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Scenes from Clerical Life (10) – Austin Farrer

May 15, 2009

booksWhen I started this series, I meant to extract one interesting or amusing episode from my ministry in each place where I have worked. Now I have been through them all, I should stop. But I have had several requests to keep this kind of post going – and I have enjoyed reminiscing (a sure sign of ageing!). So I will paint a few more scenes now and then, and maybe for the next ten episodes concentrate on special people I have been privileged to meet. I belong firmly to the school that says all history is biography, and my own history has been profoundly affected by people I have met.

One of the greatest of these was Austin Farrer, who was Warden of Keble College, Oxford, when I went up to university there. The Bishop of Argyll and the Isles sent me to see Austin when I had decided to read Theology (My first degree at Edinburgh University was in French and German). The Warden greeted me at the door of his residence in the College and he and his wife gave me a cup of tea. Then he showed me all over the College including the wonderful Butterfield chapel which contains the famous “Light of the World” by Holman Hunt. Then we sat down in his study and discussed various things, at the end of which, when I was expecting to hear when entrance exams would be held, Austin just said: “Well, we begin on October 5th, so why don’t you plan to arrive a day or two before that?” Then I was turned loose to look round Oxford, utterly astonished (and elated) that I had been accepted just like that. (It couldn’t happen today, I suppose)

What I did not know then was that Austin Farrer was one of the greatest thinkers of the Church of England at that time, and also one of the most moving preachers I would ever hear.  To a raw Scottish student, he had given hours of his time, and over the next three years I came to appreciate his sheer kindness and down-to-earth holiness more and more. His sermons were five to seven minute gems, seemingly simple and effortless, but in fact full of deep theological truths. Luckily some of them have been published, and they read as well as they sounded.

But Dr Farrer was not all solemnity and learning. At dinners of the Mitre Club, a College dining club, he made short, snappy speeches which had everyone in stitches (admittedly, after some fine College port!). He had had some tragedies in his life, but was one of the most joyful Christians I have ever known. There have been moments when I have turned from the officially canonized  saints and said “Blessed Austin, pray for us”. He changed my life by his goodness in this life, so why not in the next?

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