About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Ruth Etchells RIP

Obituary published in the Church Times, 17 August 2012

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. 

Michael Sadgrove
Durham, August 2012
With acknowledgments to Margaret Masson, Anne Harrison and Rosemary Nixon

Saturday, 11 August 2012

At a Golden Wedding

I often say that when Jesus attended the wedding at Cana in Galilee, he didn’t preach a sermon or give the couple advice.  What mattered was to make sure the wine didn’t run out and that the party could go on.  I dare say he would have done the same at a golden wedding.

So sermons on these occasions should be short.  But the central word of marriage and of life is short too. ‘Love’. Yet it’s the biggest word there is.  Where do we find love? In the tiniest hazelnut, says Mother Julian: it exists because God loves it; in  the entire sweep of the universe, says Dante, because it is ‘love that moves the sun and the other stars’. And today love has a human face in Stephen and Joy and the 50 years of marriage they celebrate. Today we know that love is God’s meaning.

A rabbi asked his pupils how they could tell when it was daybreak. ‘When you see an animal, and there is enough light to tell whether it’s a fox or a dog?’ one said.  ‘No’ said the teacher.  ‘When you look at an orchard, and can tell the difference between an apple and a pear tree?’ said another.  ‘No. Day breaks when you look at someone and know that they are your brother or your sister. Until you can do that, no matter what time of day it is, it’s always night.’ So love is a kind of dawn, an illumination.  It lights up our lives.  We see each other in a new way.  And when marriage is not only long-lived, but wholesome and happy and good, we recognise how love lights up not only two lives given to each other in vows and promises and rings but everyone else who is privileged to be brought into this circle of God-given grace. Marriage is one of the places in human life that demonstrate St Paul’s great saying: that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  For love never ends.  

The gospel reading from St John talks about love in words so simple that a child can understand it.  Perhaps we would find it easier to take it in and live it if we were a little more childlike. Jesus says: ‘as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.  Abide in my love’.  He is speaking about the new relationships we become part of when we are brought into relationship with God.  Divine love has human love as its consequence. The church is a society of friends says John, a community of truth and love.  Our badge is that we love one another. And this is as true of marriage as it is of all the other ways we love. In the Jewish Talmud, it says that the shekinah, God’s presence, his very glory, dwells between a husband and a wife. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.  Where love is, there you find God.  For God is love. 

And the model of all loving is Jesus.  ‘As the Father loves, so I have loved you.’  There is more. Jesus will go on to say, in words familiar from so many war memorials, ‘Greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ Anyone who has ever loved knows what the cost of love is, the often little, sometimes big ways we are called to lay down our lives for those we love. Love demands as well as gives.  It’s tough as well as gentle. It asks everything of us; yet it gives everything in return.  Love is not only cross. It’s resurrection. When we love as Jesus does, the day breaks, the shadows flee away.

We have already heard from your beloved George Herbert in this service in Richard Lloyd’s exquisite setting of his poem ‘The Call’. But I have another Herbert poem to mark this occasion.  The name ‘Stephen’ means ‘crown’.  And happily, the poet brings together your two names, in an echo of St Paul, in a poem called ‘A True Hymn’.   

            My joy, my life, my crown!
            My heart was meaning all the day,
            Somewhat it fain would say:
            And still it runneth, muttering up and down
            With only this, My joy, my life, my crown.

He is saying that he wants to sing a true hymn, his best hymn, in praise of God; he has the words, the rhyme, the metre but somehow not quite the spirit.  He knows that what life is meant for is to worship God ‘my joy, my life, my crown’.  But how to live the truth of his own song? At the end he finds the way.   

            Whereas if the heart be moved
            Although the verse be somewhat scant,
            God doth supply the want.
            And when the heart says, sighing to be approved,
            O could I love! And stops: God writeth, Loved. 

The point is: it is being loved that is the secret.  To know you are loved and cherished is what liberates the heart to sing and the tongue to praise.  This is what moves the heart to recognise and know God.  And a long and happy marriage is surely one of the ways in which we know that we are loved everlastingly, and come to love God as ‘my joy, my life, my crown’. 

So, Stephen and Joy, ‘joy’ and ‘crown’ with life held between your names: in God’s eternal love you had your beginning 50 years ago.  In that time you have tasted its length and breadth and height and depth, have glimpsed in each other how the love of Christ passes knowledge, have walked side by side in loving God as your joy, your life, your crown. In his love may you also have your end, and many more golden days to come in the meantime. And as good Tobias prayed, may you both find mercy and grow old together.

For Bishop Stephen and Joy Sykes, 11 August 2012
1 Corinthians 13
John 15. 9-11