Their Works Do Follow Them: A Tribute to Sam McCay 1931 - 2013

A healthy ministry, wrote a colleague this week, is lived in three dimensions:  "rooted in the past, focused on the future, and engaged in the present" (Jeff Fountain, 2013). That is a great way to describe the Rev Samuel James Daniel McCay, my colleague, mentor and friend. Sam was born to a family of Irish extraction in Hawkes Bay in 1931, and never lost his affection for the district,  serving his first parish in Wairoa East, supported by wife Olive, in the nineteen-fifties. A stint in Tauranga with their young family would be followed in 1969 by a move to Howick, Auckland, where he served 27 years until his "retirement" in 1996.  He continued to offer ministry in myriad ways and only relinquished his role as honorary assistant at Kohimarama parish two weeks before his death earlier this year. 

Sam had curly ginger hair and beard when I met him in 1976; he was known affectionately to some as the 'Red Rev'. That first meeting was at a Presbyterian convocation on the Charismatic Movement at the Narrows - gathered under the auspices of the Assembly Life and Work Committee, for those who remember such things.  I think I had just had a baby, but attended because I had been an active member of that Committee, and was of course vitally interested in the theme.  I noticed that this red-bearded theologian whose doctrinal insights proved he knew his stuff, prayed in a way that revealed how well he knew and loved his Lord. I had no idea that one day I would serve as his Assistant at St Andrews Howick and that that role would open up amazing possibilities in my call to ministry.

That happened in 1994, and I would come to know Samuel as a committed minister of the gospel, as a man of integrity, and as one whose leadership was characterised by hard work, humility, and openness to new ideas. Not to mention the flowing robes, the Irish pronunciations, and  the polished brown shoes! They say that the gift of leadership is not only to see where an organisation needs to go, but also to judge when – direction and timing. I believe Sam was skilled in both those leadership gifts and that enabled to him to have a very effective ministry. He was a strong and wise leader; the Presbyterian Church saw this strength in discernment and debate, and entrusted important tasks to him, from the Doctrine Committee in the seventies to the Constitution of the PI Synod in the nineties. He offered leadership in the Presbytery of Auckland, over many years heading up the Ministry Committee, which was such a demanding role that after he completed his years of service, two committees were set up to replace him!

It was however in the local parish that I came to know him as a mentor and friend. Sam’s trinity of daily tasks was formidable; mornings in the study with his Bible, afternoons with his people in their homes, evenings devoted to committee work until midnight or more. He had had major brain surgery early on in the parish, after collapsing in the pulpit from what turned out out to be the effects of a pituitary tumour. After surgery and chemotherapy, he had to take daily replacement hormones, and I have always wondered whether they were the source of his extraordinary energy! (The other part of that story is that the medics told him that the radium treatment he was given would render him infertile; not the case, as wife Olive, fortyish and a Howick Borough Councillor, discovered she was pregnant with number four, Hamish,  the "autumn leaf!")

Sam's assistants – and there have been a tribe of us – knew him as a wise advisor on technicalities from Greek verbs to Assembly protocol to the Book of Order. He modelled to us how to moderate a meeting – with deep listening, careful clarification and self-disclosure only when it would help the discussion. He showed us how to work at something collaboratively until differences were heard well enough for a clear consensus to be gained, or if not, to simply defer the matter till another time. Rarely did the moderator have to count hands. In the nineties, we had several Taiwanese elders, representing a "Parish Development Unit" of migrant Christians from Taiwan at Howick. They were part of a study group that began in 1989 and was in time to become a self-sustaining entity, the Auckland Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, sharing the facilities at St Andrew's.  That journey took many hours of the deep listening which was Samuel's special gift, and which helped us understand how important it was for these Taiwanese Presbyterians to have their own identity, their own finances, and their own minister. These things are a matter of honour in church and community. Samuel was very definite that our joint-use arrangement should recognise the Taiwanese as brothers and sisters in the PCANZ, and therefore not charge them rent, but share expenses. ATPC still worships  at St Andrew's (these days in the refurbished wooden chapel) but has recently embarked on a building project in Pakuranga. Those who were on Session in that era will also remember the sterling contribution made by Olive McCay, a leader in local government, to the eldership. Olive and Sam did not always agree on church matters. At Sam's funeral, Olive's brother Sir Bruce Robertson described the McCay's fifty-year marriage as one of "unfailing support, comradeship and mutual respect, conducted in an atmosphere of uninhibited and frank exchange of views." No more need be said. 

I have to mention Samuel's sermons of course; his intellect was titanic, but he could distill Biblical truth down to manageable insights, relevant illustrations - and 3 alliterated points. Every message was written in spidery handwriting on the four quarters of a piece of A4, folded to the size of a Christmas card. Apparently Sam used to preach a 20 minute sermon but by 1994 they were longer than that, and at times a little meandering.  In the robust debate of a weekly meeting, I could challenge him about going 'off topic', and he once explained to me that declining eyesight meant he could no longer actually read his tiny notes, and had to rely on memory; that meant if he thought of an extra illustration, he might not be quite sure how to get back on track! He had a great love of the hymnbook but transcended its inadequacies by writing his theological insights into five stanzas in a singable metre, usually with abundance of exclamation marks.  And his prayers were legendary; at his funeral I was gratified to hear the Session Clerk of Howick quote verbatim something I had said at Sam's retirement in 1996: "Sam's prayers are beautifully poetic; even when you ask him to say grace, he comes up with a three-point sermon complete with alliteration!" 

Sam loved and served the young people of the Howick parish with dedication, rarely missing an evening service, even though their loud music and informality became increasingly uncomfortable. He was generally permission-giving, though it was not unknown for him to stand up after a young leader, or even a guest, had preached, to finish off their message with an appropriately-Reformed conclusion! One memorable night though, was the time I asked him to share the story of his own journey with the ministry of healing, just before we had a mission with Delores Winder. He told of his illness thirty years before, when the brain tumour threatened his life. As he met with the surgeon who would literally hold his future in his hands, Sam had an amazing experience of connection with God. He said he heard a voice, right there in the room, assuring him with the spoken words “my healing hands”. The experience provided an opportunity to know God's touch in a  powerful and personal way. The young people were transfixed.  They had thought Sam a dry Bible preacher, and that "spiritual gifts" were only discovered in the nineties. They found he had a lively relationship with Christ and a full understanding of renewal in the Spirit. 

Sam loved the younger kids too, though over time he had lost touch with what primary-aged children can cope with, cognitively. One Christmas Day he told the whole Nativity story in seven episodes, taking the voice of the donkey who was (supposedly) there. The kids might have got the idea if he had just put on some paper ears, but he told the whole story from the front in his normal black robes. No wonder they got a little bored! I have been told that my arrival at Howick did give Sam a renewed focus for a Kids Friendly approach.  That donkey story was just one of the dramatic compositions he wrote for special services, usually in a rhyming metre, and often performed with wife Olive in a partnering role. 

Olive and Sam together offered wonderful hospitality in the Manse - whether it was the old Selwyn Road place or the Tudor one in Uxbridge Road, that they purchased themselves when the notion of a housing allowance came in.  They saw hospitality as an essential component of ministry,  so it is not surprising that our family of six was hosted to lunch there when we  "secretly" visited the parish in 1993, with a view to my appointment as the Assistant Minister. We were served a delicious fish pie, sadly not to the taste of my teenagers. Imagine our hilarity when that evening  we were hosted by another St Andrew's family, the Mathesons, and were offered another version of fish pie!  Samuel shared with me at a later time how he had learned much about hospitality as a 'spiritual practice' from the Benedictine monks with whom they had stayed as part of a study leave in the USA. 

Sam had led many successful expansion projects while serving at Howick,  (Bucklands Beach, Beachlands, Botany)  and one rationalisation, the bringing-together of the two Presbyterian churches,  sited just a couple of km from one another, but with very different organisational cultures. This change was taken carefully and prayerfully, over a period of two years, but the union resulted in the building of the present-day St Andrew's Centre, a great community asset.  Perhaps it was in that experience the meaning of tolerance became clear to him. Tolerance, he told me, is not a smoothing-out of diverse views  but an acknowledgment that while we are separated in opinion, we can agree to work together with grace, despite real differences. I have often thought of that this year as we as a nation debate gay marriage.

Sam was a man of his time and grew up knowing the office of ministers as a male preserve. But he knew that was changing and he would welcome female colleagues when we came on the scene. But he did confess to me one day a memory of a time in Tauranga when  he was encouraging and advising a bright young woman considering taking theological studies. The thought came into his mind that she would make a wonderful minister’s wife, and thankfully he bit back the words when he woke up to the fact that she might herself become the minister. Rev Dr Ruth Page became the first woman principal at New College Edinburgh.

Sam was a great sparring partner with whom I could debate the meaning of baptism, especially in light of his study of that subject at Unisa (Capetown) for a Master's degree in the eighties. The dissertation reflected his endeavours to minister effectively to Presbyterians who had experienced a charismatic renewal of faith.  His academic research into "immersion as appropriation of infant baptism" was driven by pastoral concerns, and resulted in a transformation of Presbyterian polity. If his recommendations had been in place at the time I was ordained in 1975, it would have saved me as a "Baptyterian" a  lot of heartache! But he wasn’t ready to embrace the smorgasbord of options we have now; I recall asking where he recorded the Baby Dedications. "I don’t do them",  he snorted, "if anyone asks I just give them a lecture on the Reformed understanding of baptism". Incidentally he lent me on two occasions the very rare book in which his thesis was published, as I too undertook postgraduate research on the subject!

I am personally grateful for many gems of insight I received from Sam, but today as we unveiled a plaque in his memory on the wall of the sanctuary at St Andrews Presbyterian Church Howick, I mentioned one in particular. That was his explanation to me of the Communion of Saints, that we parrot in the Creed, but don’t always grasp. After his mother died, said Sam, he came to a new understanding of how those who are ‘in Christ’ are connected in a deep and mysterious way, whether they are on earth or in heaven. That means he is with us still, sharing the fun, watching us grow,  and hearing me say in tribute his favourite way of closing  a funeral:  ‘And their works do follow them’.  (Rev 14: 13)

That they do – a healthy ministry rooted in the past, focused on the future, and engaged in the present. That was Samuel McCay, and we honour him.