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Obituary: The Revd Professor John Rogerson

21 September 2018

Fr Geoffrey Bottoms writes:

THE Revd Professor John William Rogerson was a scholar and a priest whose personal charisma and innumerable gifts touched the hearts and minds of all who were privileged to know him.

He was no cradle Christian, having been drawn to faith in adult life by the concept of the Kingdom of God, which subsequently became the life-long subject of his enquiring mind and incisive intellect. He called it “the Kingdom of right relationships”, and it embraced all aspects of human life from the social, economic, and industrial to the artistic, intellectual, and aesthetic. To be a Christian, therefore, involved accepting the call to embrace and be inspired by this vision that engages both our intelligence and our experiences.

Drawing on such figures as Arthur Clutton-Brock, John Ruskin, Paul Tillich, and Rudolf Otto, John believed that the numinous was to be found in those awe-inspiring moments that make us stop and think. Whether it is a beautiful sunset, a work of art, a piece of music, or the love and generosity of others, universal spiritual experiences such as these transcend all cultures and belief-systems, revealing another dimension to life. He termed this the Kingdom of heaven which potentially opened the door to the Kingdom of God as encountered in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For all John’s learning, God was not a theory to be debated endlessly and discussed, but a living reality to be experienced through the interconnectedness of life, where God interweaves rather than intervenes. By using all our human faculties, intelligence, and energy in his service God’s sovereign will and purpose is actualised. In this way, the Kingdom is made visible through a network of right relationships realised only through the grace of his unconditional and universal love. For John, God always goes before us, reaching out to humanity in his own inscrutable way so that we should always let God be God.

John belonged to the Broad Church tradition in the Church of England as exemplified by its 19th-century pioneers F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and F. W. Robertson. Its vision is biblical, evangelical, and Catholic and charts deep territory beneath Evangelicalism on the one hand and Anglo-Catholicism on the other, always conceived as finding a deeper way rather than a middle way.

In one of his Lent Lectures, “On being a Broad Church”, at Beauchief Abbey, in Sheffield, John illustrated this by quoting F. W. Robertson on the issue of infant baptism. Whereas Evangelicals viewed baptism in the light of subsequent conversion, Anglo-Catholics emphasised the objective nature of regeneration. For the Broad Church, baptism declared and affirmed publicly the fact that we are all already the children of God, which has implications for the nature of society and the Church’s task to manifest the Lordship of Christ over every area of human life.

While John could be critical of the Church of England, which he believed had failed to convey any idea that it represented a radical alternative to the values of the world as we know it, he valued the freedom it offered, and appreciated much of the theology and language of the Book of Common Prayer as a service for common worship.

Yet no one could underestimate his admiration for the German Lutheran Church, which he knew and experienced from attending and taking services on his frequent visits, and leading residential summer academies for German theological students. As far as he was concerned, the profundity of the preaching, the quality of students who were training for ministry, and the seriousness with which the Church was taken in the public sphere were enough to put much of British church life to shame. He attributed this to the dialectical theology of Martin Luther, which took account of the contradictory nature of reality as we experience it.

Born in London in 1935, John Rogerson was educated at Bec School, in Tooting, south London. After serving in the Royal Air Force, where he worked in intelligence and learned Russian, he studied theology and Semitic languages in the universities of Manchester, Oxford, and Jerusalem. After training for the priesthood at Ripon Hall, Oxford, he was ordained in 1964 and served as an assistant curate at St Oswald’s, Durham. From 1964 to 1979, he was Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, at Durham University, before moving to become Professor and head of the department of biblical studies at the University of Sheffield retiring in 1996. He was made an honorary canon of Sheffield Cathedral in 1982.

John made the first of many visits to Germany in 1971, which sparked his interest in 18th- and 19th-century German philosophy and biblical scholarship, especially that of de Wette. Subsequently, he was universally recognised as a biblical scholar who specialised in the Old Testament and the application of its ethics to today’s world. Professor John Barton, at Oxford, has written that John knew more about the history of German scholarship when it comes to philosophy and theology than anyone else in the English-speaking world.

Contrasting the British and German approaches to the Bible, he viewed the former in terms of the reasoned reception of revelation expressed in morality, worship, and prayer, and the latter in terms of a liberating experience of God that is glimpsed in the depths of the soul and confirmed by the affirming and evocative biblical record of God’s relationship with his people. Small wonder that he is widely credited for invigorating biblical criticism with an incisive awareness of 20th-century sociology, as he brought an intellectual, social, and theological rigour to public life that was not always fully understood.

Besides many essays and scholarly articles John wrote more than 40 books and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity for his published work by the University of Manchester in 1975. Similar honorary degrees followed from the universities of Aberdeen, Jena, and Freiburg im Breisgau.

Latterly, his sermons and lectures at Beauchief Abbey have been published by the Beauchief Abbey Press, which was set up to promote his works and introduce others to the thought, life, and works of writers such as his friend C. K. Barrett, Lohmeyer, Klepper, and the Broad Church movement. A growing appreciation of the important witness of the poet and theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge led to his active interest in helping to initiate the recent Abbey-inspired Coleridge in Wales project.

John, together with his wife, Rosalind, had a great gift for friendship. Theirs was an open house to students, friends, and visitors alike, and they left a lasting impression on those young people they adopted and fostered together with all those they helped and supported. John was also very practical, whether it was working with wood, binding books, or polishing the brasses in the abbey, where he spent a fruitful pastoral ministry in his later years. His love of music as an accomplished cellist, together with his respect for the environment and his passion for social justice that sprang from the ethics of the Old Testament, spoke volumes about his belief in the reality of God’s Kingdom, which had now broken through into this world with the coming of Christ.

John died suddenly on 4 September, while recovering from radical surgery. He was 83.

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