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Obituary: The Revd Dr Roger Beckwith

17 November 2023

The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone writes:

ROGER BECKWITH was one of the Church of England’s leading conservative Evangelical personalities. For more than three decades, he was associated with Latimer House, a research institute founded in Oxford in 1960 to promote the Evangelical study of Anglican doctrine, liturgy, history, and ecclesiology. He was best known as a tract-writer and an energetic promoter of the Book of Common Prayer.

Born in 1929, and educated at Queen Elizabeth’s School, Barnet, Beckwith was conscripted into the army for National Service, before going up to Oxford University in 1949 to read English at St Edmund Hall. Ordained in Chelmsford Cathedral in 1954, he served curacies at St Peter’s, Harold Wood, then in Essex, and at St Luke’s, Bedminster, in the Bristol suburbs. After four years as tutor at Tyndale Hall, one of the Evangelical theological colleges in Bristol, he was recruited by Latimer House in 1963, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Anglican Evangelicals in the 1960s found themselves beleaguered, disorganised, and ill-equipped to meet the theological challenges that lay ahead. In the furore surrounding John Robinson’s Honest to God (1963), and the passing of canons on eucharistic vestments and stone altars the next year, it seemed to Evangelicals that the Reformation foundations of the Church of England were being eroded beyond repair. Latimer House, therefore, set about an energetic programme of research and publication to strengthen the Evangelical cause.

Beckwith worked initially as Latimer House librarian, under the warden, James I. Packer. Together, they conducted a busy round of theological activity, speaking, advising, consulting, writing, and rallying the Evangelical troops. Beckwith produced a steady output, especially tracts and essays, for the Latimer House imprint and for journals such as The Churchman (now renamed The Global Anglican). His first major book, Priesthood and Sacraments (1964), presented a critique of the theological position at the heart of the proposals for an ecumenical merger between the Church of England and the Methodist Church. He was a key scholarly voice on the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) and contributed from 1968, at the invitation of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, to the Anglican–Orthodox ecumenical dialogue.

In 1973, Beckwith was promoted to Latimer House warden, a position that he occupied for the next two decades. During the liturgical debates surrounding the Alternative Service Book 1980, he invested considerable energies in defending the Book of Common Prayer as one of the theological treasures of Anglicanism. This, however, led to a waning of support from Evangelicals who wanted to embrace newer forms of worship and to shake off the conservative mindset.

Colin Buchanan broke from the Latimer House Liturgy Group in 1976 and launched a more progressive rival, the Group for the Renewal of Worship (GROW), the origin of Grove Books. Beckwith, meanwhile, as part-time liturgy lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, drilled ordinands in the Prayer Book.

He also served as an honorary curate in Prayer Book parishes — All Saints’, Wytham, and St Michael-at-the-Northgate, Oxford — and often took part in the annual wreath-laying at the Martyrs’ Memorial on 21 March, the anniversary of Archbishop Cranmer’s martyrdom. Beckwith’s later tracts included Confessing the Faith in the Church of England Today (1981), Thomas Cranmer after 500 Years (1989), and The Church of England: What it is, and what it stands for (1992).

Beckwith was awarded an Oxford BD in 1985 for his contribution to liturgical and calendrical studies in Qumran Judaism and early Christianity, praised by the Oxford examiners for his “impressive” learning and originality. In the same year, he published his magnum opus, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (1985), the fruit of 25 years of research and, at 530 pages, by far his longest book. Archbishop George Carey awarded him a Lambeth DD in 1992, in recognition of his theological contribution to the life of the Church of England.

A few years after Beckwith’s retirement in 1994, Latimer House closed, and the ministry was relaunched as the Latimer Trust. It continues to invest in Evangelical scholarship for a new generation, with the motto “Biblical Truth for Today’s Anglican Church”.

Roger Beckwith died on 21 October 2023, aged 94. He is survived by his wife, Janette, and their four children and seven grandchildren.

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