Obituary: THE REVD DENNIS LENNON

by
26 September 2007

The Revd Chris Butt writes:

THE Revd Dennis Lennon, who died on 4 May, aged 75, was ordained in 1974, aged 42. Given that he served in three dioceses — for nine years in Ely, and seven in both Edinburgh and Sheffield — he had a remarkable impact on the communities in which he served.

Born in 1932, he grew up in Fulham, where he developed a taste for leadership as the gang leader of a group of boys, who would play in and around the bomb sites near his home. But the most significant event of his childhood years was the realisation of Christ’s love for him, through his involvement in a Covenanter group.

After training in precision engineering, and national service in Malaya, Dennis returned to the Far East and to Thailand, serving with the Overseas Missionary Fellowship as an evangelist, but also using his engineering skills, on one occasion to build an operating-theatre lamp with an electric torch.

He married Sonja, a Swiss nurse, also serving with OMF, in Thailand, and both their children, Claire and Patrick, were born there. Dennis had a flair for languages, and became fluent in both Thai and Malay. After seven years in Thailand, the family returned to the UK, where Dennis served as Youth Director of OMF for a further five years, before attending theological college at Oak Hill.

A curacy at the Round Church (Holy Sepulchre) in Cambridge, where he developed a ministry to the many young families, was followed by an appointment as Vicar of St Barnabas’s on the then less-than-fashionable Mill Road. The church was very run down, attended by a handful of people and threatened with closure, but within a few years it was buzzing with life.

The executive director of the Bible Society’s programme for England and Wales, Ann Holt, spoke (Back Page Interview, 31 August) about the influences of people on her, and, alongside Lesslie Newbigin, she mentioned “the sermons of Dennis Lennon. He was a brilliant wordsmith, and the first person to make me think seriously about spiritual discernment.”

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Preaching was undoubtedly his greatest gift. An Evangelical at heart, he had none of the predictability of Evangelical preachers. He drew his inspiration primarily from scripture, but also fed his mind and imagination from the writings of Barth, Torrance, Farrer, and von Balthasar, among the theologians, and Herbert, Donne, Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes, and O’Siadhail among the poets.

He would later, in retirement, write a book on George Herbert’s sonnet “Prayer”, Turning the Diamond, published by SPCK. He also had a wonderful sense of kairos, God’s opportune time, and really launched the Cambridge churches’ ministry to the many international students, which is such a feature of life in many of the city’s churches today.

In 1979, he launched the Kairos Trust, supporting a full-time worker in this ministry. Nearly 30 years on, several people are supported by the trust, and it has a remarkable ministry to students from all over the world.

From Cambridge, he was invited in 1983 to go to Edinburgh, as Rector of St Thomas’s, Corstorphine, which he described at the time as a church “all dressed up, with nowhere to go” — recognition that it had enormous, but as yet unrealised, potential.

At that time, the church was recognisably an Evangelical “flagship” in the mould of many that could be found in the cities and large towns of England — eclectic in its catchment, conservative in its theology and patterns of worship, more at home with churches of like mould (mostly south of the border) than with the diocese of which it was a part.

From this large congregation (and before church-planting became fashionable), with the blessing of Bishop Richard Holloway, who was hugely supportive of Dennis’s ministry, 70 members of the congregation at St Thomas’s moved to St Paul and St George’s, a church in the heart of Edinburgh which was threatened with closure.

This church now has a congregation of 700, who are embarking on a £5-million renewal and renovation project of the building, and look back with great gratitude to Dennis’s ministry. A second church-plant in Clermiston — Emmanuel Church — took place a few years later in the adjacent suburb to Corstorphine.

The Revd Paul Burt, now Senior Chaplain of Winchester College, who was a curate at St Thomas’s when Dennis was Rector, writes: “It’s no exaggeration to say that, as a result of Dennis’s leadership, Edinburgh church life, and even Scottish church life during the second half of the 1980s, glimpsed previously unthought-of possibilities, the effects of which are still being felt today.”

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After only seven years in Edinburgh, Dennis was invited to bring his passion for evangelism and the breadth of his experience to the post of Adviser for Evangelism in the diocese of Sheffield, with the added responsibility of two small Anglo-Catholic parishes in Burghwallis and Skelbrooke.

This enabled him to speak with authenticity to churches and ministers across the churchmanship spectrum. He travelled widely within the diocese, encouraging parishes to discover the pattern of evangelism and faith-sharing that worked for them. He also kept up his regular writing of daily notes for Scripture Union’s Encounter with God series, something that he had begun in Cambridge, and which brought a worldwide readership and a considerable postbag.

On one occasion, he received a postcard from a missionary nun somewhere in equatorial Africa: “Now, after forty years, I finally understand what Hebrews is about. Yours, in gratitude, a Handmaid of the Lord.”

In retirement in Uppingham, he was never inactive, and his ministry was deeply appreciated. It had a transforming impact on a number of individual lives; but he was happy to control his workload and spend time with his wife, Sonja, and his children and grandchildren. He enjoyed having time to write, publishing two books in the Encounter with God series on Job and Revelation, another entitled Weak Enough for God to Use, inspired by a saying of Hudson Taylor, and several books on prayer and spirituality: Fuelling the Fire, The Eyes of the Heart, and Turning the Diamond.

At his funeral, the Bishop of Peterborough, who had taught Dennis at Oak Hill, said that he had learnt more from his student on prayer than he himself had taught.

Dennis baptised his latest grandchild, Daniel, on the Sunday before he died: a joyful end to his ministry. After a lengthy battle with cancer, he died on his and Sonja’s 46th wedding anniversary.

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