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Professor John Hull

28 August 2015

The Revd Dr David Hewlett writes:

PROFESSOR John Martin Hull, who died on 28 July, aged 80, was a unique international contributor to the development of religious education in schools, and a man with extraordinary insights into the experience and spirituality of blindness.

For the past ten years, John had been Hon. Professor of Practical Theology at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham. He felt thoroughly at home in this ecumenical college, having his roots in Methodism, being an elder in the United Reformed Church, and worshipping at All Saints’, King’s Heath.

His teaching on mission, both in the classroom and in the field, was formative and transformative for students, helping them to be grasped by God’s mission as the beginning of faith and theology, and to recognise that discipleship is continued apprenticeship.

John wanted students trained to lead churches that would engage with the fundamental issues of our time of justice and peace; so, as an activist and promoter of social justice, he was the inspiration behind a formational programme in prophetic action, engaging students and staff in acts of witness, protest, and vigil. Through his passionate and unwavering commitment he inspired, stimulated, and provoked. Through his openness to the truth, he facilitated the deepest critical reflection on practice.

His writings during this period are testimony to this, most notably Mission-Shaped Church: A theological response (SCM, 2006) and Towards the Prophetic Church (SCM, 2014).

Born in Corryong, Australia — he always retained a residual accent — John became a teacher of RE. He was the son of Evangelical Methodist parents, where his mother was the prime influence. His theological roots were, and remained, in the Bible.

In 1959, John came to the UK to study at Cambridge for three years. After a further period as a schoolteacher, his career in higher education began in 1966, at Westhill College of Education in Birmingham. From there, he proceeded to work at the University of Birmingham, eventually becoming Professor of Religious Studies, and Dean of the Faculty of Education and Continuing Studies.

It was then that John developed an important international reputation, founding the International Seminar on Religious Education and Values. He became the credible driving force behind the conversion of religious education from an increasingly untenable Christian confessional practice into a multi-faith phenomenological discipline.

In 1980, having struggled with his sight for most of his life, John became blind. It was this experience, and his reflections on it, that perhaps most obviously brought him to the attention of the general public. His advocacy for those with visual impairment, his theologies of disability, and his honest grappling with his condition — and a Christianity where blindness and darkness are so often associated with sin and evil — brought him significant exposure in the media.

His book Touching the Rock is a classic of spirituality, as well as an account of blindness. In a recent tribute on Radio 4, Peter White said that John “had an uncanny knack . . . of analysing the experience of going blind, not sentimentally but with a forensic understanding of what it meant and how it felt” (In Touch, 4 August).

John was a patron of Birmingham Focus on Blindness, and the Association of Visually Impaired Readers and Clergy, and was of enormous encouragement to many of those who are blind, not least young people. A film about John’s experience, Notes on Blindness, based on his taped reflections, which also lie behind Touching the Rock, is due to finish in production at the end of 2015.

John was a brilliant communicator and teacher — perhaps because he never stopped learning. He had an insatiable curiosity, and refused to limit the possibility of truth being known to one perspective. Those who had the privilege of being with John in class were struck by the kind of rapt attention with which students hung on to what he had to say, as heart speaks to heart, and minds spark with fresh perspectives on familiar scriptures, or when students begin to realise that the doctrine of the Trinity not only makes some sense, but undergirds a full-bodied call to evangelical action.

John’s life and work address us in deeply Evangelical, expansively Catholic, and richly Charismatic ways. Unafraid to wrestle in close combat with the divine, John challenged us time and again to show what it means to love the Lord our God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. Then he willingly gave his own answer, through a life lived to the full, deeply rooted, playful and serious, joyful, compelling, and utterly hopeful.

He was hopeful, because he was convinced that, as a Church and as society, we can be better than often we are. John taught us that we can, if we pay attention, see more glimpses of that Kingdom to which Jesus alluded.

Central to John’s life and work were his beloved wife, Marilyn, and his five children, who survive him.

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