Canon Eric James: Influential clergyman and theologian

James encouraged his great friend Robert Runcie to commission the important report ‘Faith in the City

Eric James was one of the most influential Church of England clergy of his generation. Possessing a strong understanding of the inter-connectedness which lies at the heart of Anglican spirituality combined with a prodigious gift for friendship and a phenomenal memory, James made an outstanding contribution to the life of the church in the world.

Eric Arthur James was born in Dagenham in 1925 into a lower middle-class household. He attended school locally, leaving at the age of 14 to work at a riverside wharf by the Thames in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, where he came under the influence of the Provost there, Cuthbert Bardsley, and Eric Abbott, who was later to play an influential role not only in preparing him for ordination but also his understanding of priesthood.

He went to study at King's College, London and was ordained in 1951 to a Title at St Stephen's Rochester Row under the flamboyant George Reindorp. There, in that socially mixed parish, James began to hone his gifts as a communicator, with sermons well larded with literary allusions, especially from Shakespeare, and as a pastor of rare deep care. In 1955 he became chaplain of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was loved and respected by fellows and students, his reverent informality and interesting sermons helping establish lasting friendships.

Cambridge then was a centre of tremendous creativity for the Church, of England with Mervyn Stockwood at Great St Mary's, Hugh Montefiore at Gonville and Caius, John Robinson at Clare. The post-war theological ferment of thinkers included Harry Williams, Dean of Trinity, who was among those who contributed to Soundings (1962), a collection of essays reflective of the rich melting pot of ideas that Cambridge theology represented at that time.

In 1957 he published The Double Cure, which was concerned with the value of sacramental confession. For many, confession was thought of as a largely Roman Catholic practice, but James took a more enlightened view and made the point that everybody needs to feel the liberating power of forgiveness.

In 1959 he went to the Diocese of Southwark, where he remained until 1973. An urban man, while vicar of St George's, Camberwell and warden of the Trinity College mission, James began to discover the prophetic and radical aspect of his ministry. This was further developed during his time in Southwark, as director of parish and people, and as director of Christian Action from 1973-83. As preacher to Gray's Inn from 1978-97 and in his Thought for the Day broadcasts on Radio 4, he sought to make the church think about her responsibilities in the world, and to persuade the wider world to take the church seriously.

Although it was Canon Anthony Harvey of Westminster Abbey who quite literally dreamed up the title Faith in the City it was James who encouraged his great friend Robert Runcie to establish the Commission on Urban Priority Areas. One of the most important church documents of the past 25 years or more, it continues to challenge not only the government of our day concerning the living conditions of many in our inner cities and outer council estates but also the church and her involvement in and commitment to these areas of great deprivation.

For James, the Church of England was a large room but he did not always feel comfortable in it. Being sent off as a young curate by Reindorp to have elocution lessons to rid him of his cockney accent did nothing to help him accept himself as he was and feel accepted by others. He always felt let down and perplexed by the row about church education in Southwark which led to him being rescued by Runcie and installed in St Albans, where he was allowed to flourish. Church life in the Southwark Diocese at the time was a firmament of starlets and perhaps James was one prima donna too many.

Like Stockwood, James wanted to be a voice for the poor and disadvantaged but enjoyed the company of the élite and their cultural pursuits. He made good use of his membership of the Reform Club. Always a bit of an outsider, paradoxically it was at Gray's Inn that James was enabled to be fully himself and break down all kinds of barriers.

He loved a gossip. Runcie, who was honest and unillusioned about Eric, said that if you wanted the diocese to know anything tomorrow, tell the clergy; if you wanted the clergy to know anything today, tell Eric. A great raconteur, he loved to tell the story of the disabled lady who, when the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial was at its height, welcomed Bishop John Robinson as he walked down the aisle at the church at Camberwell with the immortal words: "Well! If it ain't Lady Chatterley's Lover!"

It was because Eric was so human that he was so attractive to all kinds of people. Not containable by any ecclesiastical office, he needed to be free. He loved people and his books of sermons and addresses will survive the test of time. In 1993 George Carey awarded him a Lambeth Doctorate of Divinity. From 1995, he was a Queen's Chaplain. He spent his final years in the Charterhouse in London. Although cared for and visited by many friends, his time there gave him the opportunity to acknowledge the inner loneliness which he had known throughout his life.

Eric Arthur James, theologian: born London 14 April 1925; died London 1 May 2012.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam