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Lionel Blue: ‘genuine affection for the Church’

22 December 2016

K T Bruce

“Teetering on the edge of Christian faith”: Rabbi Lionel Blue, speaking at the Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, in 2011

“Teetering on the edge of Christian faith”: Rabbi Lionel Blue, speaking at the Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, in 2011

TRIBUTES were paid this week to Rabbi Lionel Blue, “a wonderful human being” who “teetered on the edge of Christian faith”, after his death was announced on Monday. He was 86.

Rabbi Blue, who was born in the East End of London to parents of Russian descent, was the first openly gay British rabbi and, for 30 years, a contributor to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. He told the Church Times in 2006 that he “nearly became an Anglican” while studying at Oxford University, after becoming friends with Colin Winter, a future bishop (Interview, 24 November 2006).

The former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a close friend of Rabbi Blue’s, said: “Lionel was wonderfully open to other points of view. When he came to do a dialogue with me during Advent at All Saints’, Fulham, in the 1970s, he told me that every Christmas he teetered on the edge of the Christian faith.”

Rabbi Blue persuaded Lord Harries to continue wearing a clerical collar after he retired as Bishop of Oxford.

”He was, of course, unique as a religious broadcaster,” Lord Harries said. “None of the rest of us could ever dare to be so personal, or indeed have such an amazing background to be personal about. . . Just as amazing as his broadcasts were the stand-up shows he used to do at large venues round the country, even in his eighties — two hours of just him on the stage. He used to call these audiences his congregation. What a wonderful hu­­man being and spiritual guide.”

The editor of Thought for the Day, Christine Morgan, who worked with Rabbi Blue for 24 years, said: “I always knew I’d feel better when I’d finished producing Lionel.

“His exuberant care was warming and addictive. Next morning, he would go on air, and in his delivery he’d take my breath away with his ability to touch you deep down, even when I knew what he was going to say.

“His jokes were famous, of course. Most of them made me laugh, but quite often they were funny even when they didn’t make sense. Every now and again there was one that was unbroadcastable — and we’d tussle over it till he wrote another one, and I’d tell him it was funnier anyway. He talked about God as ever close, but never in his pocket, and theology was about how he lived, and what he’d learnt.”

Canon David Winter, a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC, described how Rabbi Blue had built up a “huge following” on Thought for the Day, “even though his scripts were sometimes scribbled on the backs of envelopes. . .

“Lionel did as much as anyone to open up religious broadcasting on the BBC to other faiths, mainly because he was so good at it — a natural broadcaster, down to earth, full of stories, yet never trivialising issues.

“He had a genuine affection for the Christian Church and the Gospels, even complaining that Christian preachers failed to follow the example of Jesus by insisting on interpreting his stories. ‘Those who have ears to hear, let them hear,’ he would say. He particularly enjoyed Christian re­­treats; the silences appealed to him.”

The controller of BBC Radio 4, Gwyneth Williams, said: “We have lost the huge warmth and humanity of Lionel’s instantly recognisable voice, with its charm and irreverence. He seemed to understand and wel­come all human foibles, and, during his Thoughts, he smiled on us, making the days that followed just a little easier, just a little richer.”

The Revd Dr Malcolm Johnson organised weekend conferences with Rabbi Blue for people affected by HIV/AIDS. Dr Johnson said on Tues­day: “In the middle of very dark times there was much pain and anger, but Lionel’s jokes would lighten the atmosphere in his inimitable way. . . Lionel, with his deep spirituality laced with humour, helped people to face this terrible disease with faith.”

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