READING this book gave me a frisson of déjà vu. I recently reviewed here another collection of essays about him (Books, 5 June 2020). I concluded that review by saying, “My biggest grumble is that the book is too short.” Here is another book, to make good that deficit. It brings together a “stellar collection of writers” to introduce him to new generations of Christians.
I will not comment on the individual essays except to say that they are of uniformly high quality. Instead, I want to reflect on the Farrer whom we encounter through those essays. We can take as a given the quality of his mind and writings. The essays reflect the breadth of his interests, and the intellectual commitment that he gave to preaching, or theology, or exegesis. But his cleaving to an Oxford-centred existence rather than being involved in the wider world of the Church hobbled the prophetic voice that he is credited with here.
Take his preaching: he crafted sermons with utmost care, giving all his questioning intelligence to the issue at hand. But he could hardly be heard. In the previous review, I picked up a suggestion that he had an eye to the sermons’ being read, not heard; and it remains true that in that form they are a precious resource. But this does no justice to the needs of immediate hearers, and that is hardly prophetic. Sermons need to be heard primarily, and read secondarily; not vice versa. There is not much of Paul’s becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I may save some . . . for the sake of the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9.22).
Contributors repeatedly remark with regret on the lack of lasting influence that his philosophical theology has had. But what else can one expect from an academic who seems to have had little engagement (going by the essays in both books) with the formal structures of a theology faculty, or with research students?
In scholarship, one understands an individual partly by looking at the family tree from which he or she is descended. Austin Farrer has had a profound impact on a generation of people who have gone on to make impacts themselves. They admire his works, some of which anticipate later swings in scholarly fashion, or fertilise their own thinking. But that overall impact was because he was a priest-theologian (my emphasis). His descendants are imaginative and spiritual, more than they are scholarly, offspring.
This suggests to me that it was, for all his learning and brilliance, the quality and impact of the man, as a disciple, a teacher, and a priest, which has given him the revered reputation that he has today. If the worst criticism that I can find to make of Farrer, based on this excellent collection of essays, is that he preferred his social and intellectual comfort zone, that is not a crime (and, if it were, I wouldn’t have to look far for parallel offenders).
Lest it seem that I have been too critical of one whose writings I admire, and with whose path in life I have more than a little in common, let me end by quoting, from the essay by Richard Harries, what seems to me to represent Farrer, and university Christianity, at their best: “Farrer, to a remarkable degree, combined a sceptical mind with a devout temperament.”
The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
Austin Farrer for Today: A prophetic agenda
Richard Harries and Stephen Platten, editors
SCM Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £24