Obituary: Professor Richard Farnell

07 December 2018

Professor Richard Farnell with the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Colin Bennetts, in 2006

Professor Richard Farnell with the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Colin Bennetts, in 2006

A correspondent writes:

BORN in Yorkshire on the 31 August 1947, Professor Richard Farnell had a deep Christian faith initially formed in a Primitive Methodist church. His early life revolved around that church and community, and later, its youth group. Richard understood the gospel from a young age, and during his teenage years, came to own it for himself. His time studying for a town-planning degree at the University of Manchester and helping run the Christian Union, further shaped his beliefs.

Richard emerged into his professional life convinced that if God was Lord of all, then that included cities, communities, and unequal societies, and that redemption and justice were two sides of the same coin. These Christian beliefs were the thread that ran through his life and work, shaping his future academic research, his involvement in charities, and his passion for providing social housing.

Richard began work in the planning department of Coventry City Council in 1970 and later became principal design officer. In 1974, he moved to lecture in town planning at Lanchester Polytechnic, beginning a long academic career in what was to become Coventry University.

After the publication of the Church of England’s 1985 report Faith in the City, Richard led a research team to evaluate its impact on local government. Their report, Faith in the City and Local Politics (1988), was published by the C of E; and Richard was invited to become a trustee of the Church Urban Fund, where he chaired the grant-making committee for several years.

Richard became professor of neighbourhood regeneration at Coventry University and, from 2000 onwards, was prominent in shaping a national research agenda on the part that faith communities could play in urban regeneration, which shifted the discourse about faiths and community development. He was committed to research that made a difference to poverty, disadvantage, and injustice. Collaborating with other universities and agencies, Richard ensured that research conclusions and recommendations impacted on the policies and priorities of government and of faith communities.


Consequently, he became an adviser for several organisations on different subjects: community self-help to the Government’s Policy Advisory Group; faith for the Charity Commission for England and Wales; and faith and cohesion to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Richard also made use of his professional expertise in Christian organisations. In the early 1980s, he chaired the Shaftesbury Project on Christian Involvement in Society (which later merged with the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity) and was involved in ECUM (the Evangelical Coalition for Urban Mission), experiences which influenced his later academic work.

In 1982, Richard was invited to bring his professional expertise to bear as a trustee of Coventry Churches Housing Association. This evolved into Touchstone, which, with Richard as its chairman, was considered to be one of the most innovatory housing associations in the UK: it pioneered ideas and projects that are still seen as ground-breaking.

As chairman of Keynote, he led a major inner-city-regeneration housing association. He then led the merger of Keynote and Prime Focus to form Midland Heart, one of the largest and most successful housing and care organisations in the country. All these housing associations bore the imprint of Richard’s Christian social values and purpose.

The deep integrity of his professional expertise, Christian belief, and personal living was recognised in 2006 by the Rt Revd Colin Bennetts, then Bishop of Coventry, who invited Richard to become a Canon Theologian of Coventry Cathedral, an unusual position for a lay person. He later chaired the Cathedral Council.

Richard was never motivated by ambition for personal recognition. He used his God-given gifts and talents with great humility, gentleness, and wisdom, usually punctuated with a great sense of fun and a huge twinkling smile. On the Overslade estate in Rugby, where he worshipped as part of St Matthew’s and St Oswald’s, Richard faithfully served a community typical of those which were the focus of all his academic research. There, he was loved and respected by everyone with whom he came into contact, most of whom had no idea that he was either a cathedral canon or a university professor. He was simply the tall bloke with the big smile.

Richard had an impact on many individuals and organisations. Whether formally or informally, he mentored youth-group members, town-planning students, university colleagues, trustees and senior executives in housing associations, clergy, and several bishops. One national Christian leader wrote recently: “Richard taught me that humility and fruitfulness were more important than being on the main stage and that faithfulness is a quality to prize.” A bishop whom he mentored observed that Richard simply wanted to be “the best human being he had been called to be. . . . In this, by God’s grace, he was successful indeed. He was very much a man at ease in his own skin as a child of God.”

Having been treated for melanoma in 2012, Richard discovered in early summer that the disease had recurred aggressively. He was ill for just a few weeks, and died at home on 23 September, aged 71. Family, friends, and colleagues gathered at Coventry Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving for his life on 21 October.

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