful figures in the corridors of ecclesiastical power who show from the start of their ministry that this is their perfectly honourable but very clear ambition.

The present Moderator of the General Assembly, Dr

Finlay Macdonald, is one

such, as was his predecessor as principal clerk, the Very Rev James Weatherhead.

Bill MacMillan was someone whose ecclesiastical career took off relatively late in his ministry, when, in 1978, in his early fifties, he succeeded the former moderator, Hugh Douglas, as minister of the prestigious parish church of Dundee (St Mary's).

Shortly afterwards he was appointed to what is now the Kirk's board of practice and procedure, where he became first convener of the General Assembly arrangements committee, then vice-convener of the main committee, and, in 1985, convener of the board which carried with it the

convenership of the General Assembly's business committee. As such, he was one of the three most powerful figures in the General Assembly for four years.

There may have been some who mistook his gentle manner for weakness, or his courtesy for malleability, or his somewhat opaque way of speaking for a lack of conviction, but if they did, then they learned very quickly not to underestimate Bill MacMillan. His apparent willingness to lead from the rear masked a steely determination to see through what he believed to be right. He was

an ecclesiastical conservative, both in his attitude to worship and in his respect for the General Assembly which, unlike present conveners of its business committee, he would never have addressed in anything other than old-fashioned frock coat.

When his period of office as the assembly's business manager ended in 1988, with tributes to his ''kindly authority, devotion to the Church, innate wisdom, careful prepara-

tion, and unquenchable good humour'' it was clear that

he had become an ''assembly figure'' and would soon be nominated as moderator. He chaired the General Assem-

bly of 1991 with what was described as ''dignity, firmness, tact, and geniality'', and was a hugely popular figure on the tours of presbyteries and official engagements which he undertook. Although, like many moderators before and since, he ended his year by saying that he had been ''heartened by what he had seen'', his final report introduced a note of regretful realism. ''Efforts by committed men and women to make the faith appealing do not seem to be making much difference.''

In 1988 he was appointed a chaplain to the Queen. In 1990 Dundee University made him an honorary doctor of law, and in the year he was Moderator he was made a freeman of Dundee, and his old university of Aberdeen made him a doctor of divinity. He was prelate of the Order of St John of Jerusalem from 1993 to 1996

Bill MacMillan was born in Keith, and educated in Inverness and then at Edinburgh's Royal High School.

After national service in the Navy he took degrees in arts and divinity at Aberdeen University and in 1955 he was inducted to his first parish, Bo'ness St Andrews, succeeding a man who was to become a lifetime friend and himself Moderator of the General Assembly, Dr Bill Johnston.

After five years, MacMillan returned to Aberdeenshire to be minister of Fyvie where he remained until 1967, when he moved south to the large parish of Bearsden South where he was the minister until called to Dundee (St Mary's)

A thoughtful and reflective rather than a charismatic preacher, a sensitive and understanding pastor rather than an inspirational congregational leader, Bill MacMillan represented the mainstream ministry of the Church of Scotland at a time when the ministry itself was undergoing changes which tended to consign his type of churchmanship to the annals of history.

He was a good, kind, generous man to whom many, not least the assistants who learned from him, have every reason to be grateful.

Dr Macdonald, who is currently on moderatorial duties in the Far East paid the following tribute: ''Bill McMillan represented all that was fine and noble in the parish ministry of the Church of Scotland. It was a joy and a marvellous learning experience to serve from 1985 to 1989 as his vice-convener during his tenure of the convenership of the assembly's business committee.

''His calmness and humour under fire was something of an art form. Bill knew that I was nervous on my first morning in the 'playpen'. He was answering questions as convener of the board of practice and procedure when suddenly, to my utter horror, I heard him say 'Moderator, with your permission, I suggest that the vice-convener might answer the question'. In fact it was not a particularly difficult question and my confidence rating soared. It was typical of the man. I shall miss him greatly.''

He retired from St Mary's in 1993 and made his home in Edinburgh where he was a member, and preacher in the pulpit of St Giles' Cathedral. He is survived by his wife, Mary.

Very Rev William Boyd Robertson MacMillan;

born July 3,1927, died

October 16, 2002.