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Obituary: Canon John Nurser

by
11 December 2020

The Ven. Dr William Jacob writes:

CANON John Nurser, who died on 16 November, aged 91, made an important contribution to the Church in raising awareness of the European and international dimension of Christianity. He was founding director of Christianity and the Future of Europe, which received a Templeton Award for its work in 1994. He also received the American Society of Church History’s Albert C. Outler Prize in 2005 for the best book in ecumenical church history for his For All Peoples and All Nations: The ecumenical Church and human rights.

John Shelley Nurser was born on 26 May 1929 to Arthur, a joiner, and Florence, née Shelley, a milliner, in Far Cotton, Northampton. Before the outbreak of war in 1939, Arthur Nurser was recruited as a civilian worker, teaching joinery skills, to RAF Hednesfield, in Staffordshire. The family moved to Rugeley, where John attended Rugeley Grammar School and, in 1945, was the first boy from there to go to Oxbridge, securing an open scholarship in history to Peterhouse, Cambridge. He gained a double first in history.

His National Service from 1950 to 1953 was as an Instructor Lieutenant in History and English at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich He returned to Peterhouse to undertake research on the great liberal Roman Catholic layman, Lord Acton, this being supervised by Herbert Butterfield, Master of Peterhouse and Professor of Modern History, the acknowledged expert on Acton.

John’s research resulted in The Reign of Conscience: Individual, Church and conscience in Lord Acton’s history of liberty. He also met Elizabeth Kimber, a Fulbright Scholar from the University of California, Berkeley, who was researching 17th-century English literature at Newnham College; they married in August 1956.

John was a Commonwealth Fund Fellow at Harvard Divinity School from 1956 to 1957, studying under Paul Tillich, and gaining insights into the influence of social sciences in American clergy training. After a year at Wells Theological College, he served his title at St Peter’s, Tankersley, in Sheffield diocese, where Leslie Hunter’s interest in European Christianity, ecumenism, labour relations, and industrial mission attracted able young clergy. John’s training incumbent was Robin Woods, subsequently Dean of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and Bishop of Worcester.

John returned to Cambridge in 1961 as Dean of Trinity Hall. In 1968, he was appointed Warden of St Mark’s Institute of Theology (now St Mark’s National Theological Centre) in Canberra, returning to England in 1974 as Rector of Freckenham and Worlington, in Suffolk. In 1976, Simon Phipps, who, as Bishop of Lincoln, was reshaping the cathedral Chapter to be more outward-looking, appointed John Chancellor of Lincoln cathedral, and titular head of Lincoln Theological College.

At Lincoln, he initiated links between the dioceses of Lincoln, Bruges, and Nottingham, and between Bruges diocesan seminary and Lincoln Theological College, and also with the Divinity School at the University of the South at Sewannee, Tennessee. He fostered relations with Nottingham University Theology Department, becoming an honorary professor, and established Churches and the Future of Europe.

In 1992, Bishop Stephen Sykes appointed John Priest-in-Charge of Shudy Camps with Castle Camps, in Cambridgeshire, where he completed his research on the Christian roots and origins of the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, published in 2005 as For All Peoples and All Nations.

He and Elizabeth retired to Sudbury, John’s mother’s childhood home, in 1995.

John wore his learning lightly. His sermons, eagerly looked forward to, were engaging and thought-provoking. He was a much-appreciated pastor. Through his many endeavours, John was ably supported and encouraged by Elizabeth. He died peacefully surrounded by Elizabeth, and George, Isabelle, Henry, and Louise, in West Suffolk Hospital.

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