10 January 2009

Of babies and bathwater: English theological and ecclesiastical reformers

A couple of weeks ago I heard the news of the death of John Fenton, who was principal of St Chad's College, Durham, when I was a student there in 1966-68. Now Bishop Alan has pointed to an obituary in The Times: Bishop Alan’s Blog: John Fenton RIP: wonderful man...:
Sad to reflect on the death of Canon John Fenton (Times obit). His gentle presence and sharp thinking sparkled, provoked, healed and stimulated on every level and with every kind of person.
It was good to read the obituary to learn something more of his life after he had left St Chad's, and especially before. He had taught New Testament at Lincoln and Lichfield theological colleges before becoming principal of St Chad's the year before I went there. He later became sub-dean of Christ Church, Oxford.

My first real encounter with him was when I went to tea with him, with a couple of other new students who were graduates of other universities and had come to St Chad's to do the post-graduate Diploma in Theology. One was Graham Mitchell, from New Zealand, and the other was one Barnes, who had studied at Lampeter, in Wales. Perhaps the best way of describing it is from my diary of the time (10-Oct-1966), though it describes his household rather than John Fenton himself, but that was part of who he was:

We had only one lecture in the morning, and most of the rest of the morning I spent cloistered in my room, reading the final part of The Lord of the Rings. After lunch went to have tea with the principal - with Graham and a little bloke called Barnes. John Fenton's wife, Linda, is about twenty years younger than he is. There is a very young baby, which was crying or gurgling most of the time, and a Burmese cat, a very friendly-looking animal - which is apparently pregnant by an alley cat. Linda wanted to know if cats could have abortions, because they didn't want a litter of mongrel kittens. Frank Cranmer came in, and we had a right merry time with this Barnes. He was a graduate from Lampeter, an institution in Wales. Whenever anything was mentioned that was inefficient or nutty about the church, he applauded it loudly. He
appeared to think that New Zealand was still a crown colony, and the idea that New Zealanders no longer thought of England as "home" horrified him. When he acclaimed the startling (to me) and radical revelation that the Bishop of Durham lived at Bishop Auckland, and the Bishop of Jarrow lived in Durham, Linda kicked a box of tissues at him, he was, of course, an arch-Tory, and Frank said afterwards that he probably was a fan of King Charles the Martyr, and wanted the Jacobites to return to the throne. At 4:15 Barnes and Graham Mitchell and I went with the Vice Principal to the Castle for the matriculation of graduate students. We wore academic dress. I had
to borrow a gown, and a hood from Reading, which resembled, in a vague sort of way, the Natal BA hood. The Vice Principal seemed rather suspicious of it. We sat in the huge mediaeval dining hall, and the Vice Chancellor gave a chatty little speech of welcome, and then we all signed our names in the books provided.

I found that John Fenton was a super bloke ("super" was a favourite expression of his), but theologically we were worlds apart. He was a fan of Rudolf Bultmann, who advocated "demthologising" the gospel. He gave me one piece of advice that I thought was very good. He said that when reading books and commentaries about the New Testament, one should concentrate on books that take a strong line, with opinionated authors, rather than the bland "consensus of scholarship" ones. So he always suggested books that took a strong Bultmannite line in reading lists. I preferred to read books like Brandon's one on Jesus and the Zealots, which suggested that if Jesus wasn't a guerrilla leader in the struggle against Roman imperialism, he at least associated with people who were.

One thing that showed the breadth of theological difference between us was when he set me an essay on "Jesus and the demons". I read it to him, and when I had finished, he said "But you haven't told me whether you think demons exist or not." I said I thought that the question whether demons existed or not was a distraction and beside the point. Bultmann would probably have said that demons were a primitive mythological element that must be excised to make the gospel relevant to modern man. But to me arguing about whether they existed or not was a bit like being run over by a bus, and lying there in the road wondering about the philosophical question of whether or not the bus existed. Coming from South Africa, where demonic political powers were oppressing the people in the country, arguing about whether demons exist or not seemed to typify the armchair theology of Europe. British theologians argued about the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but British theologians were not in danger of being hanged for treason by a demonic government, as Bonhoeffer was.

When I got home to South Africa I mentioned this incident to John Davies, then Anglican chaplain at the University of the Witwatersrand, who had also been a student of John Fenton, only at Lincoln Theological College. He said yes, whatever the demons are, the important thing is that Christ has the mastery of them.

It is sometimes said of zealous ecclesiastical reformers that they want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater". But after my two years at St Chad's I came to the conclusion that English theological reformers wanted to throw out the baby and keep the bathwater. And in many ways it was John Fenton who taught me this.

The 1960s were a time of liturgical reform, and in my time at St Chad's we swung from old Anglo-Catholic High Mass to the latest products of liturgical committees and back again, according to the whims of the senior common room (i.e. the college staff). Some of us students objected, and asked for some community discussion on the process, so that our worship could be an expression of the college's life as a Christian community. On one occasion in a sermon John Fenton said that he wasn't sure if he believed in the kingdom of God. We asked then, "If you don't believe in the Kingdom of God, what's the point of going to Matins and Evensong?" "Because yer've got to do it when yer get into a parish" he replied in his emphatic way.

One student went to see John Fenton to express his concern about this. And John Fenton persuaded him that it didn't matter. So the following occasion when there was a Solemn Evensong, on the eve of a major saints day, when students were expected to attend wearing cassock, surplice and academic hood, four of us went in our everyday dress (bright hippie stuff, back in 1968), because, after all, it didn't matter. The principal had said so.

But it turned out that it did matter very much. The next time the vice-principal (a German Jewish refugee from Nazism who had converted to Christianity when he fled to England) took two of us to lead evensong in a Durham mining village, he asked on the way why we had not been wearing wedding garments at Solemn Evensong the previous week. "Because we think it is a new form of circumcision, Father," we replied. He said he disagreed, but did not say much more.

The next time there was to be a Solemn Evensong, we received a message to say that we must be wearing wedding garments, by order.

So at the time of Evensong we left our cassocks, surplices and hoods neatly folded in our places the chapel while we were in the college office duplicating our equivalent of the Ninety-five Theses, which we put in all the places in the college dining room at supper. It was a considerably milder protest than the student power riots in Paris. We weren't ripping up the paving stones or buiilding barricades of burning vehicles. But it was a protest none the less.

And the core of it was that if you throw out the baby (the Kingdom of God), then it makes little sense to keep the bathwater (Solemn Evensong with all the trimmings).

Looking back on my two years at St Chad's, I think that that was the main thing I learnt there -- how to distinguish between babies and bathwater. It wasn't in the syllabus, and I don't think it was what John Fenton intended to teach. But it was what I learned.

When I returned to South Africa, John Fenton wrote to my bishop to say that he couldn't recommend me for ordination, because he couldn't understand me at all, and had no idea what made me tick, and suggested that someone in South Africa should take that responsibility. So, as I said, our theology was galaxies apart, and we both knew it.

But I liked him, and I think he liked me. We wrote to each other over the years and kept in touch in that way. I am glad that I went to St Chad's and I'm very glad that I met John Fenton. He was a very kind and generous-hearted man, not least with people whose theological opinions differed greatly from his. So I say, may his memory be eternal.


Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Steve, thanks so much for this generous and glorious account. It's filled in an enormous amount for me, as I only knew JF in his seventies. One irony is that in the 60's he looked like a priest and believed like a wild child, and by the 90's he believed more like a priest and looked more like a wild child. Perhaps it was a kind of "older you get the smaller number of things you have convictions about, but the deeper those are."

His funeral was yesterday, but I wasn't able to go...

James Higham said...

I steer clear of discussions of demons for fear of them.

Mark Goodacre said...

Many thanks for sharing, Steve -- I could just hear John Fenton saying the things you quoted, even though I first met him almost twenty years later. Is that your own photograph?

Steve Hayes said...

Bishop Alan,

I suppose that as one gets older, one learns to tolerate cognitive dissonance. In youth we found the idea that one must keep the show going, even if it's lost it's raison d'etre, difficult to cope with. When I knew him, John Fenton was in his mid-40s, a dangerous age, in my experience. It confirmed for us all the suspicion expressed in the contemporary slogan "Don't trust anyone over 30".

There was, of course, a lot more to John Fenton than just the little bit I wrote. Perhaps I must write about his five convictions some time.

Steve Hayes said...


Excessive fear of demons is deisdemonia, usually translated into English as "superstition".

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, it's my own photo, taken when I was at St Chad's.

Mark Goodacre said...

How marvellous. I can see that it is the same man, of course, but he looks a lot younger than he was when I first got to know him in the mid 80s. I have almost finished writing up my memories.

Frank Cranmer said...

I was at John's funeral on Friday. It wasn’t quite "standing-room only", but not far off. As one would have expected, Oliver O'Donovan preached an intelligent and apposite sermon - and he managed both to respect John's instruction that there was to be no eulogy while still reminding us of what a great man John was.

I’ve got lots of random memories of John from my days at Chad’s and subsequently, many of which have been recounted by others. But I don’t think that what follows appears in any of the recent appreciations or obits.

I was present at a study-day in Oxford at which John was musing about “the God who hides himself”. Said John, “If the Invisible Man applied to be a Head of House, the people making the appointment would probably say something like, ‘Well, you’re obviously very well qualified and experienced and you’ve got an excellent publication record, but one of the functions of the Head of House is to be seen around the College – so we’re afraid you’re not exactly the person we’re looking for’. But God isn’t like that: He doesn’t reveal Himself; we’ve got to find Him for ourselves.” Typical John: making an important point in an arresting and memorable way.

After a good deal of agonising, I said something about John at Meeting for Worship this morning - principally because someone had read a passage from Advices and Queries about the value of doubt and testing ideas. What the Friends thought I do not know - but it made me feel slightly better!

Yewtree said...

"whatever the demons are, the important thing is that Christ has the mastery of them."

Indeed - and this would apply whoever / whatever you thought Christ was, too.

John Fenton sounds like a fascinating man. I always enjoy discussions with people whose views differ from mine - it helps to refine one's own views.

A daughter said...

I'm the baby in the extract from your diary. That cat! I didn't know that she'd got pregnant.

Frank, I'd been looking forward to meeting you at the funeral on Friday but it was a bit of a scrum at the bunfight. It would be lovely to hear from you - Mum can forward mail.

Steve Hayes said...


The God who hides himself -- yes, John Davies, whom I mentioned in the body of my post, once preached a Christmas sermon on that theme. If you want to hide a needle, you don't hide it a haystack, you hide it in a box of needles. So God hides himself among a bunch of babies. The song of the angels is not heard by everyone, it is not loud enough to drown out the songs in the bar at the inn. It is heard only be a few shepherds.


Yes, that is what made John Fenton a good teacher, and why he said read books that take a definite line, because even if you disagree with it, you'll have to think of why you disagree with it, and so refine your own thought.

A daughter,

Ah yes, and I remember your baptism too! Thanks for reading, and please give my greetings to your mother, who may remember.

Chris Gwilliam said...

Sitting with a handful of other students in a tutorial facilitated by John in his home in, I think, 1966, I was listening to one of Chad's more "spiky" young men attempting (and failing) to explain what he meant by virgin birth in his essay. John leant forward and with a broad grin said "You don't really believe that, do you?" Said young man floundered helplessly. There was nowhere to hide from the incisiveness of John's theology. Going through a passage from (say) St Mark with him was like watching a skilled engineer stripping down an old and gummed up machine and restoring it to its original state. Half a generation later David Jenkins got into terrible hot water when Bishop of Durham for saying the very things John had taught us years before. John's sermon based on Alice in Wonderland, preached in Chad's chapel one Sunday morning on "Believing impossible things before breakfast" has stayed with me all my life. And I count myself blessed that it was John who officiated at my wedding to Nina in St Mary le Bow, then briefly the college chapel, having told us at a Candlemass Ball it was high time we were married! Apropos that cat, Nina recalls helping Linda rescue a cream sponge intended for visiting dignitaries from a severe feline mauling. As for babies and bathwater, John saw no contradiction between a de-mythologised gospel and the disipline of sitting quietly in chapel after breakfast each day, alone with his thoughts and his God who didn't speak. And nor do I. Goodbye John, and thank you.


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