The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove writes:
DR RUTH ETCHELLS, who died on 8 August 2012, was both a Durham
institution and a Durham treasure.
After a brilliant school and university career in Liverpool, she
taught English at Aigburth Vale High School in that city, after
which she went on to lecture in English at Chester College of
Education. In 1968, she came to Durham to teach in the English
Department and to help shape the newly established Trevelyan
College, where she was later to be Vice-Principal.
She was as an outstanding teacher of undergraduates. Her
pioneering course on modern drama engaged students with the
radically new literature of the 1960s: this was the era of Beckett,
Osborne, and Pinter. But what made her teaching so inspiring was
the conviction that literature, poetry, and drama were charged with
issues of ultimate meaning in human life. I was an undergraduate at
Oxford when she published her ground-breaking and influential
little book Unafraid to Be. Thanks to her, I began to
learn how to discern God in art and culture. It proved an important
catalyst in developing cross-disciplinary engagement, not least in
the emerging field of theology and literature, whose early British
home was in Durham.
Ruth's enduring contribution in Durham, however, was as
Principal of St John's College between 1979 and 1988. St John's is
one of two Church of England recognised colleges within the
University. Her appointment was a risky and courageous choice. She
was a lay person taking on the leadership of a college that was
responsible for the training of ordinands at Cranmer Hall. She was
known as a scholar of English literature rather than as a
theologian, despite her holding degrees in both. And, of course,
she was a woman, the first female principal of a Church of England
theological college at a time when the Church did not ordain women
to the priesthood, and not much more than a decade after St John's
had begun to admit women undergraduates.
St John's College, in the shadow of Durham Cathedral, faced big
challenges in the 1980s. One of these was its need to demonstrate
that it could not only hold its own academically, but also be
financially sustainable. Ruth launched an ambitious refurbishment
programme, established a rigorous undergraduate admissions policy,
transformed John's into a genuinely multi-disciplinary learning
community, and, possibly more than any other individual in its
history, brought to the college the vision of a Christian community
of learning and scholarship which could inhabit creative
borderlands between Academia, the Church, and the wider world.
Ruth was not a cradle Anglican. Born in 1931, and the adopted
daughter of a Congregational minister, it was only when she fell
under the spell of Durham that she became a member of the Church of
England. She made her first communion in the cathedral's Galilee
Chapel, an event that she would often recall as a kind of
homecoming. Her service to the Church at both a national and
international level was rich and varied. She served on the General
Synod, the Doctrine Commission. and the Crown Appointments
Commission (as it was), as well as being present at the Lambeth
Conferences of 1988 and 1998 as a theological adviser.
She published a number of fine books on literature, prayer, and
spirituality. In recognition of her contribution to the wider
Church, Archbishop George Carey awarded her a Lambeth DD in 1992,
an honour that meant a great deal to her, particularly since her
own Ph.D. thesis had been in a car that was stolen.
Ruth was a fervent advocate of the ordination of women, but
never sought it for herself, having a strong sense of vocation to
ministry as a lay person (she was licensed as a lay worker in
1979). Her energies were unabated in retirement, whether as a
pastor, writer, or governor of, among other organisations, Durham
High School for Girls, Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and Scargill House.
She found time to take on the demanding vice-chairmanship of Durham
Family Health Services Authority. She discovered a new dimension of
her creativity as a stained-glass artist: she has a window of the
Annunciation in the High School.
She served as a member of Durham Cathedral Council during my
time as Dean, and regularly led the intercessions at the sung
eucharist. No one will ever forget her flair for words and the
profound spirituality woven into her public ministry of prayer,
preaching, or reading the scriptures. She had a unique
understanding of the power of language and how to put it to work in
the service of God.
Ruth loved life, and relished open air and wide landscapes. Her
camping "expotitions" (her word, or rather Pooh's) with friends and
colleagues in a campervan were legendary. She delighted in big
fry-ups in the open air. She loved animals, including her dogs,
Bonnie and Saffy. But perhaps what she will most be remembered for
is her remarkable gift of friendship. She had an uncanny insight
into people, a kind, humane discernment seasoned by an appreciation
of the absurd. It helped restore perspective and hope to many.
She was the much-loved confidante of students and bishops alike:
the world was still beating a path to Ruth's door in Sherburn
Hospital up to her death. Her friends who were with her in her last
days have spoken of the radiance and peace with which she prepared
for her final journey. She died, full of days, leaving behind
countless sweet and happy memories.
May she rest in peace and rise in glory.
With acknowledgments to Margaret Masson, Anne Harrison, and