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The Revd Professor C. F. Evans

by
10 August 2012

Self-effacing university teacher: the Revd Professor C. F. Evans

Self-effacing university teacher: the Revd Professor C. F. Evans

The Revd Professor Mark Chapman writes:

THE Revd Professor Christopher Francis Evans, who has died, aged 102, was one of the leading Anglican New Testament teachers of the 20th century.

Born on 7 November 1909, he attended King Edward's School, Birmingham, well-known for producing brilliant scholars (and where Enoch Powell was a younger contemporary). Christopher was brought up at St Aidan's, Small Heath, where he experienced advanced Ritualism as well as serious critical theology, represented by the curate Alec Vidler, who remained a lifelong friend.

He graduated in theology from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1932, where he had come under the influence of Sir Edwyn Hoskyns, Dean of Chapel. Recognising Christopher's academic gifts, Hoskyns was responsible for two of Christopher's most formative experiences: first, a study visit to Tübingen in 1933, which shocked and fascinated in equal measure; and, second, two years at Lincoln Theological College, where he was told "they teach some theology."

He was taught by the subwarden, Michael Ramsey, who was writing The Gospel and the Catholic Church. They became close friends: Christopher was examining chaplain to the Archbishop in the 1960s, and his last publication in 1995 was a tribute to Ramsey's sense of the absurd.

After ordination, Christopher served a curacy at St Barnabas's, Southampton, which was followed by a period teaching at Lincoln: first at the Theological College, and then at the Diocesan Teacher Training College. He married Elna Pasco in 1941. She was 12 years his senior. They had one son, Jonathan, who became a vicar in Birmingham, and two grandsons, one of whom is a naval chaplain.

After the War, Christopher served on a denazification programme for theologians in Germany, where he ended up lecturing to some of the great theologians, an experience he always regarded with a great sense of irony.

From 1948, he was Chaplain of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he joined tutorial forces with successive counterparts at Queen's: Dennis Nineham, and then David Jenkins. His tutorial style formed a generation of undergraduates, including John Bowden, who later published many of Christopher's writings with SCM Press.

In 1958, he was appointed Lightfoot Professor of New Testament and Canon at Durham, where he fully expected to stay until retirement, but he took up the post of Professor of New Testament at King's College, London, in 1962, where he proved a brilliant teacher and communicator, both on radio and television. His students included Desmond Tutu and a host of other church leaders. He wrote relatively little, and would never have survived the modern fixation on research at the expense of teaching.

On retirement, he had intended to move to rural Shropshire, but, because of Elna's last illness, he came to live in Cuddesdon, where he remained until 2008. In his retirement, he continued to travel and to write, producing his great Luke commentary (which he regarded as a bit of a dinosaur) in 1990.

He played a full part in college life, mentoring many students, and always asking the killer question in a lecture in his inimitable self-deprecating way. His final few years were spent happily at the Lady Katherine Leveson Foundation at Temple Balsall, where he enjoyed introducing its residents to the poetry of Auden and Eliot.

Loathing being the centre of attention, he burnt almost all his papers, and abhorred Festschriften and memorial services (although a collection in his honour was published by Morna Hooker and Colin Hickling for his 65th birthday, What about the New Testament? (1975)). Throughout his career, he gave a huge number of sermons and addresses that combined spiritual depth with scholarship. He was a popular confessor and spiritual director.

He always remained a very religious man, continuing to celebrate the eight-o'clock communion every Sunday in a freezing Cuddesdon church, with a choreography finely honed in the 1930s. Nevertheless, he found faith a great struggle, especially after Elna's death in 1980.

His humility, inquisitiveness, and gregariousness gave him a huge capacity for friendship. He was a master of making connections, finding out everything about people in a few sentences. He was extraordinarily open-minded: "perorations", he wrote, "are debarred to those for whom God's act is the last word." In a world where he was always surrounded by those of inferior intellect, he was completely without pomposity or snobbery, putting everybody at their ease from little children to college staff to professors. He was full of wonderful anecdotes, relating not always flattering stories about his heroes. He once said of the great Donald MacKinnon: "The trouble with Donald is that you could never tell whether he is being utterly profound or just plain stupid."

Christopher had a huge sense of the richness of human life and an energy for relationships and things outside theology: he enjoyed conversation, food, wine, and music, and was always ready to listen to something new (including Shostakovich's symphonies in his 90s). Although he was very proud of his FBA and his many academic achievements, he often used to say that he would have much preferred to be a rugby or cricket player: when he disposed of his books, nearly all the theology went, but Wisden remained in pride of place.

Even when his eyesight and hearing were failing, he struggled to read new publications using the latest technology, remaining intellectually curious and theologically restless almost until the day he died. His last guest-night speech at Cuddesdon, made when he was well into his 90s, surprised many with its eloquent call for the ordination of homosexuals. As an old man with a razor-sharp mind, he hated being patronised, especially by the Church. He was a true Anglo-Catholic radical, whose sense of life and quest for God touched so many of us over so very many years. All who knew him will be ever grateful for his infectious smile, his massive generosity, and his profound humility. For Christopher, in the words of his beloved Michael Ramsey, Christian life was "the knowledge of him who is the author of laughter as well as tears".

 

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