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Obituary: Canon John Philip McMurdo Sweet

29 July 2009

by The Rt Revd Robert Hardy

Biblical scholar but a sparing writer: Canon John Sweet

Biblical scholar but a sparing writer: Canon John Sweet

CANON John Sweet, who died on 2 July, was a distinguished New Testa­ment theologian, and a much-loved pastor and friend.

He was born in India, where his father served in the Indian Forest Service, but his schooling was in England, as a King’s Scholar at Eton, and the winner of the prestigious Newcastle Scholarship. He went up to New College, Oxford, as a scholar, taking a first in classics, and later, after National Service, another first in the final honour school in theology, with both the Junior and Senior Greek Testament prizes.

After a year at Yale Divinity School as a Commonwealth Fellow, he entered Westcott House, Cambridge, as an ordinand. He served three years as a curate at St Mark’s, Mansfield, be­fore Owen Chadwick snapped him up as Fellow and Chaplain of Selwyn College in July 1958.

So began his life vocation, his developing stature as a theologian, and the flowering of his vocation to the priesthood. John once reflected that his journey from Evangelical circles in Oxford to a lively Anglo-Catholic parish in Mansfield placed him as a college chaplain “in the middle, open and encouraging to all”.

Selwyn men (and later women) discovered this for themselves. They learned to appreciate his serenity, his grace and openness, alongside his devotion at the altar and the wisdom and depth of his preaching, not least in his deeply biblical and practical homilies at the Sunday eucharist.

For many years, he acted as a college tutor, and there are many who have cause to thank John for his support and counsel during times of personal crisis. More importantly, his phenomenal memory for names and faces somehow kept them all fresh in his memory, ensuring a ready wel­come when they made contact, and a continuing interest in their careers and development. As a member of High Table, John was witty and amusing, without losing his firm grasp of matters of principle, or any undermining of his faith and priest­hood.

As a university teacher, he was especially gifted, combining pro­found biblical scholarship with sharp intelligence and endless patience. For 30 years, he was a university lecturer, and during that time he taught the three present Anglican archbishops of England and Wales, and a very large number of the clergy of the Church of England. When he retired in 1994, 175 people, including four diocesan bishops, attended to honour him and Mary, his wife, at dinner.

In his latter years, he said that he felt dons were having to spend too much time showing others how to do their jobs, and not enough time actually doing them. He was equally clear that there were too many books in the world; and accordingly he himself wrote sparingly, and only when he had something to say. His SCM Pelican Commentary on Revela­tion was published in 1979, and was well-received. It remains an inviting introduction to one of the strangest books of the Bible.

John’s academic and pastoral work reached out well beyond his college. For more than 20 years, he chaired the Lay Readers’ Summer Course at Selwyn, persuading distinguished theologians to address them without reward. His scholarly standing was recognised by his membership of the Liturgical Commission, and especially by the award of a Lambeth DD.

He served as Chairman of the Faculty Board of Divinity, and the Board of Electors to livings in the gift of the University. For many years, he served on the Westcott Council, and supported the work of the Cambridge committee for Christian work in Delhi. Towards the end of his career, he taught theology to Czech dis­sidents who were taking the Cam­bridge Diploma in Theology. He was an Hon. Canon of Chichester for 32 years.

Behind all this lay John’s personal faith, and his complete lack of self-importance and self-seeking. Charac­teristically, before he died, he spoke of knowing the power of prayer in his growing weakness. In conversation, he slipped easily from the mundane into the profound. Owen Chadwick said it was impossible for him to preach a dull sermon, and John’s per­sonal warmth and scholarly integrity shone through all his personal deal­ings. He and Mary were generous in their hospitality. They opened their home and shared their family life with countless pupils and friends over the years.

John was diagnosed with cancer in summer 2008. Nursed devotedly by his wife and children, and supported by the medical profession and the Selwyn community, he lived for a further 12 months, able before he died to baptise a new grandchild and, in spite of his infirmity, to sustain his ministry. He is remembered by many with a very deep sense of gratitude and affection.

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