THE Revd Dr Richard Thomas — better known as Dick — France, who died on 10 February, aged 73, was an outstanding New Testament scholar, whose commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels are to be found on many a preacher’s bookshelf.
His linguistic and textual skills, however, were primarily employed throughout his career to enable ordinary Christians, as well as scholars, to enjoy and profit from the scriptures. So, alongside his substantial commentary on the Greek text of Mark stands his popular devotional commentary on the same Gospel in the People’s Bible Commentary series.
Dick France was born in Northern Ireland, but grew up in Yorkshire. From Bradford Grammar School, he made his way to Balliol College, Oxford, and from there to Tyndale Hall, Bristol, where he trained for the ministry at the same time as completing a doctoral thesis for Bristol University on Jesus and the Old Testament.
After serving a curacy in Cambridge, he spent the next 26 years in academic research and teaching. After four years in Nigeria as a lecturer in biblical studies, he was appointed librarian, and later Warden, of Tyndale House, Cambridge. From 1981 to 1989, he was senior lecturer and then vice-principal of the London Bible College (now the London School of Theology). In 1989, he returned to Oxford as Principal of Wycliffe Hall, succeeding Canon Geoffrey Shaw.
The following decade was a turbulent one for the Church of England, and Wycliffe Hall felt the strains of it. Dick France had publicly supported the ordination of women, a contentious issue among Evangelicals. He had set out his reasons in the 1995 Didsbury Lectures, and then in Women in the Church’s Ministry (1995). He was not a man who enjoyed confrontation, or the manipulations of church politics, and in 1995, to general surprise, he resigned as Principal, to become Rector of a group of rural parishes in Herefordshire. Some assumed that this was a prelude to retirement, but in fact some of his finest published work appeared in the following decade, much of which he spent with his wife Barbara in Gwynedd, in north-west Wales.
In fact, this withdrawal from academic posts and concentration on teaching and pastoral ministry at ground level was simply the working out of a principle that he had long held. The Bible was not just for the study, but for the street, the factory, the field, and the home. Although possibly the finest Evangelical New Testament scholar of his generation, he was never happier than when making the Bible come alive to a study group or a Sunday congregation.
I saw him tell a group that he would introduce them to a fundamental aid to understanding the Gospels. He called it the “Big Bad Wolf” key. You could, he explained, tell the story of the Three Little Pigs to a child in various ways, but your hearer would noisily object if you omitted the key line (thrice repeated): “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.” When reading or listening to the parables and teaching of Jesus, he said, look out for the “I’ll huff and I’ll puff” sayings, because they were always included, however different the telling of the rest of the teaching might be. Sometimes they were signposted by the words “Amen, amen” (“Truly I say”). The scholar smiled, the group laughed, and we all gained a valuable insight into the world of hermeneutics.
Dick France was a gentle, caring, and perceptive pastor, whose vast gifts and knowledge were laid at the foot of the cross. For many, he made the scriptures shine with meaning and relevance. He would wish no greater epitaph.