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Austin Farrer: Oxford warden, scholar, preacher, edited by Markus Bockmuehl and Stephen Platten

05 June 2020

These essays on an Anglican priest whet the appetite, says Cally Hammond

GOING by the title of this book, Austin Farrer represents much to which the contemporary Church of England is said to be hostile. He was unashamedly intellectual, academic, and highbrow.

This perception is supported by an introduction that is critical of modern academia’s focus on short-term impact assessments, and “managerial regimes” in training for ministry. Farrer, it implies, would not have prospered or been valued in such a climate. It is now sixty years since he became Warden (head) of Keble College Oxford: a decent interval for the historical dust to settle. This allows for an assessment of his person and work to be measured rather than hagiographic; and this is what the book delivers.

It is the fruit of a conference that took place in early 2019, and was published to mark the 150th anniversary of that icon of High Church Anglicanism, Keble College, Oxford. The book is a proper tribute to Farrer in that anniversary year, providing a series of essays on him as Warden, theologian, philosopher, exegete, and preacher.

It is not often that a book compiled from many sources is of such a uniformly high quality; and this makes it seem unfair to highlight what are really no more than personal enthusiasms. But I especially enjoyed the chapter by Ian Archer on Farrer’s time as Warden of Keble, not least because it is written with benign historical detachment — a useful balance to the hagiographic tendency in many Christian biographies.

The other highlight of Part One for me was the chapter by John Barton on Farrer as a preacher. Again, this combined a personal warmth for the man with honest acuity about his excellence, and sometimes shortcomings, as a preacher. Praise from the praiseworthy is praise indeed.

Austin Farrer, a noted preacher

The introduction glosses as his “acoustically unimpressive presence in the pulpit” what Barton admits frankly: his sermons in Keble Chapel were “very difficult to hear”/ Perhaps he preached as one who foresaw that his words would be read, and re-read — as indeed they were, and are, and should continue to be.

Generous quotations from Farrer’s sermons make the reader eager to search for more in the writings of the man himself. I found myself writing repeatedly in the margins “BORROW THIS” and (more honestly) “NICK THIS” as I encountered jewels of the preacher’s art: the arresting image or idea succinctly expressed, artistically developed, and, above all, meant from the heart. I got the impression that for him preaching was no tedious quid pro quo for the comforts of a donnish life. It was fundamental to his being as a priest-theologian, and had its proper reward in the flourishing faith of a generation of hearers committed to intelligent Christianity.

Other readers will find the details of his critical friendship with C. S. Lewis equally gripping, as they both strove in different ways to articulate that intelligent Christianity, the one mainly through apologetics, the other adopting that genre as a means to an end. There was not always agreement, but there was always respect, between the two men.

My impression is that Farrer’s theology, for all its excellence, has suffered a little from changes in British social attitudes. He is not at his best when addressing values that seem to him self-evident and universal, non-negotiable even, but that have long since loosened their grip, on many Christians as well as others. So, too, with his exegetical writings: in allowing a place for the imagination (always in a measured and cautious way), he opened up the possibility of conclusions about the New Testament which stray too far from the evidence of the texts. But that criticism has been levelled at many great exegetes from Origen on, which turns it more into a comment more on fashion than on fact.

On the other hand, his analysis of Christian eschatology is perhaps more compelling now than when he wrote it, in a hitherto unpublished lecture from 1966 (one of four that make up the second part of the book), “Something has died on us: can it be God?” Fashions change, and scholarly reputations often change with them.

My biggest grumble is that the book is too short. The combination of personal remembrances and historical assessments would have been much enriched by representative selections from his writings, not all of which are easily accessible today. One reservation amid all this praise: even in his more academic writings Farrer was no fan of footnotes. To some readers, this is a good thing. But the serious scholar needs to enable readers to reconstruct arguments in order to review them, and, with an eye to future generations, to write in a way that supports that. The life of scholarship has changed a lot since the 20th century. But some change is for the better.

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Austin Farrer: Oxford warden, scholar, preacher 
Markus Bockmuehl and Stephen Platten, editors
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

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