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Obituary: The Rt Revd Simon Barrington-Ward

01 May 2020

Canon Paul Oestreicher writes:

THE young Simon Barrington-Ward’s Eden was a Regency terrace close by London Zoo. He heard the animals being fed. God was in his heaven. All was well in his world — until Hitler’s bombers shattered it. That, as he saw it, was to be the pattern of his life: aspirations shattered and restored. God in Christ had come to earth. So, like Jesus, “Dying and behold we live.”

A simple recitation of his career reveals none of that. The son of the Editor of The Times went on, as one did, to Eton; service as a pilot in the RAF; Magdalene College, Cambridge; Westcott House; ordination; lectureships in Berlin and Ibadan, Nigeria; the Church Missionary Society’s (CMS’s) Training College, Crowther Hall, as Principal, and then the post of the society’s General Secretary; a Chaplaincy to the Queen; the see of Coventry; and, quietly, a knighthood (KCMG). In retirement, he was back at his beloved Magdalene.

If class were life’s determinant, this obituary would not be worth writing or reading. Were Karl Marx still alive, however, he would have found in Simon a challenging friend. Hegel’s dialectic would have kept them talking deep into the night. But Simon was a friend to one and all, not one for any party; nor was he a man for fence-sitting. His undivided commitment was to Jesus. He described no moment of enlightenment — though enlightened he most certainly was — but he could admit to breaking down in tears at the birthplace of Jesus. This was love, passionate love. “If only we could start again,” he cried. “But you can,” came the answer. That set the path for his pilgrimage. Christ would be at his side.

From Magdalene, he went to teach democracy to Germans in the Free University of a Berlin that was in ruins. He found himself the learner. With a group of Christians, former Nazis, and former resisters, forgiving and being forgiven, he worshipped in the Dahlem parish church where Martin Niemöller had preached sermons that went around the world, published in Britain as The Gestapo Defied by Christ Crucified. Eight years of imprisonment was the price that he paid. Simon’s new-found Berlin friend who had been ordered to defend the city to the very last introduced him to both Nietzsche’s philosophy and Brecht’s plays.

More illusions were shattered. Simon had again to be remade on returning to a chaplaincy at his old college and to holiday work in deprived housing estates. From a defeated Germany in ruins to an impoverished Britain, there was no longer any doubting that discipleship without commitment to social justice was unthinkable.

Three years of teaching at Ibadan University in Nigeria were an immersion in a new world and in a vision of what a world Church might become. In Ibribina, an African prophetess, he saw possibilities of an indigenous Christianity freed from the limitations of the post-colonial missionary assumptions.

For a further six years, now as Dean of Magdalene — and with Jean, a Scottish doctor, as an equal partner — Simon had time to prepare himself for his significant contribution to the mission of the world Church. Building on the visionary work of Max Warren and John V. Taylor, Simon was invited to establish a CMS training college, Crowther Hall, at Selly Oak, to prepare men and women from home and abroad for mission partnership. This would no longer be our serving them, but a mutual exchange of gifts to serve a rapidly changing world.

The word “missionary”, with its Victorian overtones, would give way to mission, certainly no longer one party in the Church of England exporting its assumptions to the erstwhile colonies. It was still true that CMS could, in its reincarnation, look both back and forwards to the English triumvirate of Warren, Taylor, and then Barrington-Ward for leadership and inspiration.

There was, however, still a long way to go before the past had really given way to the future. Simon faced an uphill struggle and would go on breaking and remaking himself and his students. In 1975, he was made General Secretary. With the grace to break through every barrier, he led CMS for a further decade by doing what came naturally to him: sharing love with everyone.

Simon arrived in Coventry as its Bishop to do just that. He brought a special gift. In an Essex monastery, he had encountered the Jesus Prayer, a short simple prayer with its origins in Eastern Orthodoxy. It was to become his constant lifeline to Jesus, a line that is open, at all times, in all places. Having been given this gift, he had to pass it on to others. Simon and his soul friend, Brother Ramon, wrote Praying the Jesus Prayer Together. It was published in 2001, shortly after Brother Ramon’s death.

Simon was good news. With the gospel in his heart, he was a man of joy, bubbling over with ideas: “half a dozen before breakfast”, as one of his colleagues joked. The good ones would survive, the rest be forgotten. He was ever eager to learn from others. He was an enthusiast. His churchmanship? That word did not feature in his vocabulary. He had charisma, but was no more signed up to the Charismatic movement than to any other Church party. He embraced and took what was good from them all — far beyond Anglican frontiers, or even Christian frontiers. His liberality knew no bounds.

That did not make him a signed-up Liberal. He well knew that the market left too many hungry. On the pros and cons of social liberalism, he tended to think that the Holy Spirit could be relied on to move Church and nation forward. A campaigner he was not. There were too many truths in contention. He was, in the full meaning of both words, a Catholic ecumenist with more than a trace of the mystic. If, at times, his feet left the ground, Jean, his rock, would bring him back to earth. Their hospitality, their open house, and open table were a blessing to many in the diocese and beyond.

Some thought Simon naïve. His intellect was too good for that. But he did have a childlike simplicity, not too unlike Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s. If need be, let mind and heart grapple: that is part of the dialectic that he took from Hegel’s philosophy. And that philosophy he owed in large part to his spiritual and intellectual friendship with the Jewish social philosopher Gillian Rose. For her, his dedication was boundless. It was a soul affinity that, to Simon’s joy, enabled him to baptise her on her deathbed.

The Church was wise to make Simon Bishop of Coventry. Everything that had been fitted him for Coventry Cathedral’s international ministry based on brokenness and reparation, the ministry that I had the privilege to lead during his years as bishop. Diocese and cathedral had in him a true friend. I came to see how much that was worth. There was a downside. If I came to him with an idea that needed testing and critique, he decided to run with it before I was sure it was worth pursuing. That was easy to forgive. His farewell was a pilgrimage round his parishes — maybe a little late. Some did wonder, could a bishop who had never been a parish priest really understand them? He saw that as part of his brokenness, which an exchange of love would repair.

In retirement, Magdalene called Simon back to share his many gifts. Finally, with his beloved Jean, separated most recently by the virus, they were in the same rest home and — while still on this side — spoke last words together by phone.

My epitaph: “Fear not little flock, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12.32).

The Rt Revd Simon Barrington-Ward KCMG died on 11 April, aged 89.

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