Ruth Etchells, who died on 8 August 2012, was both a Durham institution and a Durham treasure.
Following a brilliant school and university career in Liverpool, she taught English at Aigburth Vale High School in that city, after which she went on to lecture in English at Chester College of Education. In 1968, she came to Durham to teach in the English Department and to help shape the newly established Trevelyan College where she was later to be Vice-Principal. She was as an outstanding teacher of undergraduates. Her pioneering course on modern drama engaged students with the radically new literature of the 1960s: this was the era of Beckett, Osborne and Pinter. But what made her teaching so inspiring was the conviction that literature, poetry and drama were charged with issues of ultimate meaning in human life. I was an undergraduate at Oxford when she published her ground breaking and influential little book Unafraid to Be. Thanks to her, I began to learn how to discern God in art and culture. It proved an important catalyst in developing cross disciplinary engagement, not least in the emerging field of theology and literature whose early British home was in Durham.
However Ruth’s enduring contribution in Durham was as Principal of St John’s College between 1979 and 1988. St John’s is one of two Church of England recognised colleges within the University. Her appointment was a risky and courageous choice. She was a lay person taking on the leadership of a college that was responsible for the training of ordinands at Cranmer Hall. She was known as a scholar of English literature rather than as a theologian, despite her holding degrees in both. And of course she was a woman, the first female Principal of a Church of England theological college at a time when the Church did not ordain women to the priesthood and not much more than a decade after St John’s had begun to admit women undergraduates.
St John’s College, in the shadow of Durham Cathedral, faced big challenges in the 1980s. One of these was its need to demonstrate that it could not only hold its own academically but could also be financially sustainable. Ruth launched an ambitious refurbishment programme, established a rigorous undergraduate admissions policy, transformed John’s into a genuinely multi-disciplinary learning community and, possibly more than any other individual in its history, brought to the college the vision of a Christian community of learning and scholarship that could inhabit creative borderlands between the academy, the church and the wider world.
Ruth was not a cradle Anglican. Born in 1931, and the adopted daughter of a Congregational minister, it was only when she fell under the spell of Durham that she became a member of the Church of England. She made her first communion in the Cathedral’s Galilee Chapel, an event she would often recall as a kind of homecoming. Her service to the Church at both a national and international level was rich and varied. She served on the General Synod, the Doctrine Commission and the Crown Appointments Commission (as it was), as well as being present at the Lambeth Conferences of 1988 and 1998 as a theological adviser. She published a number of fine books on literature, prayer and spirituality. In recognition of her contribution to the wider church, Archbishop George Carey awarded her a Lambeth DD in 1992, an honour that meant a great deal to her, particularly since her own PhD thesis had been in a car that was stolen.
Ruth was a fervent advocate of the ordination of women, but never sought it for herself, having a strong sense of vocation to ministry as a lay person (she was licensed as a lay worker in 1979). Her energies were unabated in retirement, whether as a pastor, writer, governor of, among other organisations, Durham High School for Girls, Ridley Hall Cambridge and Scargill House. She found time to take on the demanding role of Vice-Chair of Durham Family Health Services Authority. She discovered a new dimension of her creativity as a stained-glass artist: she has a window of the Annunciation in the High School. She served as a member of Durham Cathedral Council during my time as Dean, and regularly led the intercessions at the sung eucharist. No-one will ever forget her flair for words and the profound spirituality woven into her public ministry of prayer, preaching or reading the scriptures. She had a unique understanding of the power of language and how to put it to work in the service of God.
Ruth loved life, and relished open air and wide landscapes. Her camping ‘expotitions’ (her word, or rather Pooh’s) with friends and colleagues in a campervan were legendary. She delighted in big fry-ups in the open air. She loved animals including her dogs Bonnie and Saffy. But perhaps what she will most be remembered for is her remarkable gift of friendship. She had an uncanny insight into people, a kind, humane discernment seasoned by an appreciation of the absurd. It helped restore perspective and hope to many. She was the much-loved confidante of students and bishops alike: the world was still beating a path to Ruth’s door in Sherburn Hospital up to her death. Her friends who were with her in her last days have spoken of the radiance and peace with which she prepared for her final journey. She died full of days, leaving behind countless sweet and happy memories. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.
Durham, August 2012With acknowledgments to Margaret Masson, Anne Harrison and Rosemary Nixon