02 November 2006

WILLIAM FREND, warm, cantankerous, energetic, will be remembered with affection by generations of students of early church history. He died on 1 August, aged 89.

His irrepressible enthusiasm for the hard landscaping of the early Christian centuries could be exasperating to fellow scholars who thought the evidence of the early Christian authors important, too; but his innovative approach ("new and a breath of fresh air at the time", as one colleague comments) was successful in creating a lasting love of the subject in many of those he taught. "His outwardly bumbling manner hid both a keen mind and a deep and contageous enthusiasm; those who dared to penetrate the manner benefited greatly," remembers a student of his Cambridge years.

He was born on 11 January 1916. After school at Haileybury, he went up to Keble College, Oxford, where he read History and got a first. There he stayed as a young Fellow,  beginning his research for a doctorate, which he completed in 1940. On the outbreak of the Second World War, he found himself in the Civil Service, becoming an Assistant Principal in the War Office in 1940, from which he was seconded to the Cabinet Office in a year.

Moved into Intelligence, he served with distinction in North Africa, Italy and Austria, holding a commission in the Queen's Royal Regiment 1947-67, and winning the Gold Cross of Merit with Swords, Polish Forces. "He had an important and interesting career in the army in the war, and I heard him give an excellent talk about his experiences in Yugoslavia, about which he knew a great deal," one colleague recollects.

He profited as a scholar from his time in North Africa; for it was there that he first trod in the footsteps of his beloved Donatists. After the war, he spent several years working editorially with German Foreign Ministry documents before moving to Nottingham in 1951 to pick up the threads of his academic career as
a Research Fellow. The Donatist Church was published in 1952, and set the pattern of his research interests for a lifetime's work.

He was soon appointed to a Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and he remained as a Lecturer in Divinity in Cambridge until 1969, developing his own brand of ecclesiastical history for the patristic period and especially the fourth century, at a time when patristic studies were notably strong in the University. In 1969, he moved to Glasgow, where he held a chair of Ecclesiastical History until his retirement in 1984.

One student of Frend's Cambridge days comments on the way "Frend began with, and stuck to, the realia: archaeological finds, scraps of text, inscribed artefacts; and from these he helped me understand what could and could not be inferred. And if we showed the slightest inclination, we would be hauled out to Godmanchester on all but the wettest days, to be shown on the ground how archaeology should be done while he blew enthusiastically and nasally, like an excited thoroughbred, over the latest find."

Another comments: "A fellow student aptly remarked [that] he had 'a sense of the preposterous'. One day, when presenting an essay to him, I read out with some relish the quotation: 'The word of a heretic creeps like a canker into the ear of the hearers,' at which he let out a cry of delight, and said, 'I could have written that myself.'"

He was associate director of the Egypt Exploration Society excavations at Q' asr Ibrim, Nubia from 1963-64. Though the archaeological approach to the early Christian centuries remained his central interest, he would not himself have claimed to be a leading archaeologist. It was said that "archaeologists thought him wonderful on everything that concerned theology and hopeless at digging a straight trench."

He himself wisely disclaimed any real expertise in theology. His contribution was the originality of his very personal synthesis. He was a church historian who understood the importance of the practical and earthy, though those who enjoyed the heyday of the Patristic Seminars in Cambridge remember exciting sword-fights with Christopher Stead, when Frend would treat the question of the primacy of the intellectual evidence or the archaeology as a jousting-ground.

He held a number of visiting lectureships as far afield as South Africa and the United States. It was a particular satisfaction to him to be elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1983. He became an energetic and prolific author of a series of large and ambitious studies of the early Church, to which he brought his distinctive combination of enthusiasms. He was still busy writing at the end of his life.

Frend had a political streak. While he was in Cambridge he stood as
a Liberal candidate, with loyal students going out canvassing for him. In his Scottish years, he was Chairman of the Association of University Teachers 1976-78.

His father had been a clergyman, and it was to ministry in Church of England that he turned in retirement from academe. He had already become a lay Reader in 1956, and he made no secret of his joy at being accepted for ordination training. He was made deacon in 1982 and priested in 1983. From 1984 to 1990, he was Priest-in-Charge of the Barnwell group of parishes in the diocese of Peterborough, from which he was able to visit Cambridge regularly and keep up with the debate in the Patristic Seminars and the lively encounters in the University Library.

He found it a challenge to get into the routine of a fixed liturgy, but a fellow-priest remembers him as well-liked in his parishes, and a pastor who "took particular pains to get the full life story of those he buried". There was a profound humility under the sometimes (though engagingly) bumptious exterior, which was particularly noticeable when it came to the seriousness with which he took his duties: "One feels such a Chump [capital letter clearly audible] - standing up there in the pulpit, telling a lot of chaps - far better chaps than I am - how to behave!"

In 1951 he married Mary Grace Crook. They had a son and a daughter. Her courageous death in 2002 left him bereft of the companion of half a century.

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