The Very Rev William McMillan, who has died aged 88, exercised an influential and inspiring ministry for over 60 years. Ordained to the charges of Newry and Warrenpoint churches in 1959 he served those two congregations for eleven years before moving to Dunmurry in 1970, in succession to his father in law, the Rev John McCleery, where he served up to his retirement in 2016, continuing as minister emeritus until his death on 19th January 2020. This alone would be a significant contribution to his church and wider society but his ministry encompassed so much more whether as a teacher, preacher, writer, historian, horticulturist, floral artist, pastor throughout the difficult years of the ‘Troubles’, exponent of cross-community understanding and pioneer of inter-faith encounter. In many fields his work extended far beyond the confines of his local parish and he earned a notable reputation both nationally and internationally.
Widely and affectionately known as Mac or Rev Mac he was born in Dromore, county Down, on 10th December 1931. He grew up as a member of the Dromore congregation, active in the life of the church. After school he became a journalist working for the Dromore Leader before experiencing a call to the ministry and being selected to train for the ministry by his presbytery. Undergoing the stressful ordeal of having to preach before the whole presbytery before being taken on as a student Mac’s training for the ministry took place at the Unitarian College, Manchester alongside study at Manchester University from 1953 to 1959. There was no financial scholarship available for him at the time and very little income to do that but he was supported anonymously by members of his church during his time in Manchester. In his final year he was the senior student and became the right-hand man of the principal, Fred Kenworthy. He maintained a life-long connection to UCM and in later years was brought over to serve on the interview committee for subsequent principals. On leaving Manchester he was awarded the degree of Master of Arts by the University of Manchester for a thesis entitled ‘The Subscription Controversy in Irish Presbyterianism from the Plantation of Ulster to the Present Day’. His researches in Manchester encouraged his interest in history and he became the leading historian of his church in frequent demand as a preacher of anniversary sermons and writer of historical books and papers. He published a number of important works, contributed to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in 2004 and among other works published a short biography of his distinguished predecessor at Dunmurry, the Rev Henry Montgomery, in 1966 which was reprinted nearly 50 years later. Mac’s knowledge and understanding of the history of his denomination was unparalleled. It was sustained by his interest in antiquarian books which led him to build up a tremendous library, originally by careful scrutiny of what was available in Smithfield Market in Belfast until he assembled an astonishing collection of books, periodicals, prints and sermons. Mac’s knowledge was formidable, he had developed a wonderful fasti – or biographical resource – of everyone in Ireland who had entered the ministry in our tradition and with this he had amassed a great collection of images and illustrations. From this he was able to produce many excellent books, articles and pamphlets often drawn out of lectures or talks that he had given. All his writings displayed both a depth and breadth of knowledge presented in a style that was eloquent, accurate and instructive. He was always so willing to help any inquirer with information. For a number of years in the 1970s and 1980s he served as a member of the Council of the Unitarian Historical Society.
Mac’s training included a stint doing a pastorate in our church in Cork in the late 1950s, quite a different world then in so many ways but the culmination of all his training saw him called to the ministry first of all at Newry and Warrenpoint where he also took on a role teaching in a local high school. Throughout his ministry there he was held in high regard and great affection by all the congregations. His ministry in Newry coincided with the start of the Troubles and Mac was at the forefront of those who tried to calm the growing sectarian tension. He continued in the same vein in his long ministry at Dunmurry where the congregation flourished under his leadership. From 1976 to 1980 he also had charge of the Moira congregation.
His service to his denomination on different committees, funds and organisations was extensive but among other things was marked by being made moderator of the General Synod from 1969 to 1971 and again from 1985 to 1987. In 1987 he was invited to preach at the anniversary service of the General Assembly, held that year in Guildford Cathedral.
Mac’s ministry had an international flavour. For twenty years from 1961 he represented the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church on the Council of the International Association for Religious Freedom. He was well-known in that organisation and preached in places as diverse as King’s Chapel, Boston and Kolozsvár in Transylvania where he was one of the first ministers from the West to preach in the Unitarian churches there under the Communist regime, all the time under the watchful scrutiny of the Securitate.
Mac’s work in Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles was always characterised by working strenuously for reconciliation and understanding. His involvement particularly in the establishment of cross-community nursery schools, at a time when such things were regarded as dangerously novel, was recognised and supported by the IARF and resulted in him being awarded the Albert Schweitzer Award for religious freedom at the 1978 Congress in Oxford, a signal honour for his work in breaking down barriers.
Without doubt Mac became best known to an international audience through his work as a floral artist and horticulturalist. He travelled all over the world giving talks, doing demonstrations and creating exhibitions which attracted a vast audience. His labours in this field were instrumental in him raising over £1 million for charity. Partly as a result of this he was awarded the MBE in 1999. He was touched when the Northern Ireland Group of Flower Arrangement Societies named a hosta after him, called simply ‘Rev Mac’. He was an Associate of Honour of the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies of Great Britain, and an honorary member of the Garden Clubs of America, a rare honour granted to only a handful of people from outside the USA.
Both the church and hall at Dunmurry were filled to capacity for his funeral service on Thursday, 23rd January when the church was beautifully decorated by his friends from within the world of floral art, the service being conducted by Rev Dr David Steers, minister in charge of Dunmurry, Rt Rev Chris Hudson, moderator of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and Mac’s friend Fr Sean McEvoy. Addresses were given by Rev Dr David Steers, Rt Rev Chris Hudson and Mac’s son Alastair.
Our deepest sympathy goes to Mac’s family, to his wife Sheila, his children David, Alastair, Jane and Andrew, his grandchildren Laoise, Beth, Sasha, Zach, Ellie and Edan and the whole family circle. Mac was laid to rest in the adjoining churchyard close to the meeting-house where he had exercised such a significant ministry for so long.
Written by Rev. Dr. David Steers
For more information on Rev Mac, please visit: Thanksgiving Service for Rev Mac