Obituary: The Rt Revd Dr John Austin Baker

by
13 June 2014

PA

"A fresh mind in the pulpit": the Rt Revd John Austin Baker

"A fresh mind in the pulpit": the Rt Revd John Austin Baker

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 and style.

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 other colleagues".

(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 work.)

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 debate.

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 Council.

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 be righted.

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 gatherings.

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.

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