THE Rt Revd John Austin Baker, Bishop of Salisbury in the 1980s
and early '90s, who died on 4 June, aged 86, had a mind of
exceptional lucidity and range. He wrote with ease and power. Thus
gifted, he constantly sought to connect the truths of faith with
the multifarious problems of human living. More liberal in ethics
than theology, he followed his reasoning and stood by it even when
it led him into awkward places.
His instincts were academic. So were his professional
beginnings. Born on 11 January 1928, he had grown up after the
Second World War and been spared military service. From school at
Marlborough he had gone in 1947 to Oriel College, Oxford, on a
modern-language scholarship; tried to read classics (Mods and
Greats); concluded after two-and-a-half years that this was a
mistake; switched, since he had already resolved on ordination, to
theology; delighted in it; and (furnished by his college chaplain,
Roy Porter, with some of the best tutors in the university) got a
first in the four-and-a-half terms remaining.
As soon as he had finished his training at Cuddesdon, he was
taken on the staff there to teach Old Testament, and was ordained
to a curacy at the parish church. After three years he moved to
London to teach New Testament Greek at King's, with a curacy at
Hatch End. Two years later, in 1959, he returned to Oxford as
chaplain of Corpus Christi College and a member of the divinity
faculty. His pupils found him a patient teacher, attentive to logic
At Corpus, besides translating theology from French and German,
he wrote his most substantial book: The Foolishness of God
(1970). It was a claim, direct and personal and yet meticulously
argued, that the only credible God was one for whom sacrificial
love was the supreme value: a ringing statement of an incarnational
and eucharistic faith.
Ever since his time as a Cuddesdon tutor he had had living with
him his widowed and formidable mother. His friends observed that
although his social life was thereby inhibited, that very fact gave
him time to get a big book written.
His mother moved with him to Westminster when he was appointed
to a canonry there in 1973; but she had died before his friendship
with a member of the Abbey staff, Jill Leach, flowered into
marriage. Sharing his sense of duty, Jill Baker gave her husband
loyal and loving support for the rest of their life together. She
survives him. There were no children.
Sensitive later to the charge that diocesans of his day lacked
parish experience, he used to cite (besides his curacies) his four
years as Rector of St Margaret's, Westminster. He moved into the
post from the Abbey treasurership in 1978, becoming also Sub-Dean
and Chaplain to the Speaker of the Commons. His education in
tensions between incumbent and organist, for example, he had at St
Margaret's at the hands of Richard Hickox.
A strong will in chapter and a fresh mind in the pulpit, John
Baker now began to extend his reach as a writer to those random
topics in church and secular life that invitation increasingly
opened to him. Without deserting scriptural studies, he contributed
chapters to books about church membership, the environment,
religion as an exam subject, the hospice movement, and (since he
kept up his scientific and philosophical reading) Darwinism.
As a member of a Doctrine Commission that negotiated peculiarly
diverse views of scripture and the creeds to produce Christian
Believing (1976), he put together such part of the text as
could be presented in common. He sometimes stayed up much of the
night to do it. He "has drafted, and redrafted, our findings",
wrote the chairman, Maurice Wiles, in an introduction, "with a
patience and skill that has won him the gratitude and admiration of
(He also had a hand in the report that a new commission put out
five years later, and briefly served as chairman in the mid-1980s
until he was obliged on doctor's orders to lighten his burden of
At Archbishop Coggan's request, he wrote a short Lent book that
turned out to be a lively and original account of a Christian
utopia: Travels in Oudamovia (1976) - oudamou
being the Greek for "nowhere". The long-sown seed had been a series
of sermons in Corpus chapel. It was the author's favourite book. He
once said that when he came to recount the island's final volcanic
destruction he had tears running down his face as he typed.
Oudamovians ate hardly any meat, and treated animals with
respect, since "other creatures have truths which we can only dimly
grasp". He returned to the theme in later writings: it was an
interest he shared with his wife, as well as with their neighbours
at the Westminster deanery, Edward and Lilian Carpenter.
The most important task that came to him at Westminster was to
chair an inquiry into how the Christian conscience should regard
nuclear weapons. A six-man working-party had been set up by the
Board for Social Responsibility in response to a General Synod
resolution of July 1979.
Its report, The Church and the Bomb, published in
October 1982, concluded from detailed strategic and ethical
argument that "the cause of right cannot be upheld by fighting a
nuclear war", and that war itself "is no longer viable": to
eradicate it from the world's agenda was urgent. Synod members
withheld their endorsement of this line, but not their admiration
of the agonised eloquence with which it was put to them in
Earlier in the year of the report's publication, Baker had been
made Bishop of Salisbury. Neither the Crown Appointments Commission
nor Margaret Thatcher could have foreseen that a reputation as a
near-pacifist was about to be added to a reputation as an
animal-lover round the neck of the man chosen to head a diocese
stocked with soldiers, battery-farmers, and fox-hunters.
Baker assured a London lecture audience not long afterwards that
he had always voted Conservative; but anxieties were not stilled.
In truth, the union between the intellectual and his rural diocese
was never easy. In one village confirmation sermon he quoted a
statement on baptism from the World Council of Churches,
identifying the council by its initials only. To his hearers, it
seemed one more example of big-headedness in Wiltshire County
In dealings with successive deans, too, he had his frosty
patches: with Sydney Evans, an old friend from King's, over an
early proposal for a coach-park in the cathedral close which had
alarmed Jill Baker in particular; with Hugh Dickinson, even more
damagingly, over a cathedral visitation. This was conducted by
Baker in 1991. His charge, published that October, found much to
admire in the cathedral's ways and made useful private
recommendations from his Abbey experience. But the nub of the
public report was critical. It deplored the prospect, and the
implications, of a new centre and restaurant for visitors.
"Is this not degrading the cathedral to a landmark which enables
the chapter to reap the benefits of the souvenir and refreshment
trade rather than the city?" the Bishop asked. "I believe firmly
that the cathedral authorities ought to start now on a phased plan
to reduce such activities, not build them up. Visitors should find
a building and a campus which plainly have their own job to do, and
that is not to compete with the leisure industry."
For the unconsidered force of these and other phrases he always
reproached himself afterwards, in public as well as private. Part
of the problem was that with the Dean and Chapter (who were anxious
to get the affair over) he had agreed a deadline that made him
write too fast. Yet he did not withdraw the substance of what he
had said. His relations with Hugh and Jean Dickinson were not fully
repaired till after both men had left office.
His virtues as a bishop were seen in private meetings for study
or discussion, and in his response to his clergy's personal
emergencies. His prayer notebook was well filled and well used.
There was nothing of the prelatical in him: he abjured a purple
stock, answered the telephone by saying "John Baker", and welcomed
tramps at his door.
Though heart and hip trouble, borne without complaint, plagued
him more and more, he still wrote on a wide front. Besides a book
on evidence for the resurrection, his Salisbury output included
papers on Northern Ireland (which he visited several times) and the
ordination of women to the priesthood (which he favoured), and
further pieces on warfare, racism, and the welfare of animals. He
could seldom resist a cause where he thought there were wrongs to
In 1993, he retired from Salisbury to a house at Winchester
behind the school's first-eleven cricket pavilion. He had little
time to watch a game. Two years earlier (the date when he also
accepted a Lambeth DD), he had been a member of the House of
Bishops working-party that countenanced homosexual activity among
the lay people but proscribed it for the clergy; and his gradual
and open shift towards thinking the ban mistaken made him much in
demand as a speaker on sexuality to church and clergy
For platform and pulpit and print he was writing as busily as
ever. Since his subject-matter covered the whole application as
well as the nature of Christian belief, he had long been drawn by
the idea of collecting his views into a unified system.
Oudamovia had been the first such summa; the
second was The Faith of a Christian (1996), which cogently
surveyed the main current issues in belief and ethics in 211 pages.
When this won less attention than it deserved, his response was to
plan an enlarged edition and a sequels. They were uncompleted at
the time of his death.
It had been a ministry marked by conscience and intellectual
courage. In physique, Baker was enormously tall. Those who knew him
will remember him as a man of a matching spiritual stature,
self-giving both in his work and in his friendships.He was
cheerfully sustained through his many illnesses by an equal degree
of self-giving on the part of his wife.