02 November 2006

THE Revd David Lane, who died in India on 9 January, aged 69, was a Syriac scholar of considerable repute, and a former Principal of the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield. These two facts both conceal a life of unexpected turns, and indicate a contribution to the life of the Church for which many have reason to be deeply grateful.

Instead of becoming a parish priest, he became an ordained academic. From a tenured assistant professorship in Canada, he took a considerable cut in salary to join the staff of his old theological college at Mirfield. While there, he found himself Principal in the wake of the precipitate departure of his predecessor for the Roman Catholic Church, and later presided over efforts to save the college from closure. These changes of direction were all essentially unplanned, and yet in them can be seen Lane's commitment to the Church, his ability to adapt with aplomb, and, above all, the deep trust in God that underlay a meticulously and yet often understatedly exercised priesthood, firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition.

Lane's dedication to the task of formation for that priesthood - he was never happy with vague, unqualified notions of "ministry", nor indeed vague, unqualified notions of anything  - left its mark on several generations of clergy who passed through his hands in Barbados and at Mirfield.

David John Lane was born in Huddersfield in 1935, read theology at Magdalen College, Oxford, and trained for the priesthood at both Mirfield and, as it turned out, Codrington College, Barbados (then one of three theological colleges in the care of the Mirfield Fathers). He was ordained deacon and priest in 1962. His time in the West Indies was followed by a curacy in Wolvercote, and the associate chaplaincy of Pembroke College, Oxford, where he was elected Kennicott Fellow in Hebrew.


This was the beginning of the academic career in Syriac studies for which he became widely respected, and for the published record of which he was later awarded the senior Oxford degree of Bachelor of Divinity. At the time of his death, he was in India to receive an honorary doctorate from St Ephrem's Ecumenical Research Institute in Kerala, an institution to which he was a frequent contributor in terms of teaching, and at which, as the reaction there to his death makes clear, he was lionised as a dear friend and key supporter of the cause of academic research and of reconciliation and co-operation among the fragmented Syrian Churches of south-west India.

To the new student at Mirfield, David Lane seemed quite frankly terrifying, and yet, although he did not suffer fools gladly, his kindness became apparent in countless ways, not least to those in genuine need of pastoral support. While the awe remained, many came to hold him in lasting affection and regard, not least as a first-class teacher of Old Testament studies at Mirfield and the University of Leeds.

Among many so-called "Lane-isms", let the following be representative: "You may well think that we are talking about a patriarchal society, but let me tell you, the patriarchs were scared stiff of the matriarchs." Or, in response to someone who dared admit that they thought the Old Testament less important than the New: "How, may I ask, can you read the appendix without first having read the book?"

Outside the classroom, when you sat next to him in the college refectory, a conversation would invariably begin with "My newspaper tells me . . .", a response keenly and yet kindly awaited.

He once strode into the Common Room and announced that he had "the mind of St Paul and the mentality of Rabelais", a self-assessment that those who heard it are still trying to fathom.

A ritual of each morning was the separation of "Fr Lane's Times" from those newspapers destined for general consumption; after breakfast, the rustle of pages in the study heralded another day of quirky comment, outrage, resignation, or a mixture of them all. Away from the college, Lane was a keen and accomplished gardener, and a railway enthusiast: many of his photographs of the steam era on British Railways have been published and admired.

Through all the changes and chances, there remained the priest and Oblate of the Community of the Resurrection, and the office and mass central to his life. The Times, railways, and the exploits of Mr Jorrocks, let alone the Peshitta of Leviticus, seem duller now without their trenchant enthusiast and interpreter. He was given a grand funeral in India and laid to rest there in a marble tomb.

At Mirfield, a solemn requiem was sung in the Community Church, attended by more than 100 former students and colleagues. The offertory hymn was by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, a writer of whom he particularly approved:

Sun and moon shall darkened be,
Stars shall fall, the heavens shall flee;
Christ will then like lightning shine,
All will see his glorious sign;
All will then the trumpet hear,
All will see the Judge appear;
Thou by all wilt be confest,
God in Man made manifest.

No better epitaph. May he rest in peace.

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