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Obituary: Lady Oppenheimer

22 April 2022


The Rt Revd Dr Stephen Platten writes:

HELEN OPPENHEIMER, who died on 6 April, was one of the “gentlest giants” in post-Second World War theology and philosophy. She had a most remarkably incisive and creative mind, combined with a most modest and gracious personality. To use one of her favourite adjectives, she was the most agreeable of people. She was part of that wave of post-war philosophers which included Richard Hare, Philippa Foot, and Mary Warnock. She was throughout her life a quintessential Anglican.

Born in Wimbledon, the first child of Hugh and Laetitia Lucas-Tooth, she was still of that generation whose education began with a governess, before she moved on to a day school locally. Here she would first encounter Shakespeare, kindling an interest that embraced a wide variety of English literature: She particularly admired Thomas Traherne, but her taste was broad, including modern poets — Edwin Muir was someone to whom she often referred.

With the outbreak of Hitler’s war, the family moved to Cheltenham, where she became a boarder at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. She gained the top scholarship of her year to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she took a First in PPE; Oxford would fashion her academic career. It was at Oxford, too, where she met her future husband, Sir Michael Oppenheimer, Bt, to whom she was married for 72 years. Michael was a member of the South African mining family and an academic in his own right. A member of Lincoln College, Oxford, he wrote the standard six-volume work on the Monuments of Italy, after their move to Jersey.

Beginning their marriage in South Africa, they moved back in the early 1950s to England, where Michael encouraged her to pursue her academic work. It was Robert Runcie, then Principal of Cuddesdon Theological College, who would in effect set her out on her academic career, by asking her to lecture on moral theology; she would, at the same time, lecture at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Helen was extraordinary in both the clarity of her work and, indeed, in her economy with words.

Most of her publications would include a series of short but condensed chapters, lucidly setting out the argument. This meant that reading her work required a proper concentration and application of the mind; she was no slouch. It led one of her publishers to remark that the tendency was for her writing often to be set at just one level beyond that for which it might originally have been intended.

In academic debate, however, her graciousness always prevailed. Indeed, she reflected that if she was sent a book for review about which she could say nothing positive, she would return it to the editor, suggesting that they find another reviewer.

Helen’s philosophical and theological abilities, which had been honed through her teaching at the two Oxford seminaries, took her into further work for the Church of England. She was a key member of the commission that produced the report on marriage and divorce Putting Asunder. It was this report that proved to be the foundation of the 1969 Divorce Reform Act. Immediately after this, she was enrolled as a member of the commission that produced the 1972 Church of England report Marriage, Divorce and the Church, undoubtedly the most theologically grounded of the succession of reports for the Church on this subject.

Then, too, she became part of another august group, which produced Teaching Christian Ethics, setting out the ground plan for the reintroduction of moral theology into the curriculum for those training for ordination.

Helen wrote a number of seminal works on both moral and philosophical theology, including Incarnation and Immanence and Making Good. She had a high regard for the Caroline tradition in Anglican theology and frequently wove literary material into her writings. She was awarded a DD (honoris causa) by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was the first woman president of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics.

Helen and Michael are survived by three daughters, ten grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. Suitably, her last book was titled Christian Faith for Handing On and focused on just that, in terms both of the nature of Christian theology and also of its ability to nourish human life, not least within families. Like every one of us, Helen is irreplaceable, but, in her case, the more so with regard to theology and the agreeability of human life.

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