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30 January 2015

Stirring things up at Wycliffe Hall: the Revd David Anderson

Stirring things up at Wycliffe Hall: the Revd David Anderson

The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone writes:
THE Revd David Anderson, who died on 30 December, aged 95, was Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, in the 1960s. He was a lover of existential philosophy and theological innovation, but found himself out of step with the Anglican Evangelical movement, to which he belonged.

Born at Hebburn on Tyneside, Anderson was educated at Newcastle Grammar School, before winning a scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge, to study English. His degree was interrupted by the Second World War. He volunteered to learn Japanese, and was posted to Burma to translate captured enemy documents.

After the war, he trained for ordination at Wycliffe Hall, served a curacy in Sunderland, and joined the staff of the theological college St Aidan's, Birkenhead. In 1956, he was sent by the Church Missionary Society to Nigeria, as Principal of Melville Hall in Ibadan, overseeing its merger with a Methodist training institute to form Immanuel College.

Anderson's appointment as Principal of Wycliffe Hall in 1962 heralded a new style of leadership. His predecessor, F. J. Taylor (later Bishop of Sheffield), had ruled with an iron rod, but Anderson brought a more democratic approach, where staff and students were equals on first-name terms. Instead of reading Evangelical biography to the ordinands at breakfast, he played them music (Mahler and Beethoven were particular favourites). He spoke of the theological potential of art and drama, not a common sentiment in 1960s Evangelicalism.

Anderson was fascinated by philosophical theology, especially existentialism. His favourite authors were Søren Kierkegaard, Nicholas Berdyaev, and Gabriel Marcel, and Nietzsche was a great influence on his thought. In 1964, Anderson became the first ever Wycliffe Hall principal to lecture for the Modern Churchmen's Union. He chose Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus as his subject.

He donated modern novels to Wycliffe's theological library, weaving their themes into his sermons and lectures. His most important book, The Tragic Protest (1969), explored images of humanity in writers such as Golding and Kafka, and is dedicated to the Wycliffe Hall community, because it "owes a good deal to the theological and cultural climate of the Hall".

Anderson spoke often of the need for "relevance" and "dialogue" in Christian theology and education. He wanted a radical overhaul of ordination training, lamenting the Church of England's tendency to "plug on along the old by-ways from which the cavalcade of modern life has long since been diverted". "I want us to be wide open to every confrontation," Anderson wrote, "every discovery, every challenge, recognising that only so can our faith develop in vigour, comprehension, and relevance."

He invited specialists to teach on medicine, psychology, and sociology, showing how the latest research shed new light on moral responsibility and "sin". He rejoiced when his ordinands read the early chapters of Genesis in the light of Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape (1967), because it involved "a highly stimulating dialogue".

A keen ecumenist, Anderson hoped to merge Wycliffe Hall with Mansfield College, linking Anglicans with Congregationalists in a theological centre at Oxford University. Negotiations were at an advanced stage by 1969, but the council of Wycliffe Hall got cold feet at the last minute, and pulled out of the deal, leaving Queen's College, Birmingham, to be the first ecumenical (Anglican-Methodist) theological college in Britain.

Unfortunately for Anderson, the theological tone that he pioneered did not appeal to the wider Anglican Evangelical movement. As a result, ordinand numbers fell sharply, from 69 in 1958 to just 27 by 1969. It seemed likely that Wycliffe Hall would close; so the council forced his resignation. Anderson later recalled: "The rumour that Wycliffe was no longer Evangelical grew in a crescendo like Basilio's 'slander' aria in The Barber of Seville. Ordination candidates from Evangelical parishes were advised to apply elsewhere for training, and there were even instances of men to whom I had already offered a place being diverted to other colleges. In the end, the Council had no alternative but to ask for my resignation, and I had no alternative but to give it."

After his resignation, Anderson spent a year's sabbatical in Oxford writing a book for SCM Press on Simone Weil. His final post was at Wall Hall teacher-training college at Aldenham, Hertfordshire, as head of religious studies.

He was married in 1953 to Helen Robinson, who died in August 2006. He is survived by their three children, Margaret, Christine, and Jeremy, and five grandchildren.

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