27 May 2016

John Bainbridge Webster (1955–2016): some memories

It was something of a shock to hear that John Webster died suddenly on Wednesday – just a month short of his 61st birthday. John was increasingly being described as one of the most significant English-speaking theologians of his generation and he still had so much more to contribute to the world of theology (I think particularly of a rumoured five-volume systematic theology).

Several obituaries have already appeared on the theological blogosphere. They have rightly focused on his significance as a Barth interpreter, though it should not be forgotten that he was also at the forefront of making that most cryptic of German theologians – Eberhard Jüngel – accessible to an English-speaking readership. I’m not going to try to compete with them because to be honest I haven’t read as much of his work as some of them clearly have. For me, John was a friend rather than an authoritative other. So, instead, here are a few memories awoken by this news:

  • We first met when he applied for the post of Doctrine Tutor at Cranmer Hall, Durham. I was part of the interviewing process (along with the rest of the academic staff of St John’s College not to mention various carefully selected undergraduates, ordinands, and members of the domestic staff – the Principal liked to get a lot of perspectives on potential staff members!). To be honest, John’s CV didn’t stand out from the others on the shortlist. However, John sparkled at interview and S.E. behaved so obnoxiously that by the end of the weekend John’s appointment was a certainty.
  • John sitting proudly behind the wheel of his first car – a Lada Riva.
  • John’s ordination in Durham Cathedral; Peter Baelz preached on ‘What use are these deacons?’ ( I think John’s subsequent career amply answers that question.) Interestingly, John never trained for the priesthood – the Church of England allowed certain people (notably lecturers at Anglican theological colleges) to be ordained without jumping through the usual hoops. It was a system open to abuse, but in John’s case they struck gold (not just a fine theologian but a good preacher and a natural pastor).
  • John preaching to a room full of inmates at one of the prisons outside Durham (I had gone along as moral support). You could could have heard a pin drop!
  • A philosophical theology weekend organized by John, which gave a number of young theologians including Kevin Vanhoozer a chance to deliver papers in an informal and unthreatening environment.
  • Chatting with Rowan Williams during the 1986 Barth Centenary Conference. We were discussing John’s appointment to Wycliffe College, Toronto and Rowan commented that John was ‘the finest Anglican theologian of his generation’.
  • Arriving jetlagged at Toronto Airport to welcomed by John and immediately taken for a restorative cup of coffee.
  • John warning me that reading Barth’s commentary on Romans is like watching a very long war movie!

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