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The Revd Professor Marilyn McCord Adams

07 April 2017

Philosopher and theologian: the Revd Professor Marilyn McCord

Philosopher and theologian: the Revd Professor Marilyn McCord

Canon Professor Jane Shaw writes:

WITH the death of the Revd Pro­fessor Marilyn McCord Adams on 22 March, aged 73, the Church and academia have lost a distinguished philosopher and theologian; a kind priest and wise spiritual director; and a significant, prophetic voice.

Marilyn McCord was born in 1943, in Illinois. She was educated at the University of Illinois, and at Cornell, where she received her Ph.D. in philosophy in 1967. The year before that, she married Robert (Bob) Merrihew Adams, a fellow philosopher. This was a happy and mutually supportive marriage of true minds.

They moved first to the University of Michigan, and then, in 1972, to UCLA, where they stayed for 21 years. There, Marilyn became Pro­fessor of Philosophy, and Chair of the Philosophy department, and pub­lished the two-volume work on Wil­liam of Ockham which estab­lished her reputation as a philosopher.

It was also in Los Angeles that she was ordained deacon and priest in 1987. Shaped powerfully by her ex­perience of ministering in Holly­wood in the early days of the AIDS crisis, she became a committed ac­tivist for the full inclusion of LGBT people in all aspects of church life.

Although she and Bob moved to several places after that, her heart was in Los Angeles: as a priest, she remained canonically resident in the diocese of Los Angeles, and, as an activist, she liked to attend the city’s annual Pride March, not least to collect the Episcopal Church Pride T-shirt.

As Marilyn combined priesthood with academic life, the offer of the Horace Pitkin Chair in Historical Theology at Yale Divinity School was attractive, and she and Bob moved to Yale in 1993. There, she mentored several generations of ordinands, who were challenged and nourished in mind and heart by her teaching.

While Marilyn continued to write on medieval theology, in several books and more than 100 articles, she also turned to contemporary philosophy of religion and theology, and, in 1999, she published the in­­fluential Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. This theme was continued in her Gifford Lectures, delivered in 1999 at St Andrews University, and published in 2006 as Christ and Horrors: The coherence of Christology.

In 2003, Marilyn was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Ox­­ford, and Canon of Christ Church. She took her duties as a canon seri­ously, fully appreciating the oppor­tunities for regular, corporate prayer that cathedral life gave to her.

She was a feisty preacher, and became known, too, for her simple, direct prayers at evensong, which were published as Opening to God. A collection of her sermons was pub­lished under the title Wrestling for Blessing.

While at Oxford, she was elected as a University representative on General Synod, and in her speeches there, and in articles for the Church Times and The Guardian, she worked for a fully inclusive Church. After retirement from Oxford, Marilyn and Bob moved first to
the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and then finally to Princeton.

Marilyn did not always sit easily in institutions — but prophets never do; and speaking truth to power took its toll on her, though she was sustained by her profound faith, which was rooted in Franciscan spirituality. She also had a great sense of humour, and loved to wear her pink biretta at opportune mo­­ments.

Marilyn was an excellent cook, who believed that chocolate and chilli warded off melancholy. She and Bob were generous hosts, gathering graduate students and colleagues for meals in their home. She loved to walk, and was a fam­iliar sight wherever she lived, in sensible shoes and her backpack with its “straight but not narrow” badge.

The immense distinction of her scholarship was recognised in nu­­merous ways, not least the award of an Oxford DD, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an honorary doctorate from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and invitations to give many named lectures.

Marilyn was not afraid to die. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three months ago, she wrote to me: “God is my rock.” But she still had several books in her, and she re­­gretted that she would not write them.

The world of scholarship is poorer without her brilliant and incisive mind; the Church has lost an important theological voice and advocate for those on its margins. Her husband survives her.

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