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Final Farewell to James Ritchie August 2016 

James McLaren Ritchie, M.A., B. D., M. Th.,
born. 14th February 1917 died. 5th August 2016

Rev James Ritchie, father of Lothian Presbytery, died on 5th August 2016 at the age of 99. He had suffered a sudden decline in his health in October 2014 after which he required full-time care. He and Mette, his wife for the last 65 years, moved into Liberton Brae Royal Blind nursing home in March 2015 where they have received excellent care and wonderful sympathetic nurture.

James' health nevertheless continued to decline; yet his death was sudden, albeit peaceful and in his sleep, around 10am on the Friday morning.

James was born in Camberwell, London, on St Valentine’s Day 1917, of John Ritchie and Daisy McLaren. He was the middle of five children. All three male children became ministers of religion. Though born in England and educated at Dulwich College, he became vividly conscious of his Scottish roots on a holiday in Plockton during his teens. Thereafter he spent many of his holidays exploring Scotland and his Scottish antecedents including the well-known 19th century divine, Rev John Ritchie of Potterow in Edinburgh. Interestingly, given James' future interests, the site of the church at Potterow now upholds Edinburgh's place of worship for the city's Muslim community.

Always of a scholarly disposition, James initially studied geography at Edinburgh and then became an articled clerk at law in London. He was preparing for this career when the second world war broke out. Typically, he was on the island of Mull when the news of the declaration of war came through; but he immediately travelled home to the south of England to enlist in the great fight against fascism, a struggle he conceived of in spiritual as well as political and military terms. He spent much of the war in the north of Ireland, in Lisburn and Belfast. He was with the Signal Corps and learned the science of electrical communication during exercises across the six counties of Ulster. He crossed into Normandy on D Day + 2 and though not involved in front line fighting came to know what it was like to be under bombardment. He moved with the allied forces into Germany where he contracted jaundice and was flown home to Scotland to recover and convalesce in Killearn, north of Glasgow.  His intellectual skills were being recognised inasmuch as he was subsequently tasked with lecturing to returning soldiers prior to post-war re-integration.

No doubt the war was a life changing experience for theology was now drawing him to his life's vocation.  And the Church of Scotland was the spiritual community he wished to embrace. Yet he was also drawn to the universal injunction to evangelism, seeking in the first instance to become a missionary in China.

He trained in New College, Edinburgh and discovered a facility for languages through the study of Hebrew and Aramaic. When the long march of Mao Tse Tung closed China to missionary endeavour, the prospect of efforts in the Muslim world emerged as a priority.  The Church of Scotland had a hospital in Sheikh Othman, near Aden which was then a British Protectorate. This hospital needed a chaplain who could provide spiritual support for the expatriate staff, pastoral succour to native Arab patients, while exploring the potential for evangelism to the wider host Muslim community. Knowledge of Arabic would be essential and James' language skills as well as his humanity and practical facilities – especially in administrative duties st which he excelled – seemed a good fit.

In 1950, he travelled to Aden and began his engagement with Islam and the Arabic language, perhaps the defining element of his working life. He developed a respect for the Muslim world and the Arabic civilization. He always gave his interlocutors respect in seeking to understand their perspective, the Qur’anic underpinning of their faith, and the legitimacy of their spirituality. He asserted the advantage of Christian belief but only if asked. He believed in evangelism through works and service rather than the more militant and aggressive approach of other missions which he saw as counterproductive. He became fluent both in the Arabic language and in the theology, culture and traditions of the Muslim faith.

He was also aware of other currents. Such as the solidarity between the Scottish Presbyterian institution and the Danish Lutheran church, which provided nurses for the mission field, including in Aden.  One of these was Mette Kristensen who became another "Aden accident" as yet another Danish nurse succumbed to the charms of another Scottish Presbyterian! Their 65 year love affair ended with James' expiration last Friday.

James left Arabia with his family just before the revolution in Aden and the counterproductive  attempt to suppress it by British forces. However, his knowledge and expertise were appreciated in newly independent Kenya, where the Christian Council of Kenya was seeking to develop its mission of dialogue with its Muslim community on the coastal belt of the Indian Ocean. Between 1964 and 1967, the family lived in Mombasa and James provided training in Kenya and across central and West Africa to Christian workers on Islam. He also engaged in intense and respectful dialogue with Muslim leaders up and down the east African coastal margin.

After this 17 years of toil in the mission field, James was ready for pastoral work back home in Scotland. He was minister in Auchendoir and Kildrummy in Aberdeenshire, McDonald Road in Edinburgh and Coalsnaughton in Kincardineshire. In each he made real friends and won the respect of communicant members as well as those less disposed to Christianity. In between these parishes, he spent another three years in North Yemen when once more he was chaplain to a Church of Scotland hospital.

While in Yemen, he had among the happiest spiritual experiences of his life. He met and worshipped with Roman Catholic monks from the White Father community. Of French origin, this order had a particular focus on mission to Islam and the Occident. James' expertise was of great interest to the brothers and his openness to ecumenical interaction between Catholic and Protestant approaches to dialogue and worship allowed the development of deep friendship and mutual spiritual succour. These were relationships that will be sustained in the hereafter. He was particularly blessed to have presided over White Father communion services when all of the priests were absent. The recognition of his own priesthood by his catholic friends was of profound significance to him. This spiritual drama was reciprocated when James was absent from the Protestant community service. In a small yet significant way, he felt he was resolving four centuries of disjunction between Christian communities as a means of ministering to Islam's current anxieties. He was also proud to get invited to lecture to White Father training programmes in Dublin and Rome.

The fruits of such experiences can be seen in James' two published works on: the Church of Scotland mission in Sheikh Othman, Aden (this developed from his M. Th. thesis which he successfully defended at Edinburgh University in his 88th year); and translations of early modern Arabic documents on the history of the Muslim community in East Africa. A third volume of translations in collaboration with Prof Sigvard von Sicard of Birmingham University may provide further evidence of his scholarship.

In late life he sustained an interest in: Gaelic, enrolling for courses in what he eventually regarded as his lost native tongue; lallands Scots; and the movement for Scottish independence. Yet he should be remembered also for his commentary on Scottish life through the letters pages of The Scotsman, his wide learning and erudition (he was still able to recite the whole of Tam O Shanter in his 97th year!), and the flexibility of his mind (solving complex crossword puzzles late into his 90s). He served a term of five years as Clerk of Lothian Presbytery in the 1990s when he was instrumental – and fore-sighted – in introducing IT systems to assist the smooth running of Presbytery business,

James and Mette had a missionary swansong with three years at the EMMS Hospital in Nazareth just before the millennium.  They returned to Scotland anxious at the plight of the Arab community, both Christian and Muslim, under the Israeli state. Their insights and experience over the last 60 years explain much of the confrontation between the west and Islam that form the greatest threats to world peace since James succumbed to jaundice towards the end of the second great war.

He is survived by: Mette who has attained the age of 96; his four children, Ian with his wife Alyson, Kirsten with her husband Mark, Michael, Martin with his wife Kali; and ten grandchildren, Méabh, Ruth, Róisín, Katy, Hanne, Aoife, Sarah, Morag, Finlay and Naia.

Updated - 24 August 2016

Penicuik: St. Mungo's Parish Church (Church of Scotland). Scottish Charity No SC005838