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The consecrated mind of a disciple

19 September 2014

Peter Selby pays tribute to John Austin Baker's conviction and care for the marginalised


THE ministry of Bishop John Baker (Obituary, 13 June) has shown to a wide public in Church and society what was certainly life-changing for me when I knew him in my teens: his witness that there is nothing worthier of anyone's intellectual powers than the Christian gospel. And also, if, as was true for John, you have a deep love of language and an outstanding capacity to use it, then the service of that gospel lends itself, as almost nothing else, to the exercise of that gift.

We shall want to give thanks for the weight and wisdom of John's book The Foolishness of God (1970), surely destined to retain its status as a classic of Anglican writing in our time. It exhibits the same combination of scholarship, faith, and linguistic ability as led Walther Eichrodt to admit that the original German formulations of his Theology of the Old Testament (1961, 1967) were given "clarity and comprehensibility" by John's translation.

But it is also true that we are gathered to praise God for something far greater than intellect, scholarship, and the gift of words. In a conversation I had with Tim Darton, the publisher of The Foolishness of God, he said that part of its success was that "You keep thinking he's about to throw in the towel, but he doesn't."

Such was the seriousness with which John took the reasons for doubt, and the book's testimony to faith gains its strength from that.

But today is about the discipleship of a consecrated mind; and that is shown in far more than one classic text. It is about following the argument where it leads; listening to it even as you speak it; and travelling with it wherever it goes, even if the conclusion is neither what you set out expecting, nor a comfortable place at which to have arrived.

I am not the only person here who experienced the remarkable AGM of the Movement for the Ordination of Women at which John spoke. There was tension in the movement between those advocating patience, and those of a more urgent spirit; so it was decided to summon a theologian (we know how good they are at sorting out our problems!).

John was invited to give two lectures on kairos, God's time. He gave the morning lecture, warning us that kairos was not the time of our choosing or our convenience. With hindsight, I think that that lecture was intended to be more supportive to the thinking of those who were commending patience than of those who were demanding urgency.

But we returned from lunch for the second lecture, only to hear John say that he had decided not to give it as planned, because his earlier reflections persuaded him that the time was now! Such is the discipleship of the consecrated mind.

WE ARE here from the parishes of the diocese of Salisbury to salute the memory of a bishop who cared deeply for clergy and people, certainly including those with whom he had strong disagreements, and including also as a diocesan initiative the diocesan link with the Church in Sudan.

We are here from Ireland to honour a person who lent weight to the movement towards peace, first by the lectures he arranged at St Margaret's, Westminster, and his statement that the Irish were owed an apology from Britain.

We are also here from a range of organisations concerned with animal welfare.

Those who had long considered shameful the failure of the Church of England to mount a critique of nuclear deterrence will have memories of being deeply encouraged by The Church and the Bomb (1982), the report of which John was principal author and enabler.

Later, when John came to the conclusion that the arguments in Issues in Human Sexuality (1991), the House of Bishops' report of which he was also the main enabler and writer, were unsustainable, he did not take the easy route of quiet dissociation, but spoke plainly.

SO, WHEN we care too little to speak, we shall remember John, and his following of the Christian argument to the enrichment of us all. We shall remember someone who had no doubt that the Lord who put a child in the midst of the disciples would not regard the defence of the marginal - marginal human beings, creatures all - as something merely optional for us who believe, but rather precisely the divine foolishness to which we are called: the discipleship of the consecrated mind.

Nor would this lover of the prophets of old wish us to forget to say to those of a fearful heart - who are "too shy to speak" - "be strong; fear not".

When the translator of a large theological work writes a "translator's preface", we expect to find standard courtesies and words of technical explanation. But, in this unlikely place, in the translator's preface to the second volume of the work on which John spent more of his academic life than any other, Eichrodt's Theology of the Old Testament, there is a moment when his deepest conviction comes to expression.

He is speaking of the place of covenant as a symbol of the kind of God with whom we have to deal. Then comes this:

Believe in him, wrestle with him, react against him - whatever they do, it is this kind of God, and not some other, with whom they are involved, the transcendent Lord who "spake and it was done", who gives life and the way of life to every creature, who enters into fellowship with Man, seeking his free response, and who guides all to its goal by his unconditional and sovereign will.

FAR beyond any selection we might make of causes John espoused that we agree with or do not; far beyond even the courage - or was it innocence? - with which he spoke of these things; far beyond the intellect and the style of utterance - far beyond all of that for which we give thanks, those words from his preface represent the conviction, the consecrated mind, from which it all came.

And, John, we know that this transcendent God, this unconditional and sovereign will, was not for you one far off - we can see it in your face. We also see it in the final words from the hymn with which The Foolishness of God ends: "This is my friend, In whose sweet praise I all my days Could gladly spend."

May that promise be yours always, John, and pray with us that, in God's good time, it will be the promise that we and all God's creatures will share.

This is an edited extract from a sermon preached at a memorial eucharist for Bishop John Baker, in Salisbury Cathedral, earlier this month. The full text is at salisburycathedral.org.uk/sermons-reflections.

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