Obituary: The Rev Dr Norman Pittenger

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The Independent Online
Norman Pittenger was a prolific theologian who will be remembered as the first respectable campaigner for the open acceptance of homosexual relations among Christians.

He spent most of his life in the United States, where he taught at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church of the USA in New York; but he also studied at Oxford, where he knew Auden and Isherwood, and spent the last 35 years of his life in Cambridge, where he was attached to King's College on a curious basis. He described himself as "Senior Member", and had dining rights. Indeed, he used the college as his club; but he was never a fellow, and some fellows felt that he made altogether too much of his connection.

However, the transparent sweetness and unworldliness of his nature meant that he made no serious enemies and many friends. Professionally, his interest lay in process theology, a complex of ideas first developed by the philosopher A. N. Whitehead, which became popular in American circles, though less influential in Britain.

Process theology regards God not as the absolute ruler of all that is, or not primarily as such an august figure, but more as a sort of constitutional monarch, interested to know what his subjects will make of their freedom, and anxious to let them operate within a fairly predictable universe. The idea that God should be trying constantly to bring good out of evil leads fairly naturally to a reassessment of the prohibitions central to traditional Christianity.

Whitehead was regarded as a deeply heterodox figure, but his ideas have had considerable influence since his death in allowing ways for Christians to come to terms with the world revealed by modern science, and Pittenger's book Time for Consent (1969) was one of the most important expressions of this process.

The book originated in 1965 as an article for New Christian, a small magazine edited by Trevor Beeson, later Dean of Winchester. Beeson asked Pittenger to write an article about drugs, which were then just beginning to seem an important subject for Christian thought. Pittenger, recently retired after 30 years at the General Theological Seminary, replied that he knew nothing about drugs, but would be happy to write about homosexuality instead.

Homosexual behaviour between consenting adults had just been legalised with the support of the Church of England; but that the Church thought it should be legal certainly did not imply that it thought it less than sinful. For a distinguished Anglican priest to say that God might approve of homosexual relationships was scandalous.

In 1969, Pittenger worked the article up into a book, which the Church Times refused to review, but which sold 10,000 copies in paperback. It had a tremendous resonance. Richard Kirker, now the General Secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, and then an ordinand, says it allowed hundreds of people like him to realise that the vague unease they felt when sleeping with women was not prudishness but homosexuality.

Pittenger did not write the book as an open homosexual. But his readers understood, and he had hundreds of letters, as he had hoped. "One of the things I had in mind was that - if one feels as I myself had felt when I was young, that I wasn't much interested in girls and I didn't care to get married, it was perfectly all right to be another kind of person," he told me when I went to see him in Cambridge at the age of 89.

He was still active in mind, despite a recent heart attack, living in lodgings of legendary squalor, wearing a dressing-gown over an old track- suit top, bubbling with entertainment and friendliness. He had written 90 books, and would claim that he was the Barbara Cartland of theology. Colleagues would tease him about their similarity. "What is the book called this time?" he was once asked by David Edwards, then Dean of King's College. But he was admired by good biblical scholars like John A.T. Robinson for his work on Christology.

On his 90th birthday, the cake at the celebrations depicted in icing the cover of Time for Consent. Asked whether he feared or expected death, Norman Pittenger replied "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."


William Norman Pittenger, priest and theologian: born Bogota, New Jersey 23 July 1905; ordained deacon 1936, priest 1937; Instructor in Christian Apologetics, General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church of the USA, New York 1935-51, Professor 1951-66, Paddock Lecturer 1966; President, American Theology Society 1948-49; Vice-Chairman, Theological Commission, World Council of Churches 1954-62, Chairman 1962-64; Honorary Senior Member, King's College, Cambridge 1964-97; died King's Lynn, Norfolk 19 June 1997.