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Obituary: Canon John Davies

21 May 2021

John Moore writes:

CANON John Howard Davies, who died on 13 April, aged 92, was a gifted priest, scholar, and musician, who was most well known as a long-serving member of the former department of theology at the University of Southampton.

In fact, John embodied the entire history of the department in himself: he was appointed the first full-time lecturer after its inception in 1963 and he retired as director of theology and religious studies when the department closed in 1994. Southampton’s theology department had remained fairly small, and also rather traditional in its approach, despite being renamed theology and religious studies; and so, during a period of financial constraint in the early 1990s, the department was closed, and this coincided with John’s retirement.

The department, however, had become influential in the region with the setting up in the 1980s of the University of Southampton School of Theology and Religion, which involved close academic collaboration with the Anglican theological colleges at Chichester and Salisbury, with the Roman Catholic La Sainte Union College of Higher Education, and the Catholic Seminary at Wonersh. This development was largely due to John’s inspiration and leadership, and he zealously handed over the leadership position to others in order to continue the University’s role as a validating institution.

John was born in 1929, was brought up in west London, and went to Southall Grammar School. His academic and musical abilities took him to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he was a choral scholar, and he initially studied music, gaining a first in Part 1 of the music tripos in 1949. He then moved to study theology, before training for the Anglican ministry, also gaining a first in part 1. He did his National Service in the RAF and became a navigation officer — apparently, on occasion, using his knowledge of English cathedrals to assist him in his task.

He trained for ordination at Westcott House, Cambridge, and was ordained deacon in 1955 to be curate and succentor of Derby Cathedral. The next year he was ordained priest and married Ina Bubb, who had been a fellow student at Cambridge and who later taught part-time in the theology department at Southampton.

While at Derby, John undertook research for a degree in New Testament studies at Nottingham University, and this was awarded in 1962. From Derby, John returned to Westcott House as Chaplain in 1958, and, after five years there, he moved with his young family to Southampton, where he remained for the rest of his career and his life.

John could probably be described as quintessentially Anglican, and, as a priest, he was in the Catholic tradition. He valued well-ordered liturgy with moderate ceremonial, serious preaching, and carefully chosen music. At Southampton, he found a spiritual home at St Alban’s, not far from the university, where the parish communion service was at the heart of worship; he was an honorary assistant priest there from about 1964 (and later, after the two parishes joined, also at St Mary’s, South Stoneham) until just before his final illness and death.

He was Canon Theologian of Winchester Cathedral between 1981 and 1991. Besides having a fine singing voice, John was also an accomplished organist, having achieved his Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists in 1952, and, when not presiding or deaconing, would often play the organ for services. As a church musician, he was a member of the Archbishops’ Commission on Church Music which reported in 1992. The report was subsequently published by the Royal School of Church Music as In Tune with Heaven.

John could be stern on occasions, especially with students when he felt that the situation needed it, but he was essentially friendly and good-natured, and on social occasions was delightful company. He and Ina were very hospitable to students at Southampton, often hosting Christmas parties for the theology department. He could seem uncompromising at times, but in parish life, once a corporate decision had been taken, he would loyally carry out what had been decided, whatever his personal feelings.

In his family life, John suffered several tragedies, including the death of his wife when only 56; the death of a son, Christopher, in infancy; and the death of his eldest son, John, after an accident. He bore all these with courage and steadfastness.

He is survived by his sons Michael and Peter and seven grandchildren. He will be remembered with respect and affection by all who knew him.

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