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Obituary: The Revd Dr John Reader

by
03 November 2023

Professor Chris Baker writes:

THE Revd Dr John Reader, who died on 1 October, aged 70, was a rural parish priest, prolific author, passionate educator, and a highly original thinker. His ability to engage daily parish life with the latest currents in political and Continental philosophy, science — including the post-digital and AI — environmentalism, and education was unique and unparalleled.

John was born on 12 January 1953 in Leamington Spa into a clergy family. After studying at Warwick School, he went up to Trinity College, Oxford, where he obtained an Oxford Certificate in Theology before training for ordination at Cuddesdon. He was ordained deacon in Ely Cathedral in 1978.

His early ministerial career was spent in curacies and appointments in the north of England, before he moved to a parish in South Shropshire, where he combined parish life with theological education at the Gloucester School of Ministry.

John spent most of the next 30 years serving in Worcestershire and Oxfordshire, in min­istries that he combined and interspersed with several public-facing posts including Director of Pastoral Theology at Salisbury and Wells Theological College, Diocesan Industrial Chap­lain and Associate Training and Education Officer for Worcester diocese, Chester Diocesan Rural Officer, and Tutor on the Christian and Environmental Studies Course, which ran from Cuddesdon, and for which he wrote much of its original material.

His Ph.D. at Bangor, University of Wales, in 2002, explored the political philosophy of Jürgen Habermas. John was a prolific Senior Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation for many years and an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Worcester. None of these titles reflected his two main passions in rural ministry: children’s education and the lack of affordable housing. He was a school governor, and served assiduously on diocesan edu­ca­tional boards and the boards of local hous­ing associations in the cause of social mobility and economic justice. Much of his political and public theology emerges from these contexts.

Key to understanding John’s academic career and work is the word “rhizomatic”. Rhizomes are horizontal subterranean plant stems that both root themselves downwards in native soil, but also produce upwards shoots to create new networks of growth above the ground. They are the antithesis of trees, which are hierarchical and linear. As John wrote in a book with Tom James and me, A Philosophy of Christian Materialism (2015), “Rhizomes have the capacity to bypass hierarchies and the barriers they sometimes construct to emergence and development.” This sentence epitomises his approach.

John was deeply influenced by post-Marxist and post-structuralist thinkers, including Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou, the psycho­analytic tradition of Bernard Stiegler, the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour, the assemblage theory of Manuel DeLanda, the new materialism of Jane Bennett, and the feminist philosophies and ethics of Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, and Rosi Braidotti.

He helped to introduce church audiences to these and many other voices, and used them to develop a radical environmental theology, which characterised his earliest published work, including The Earth Beneath (1992), Local Theology: Church and community in dialogue (1994), and was apparent through to his masterpiece, Theology and New Materialism: Spaces of faithful dissent (2017).

In his later career, he established the Ethical Futures Group at the William Temple Foundation, a global network of about 20 scholars and activists committed to reflecting theologically on the latest trends in environmental and climate change, besides technological developments in the digital, post-digital, and AI worlds.

This network helped to produce one of his last published works, a ground-breaking edited volume co-created with his long-time friend and collaborator Professor Maggi Savin-Baden: Post-Digital Theologies: Technology, belief and practice (2021).

It is fair to say that John sometimes struggled to accommodate himself to what he saw as the “foolishness of institutions” — whether ecclesial or secular — and their inability to respond to changing circumstances and new ideas. He was occasionally a fearless and outspoken critic, which did not always endear him to those in authority. But ulti­mately and, perhaps, paradoxically, the Church of England gave him the platform upon which to practise his full intellectual and pastoral ministry to the world — a fact symbolised in his choice to be buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Wootton, where he had just come out of the “boredom” of retirement to serve as Rector.

It was a fitting full circle for a complex, visionary, and tireless priest, who always saw England’s rural communities as his part of God’s vineyard, and whose academic work will provide a rich legacy of theological thought for many years to come.

John is survived by his widow, Christine, to whom he was married for 45 years, his children, Simon, Kate, and Tom, and numerous grandchildren.

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