Obituary: The Rev Eric Heaton

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The Independent Online
In 1979 Eric Heaton became Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. It is an unusual and demanding job, combining the offices of Dean of a cathedral and Head of a college. But no one could have been better suited to fill these roles with distinction.

Heaton had already served two colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. He had been first Chaplain, then Dean and Fellow, and latterly Tutor in Theology at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and had been Chaplain, Fellow and Tutor at St John's College, Oxford. He had also served two cathedrals, having been Canon (latterly Chancellor) at Salisbury and Dean of Durham.

He brought to Christ Church just what it needed: decisive leadership, robust good sense, and a deep concern, not only for academic values, but for value in general. And, with all this, affability and infectious good humour. He quelled warring factions and instigated much needed reforms - was it not obvious that, in addition to its hundred and one other committees, an academic institution ought to have an academic committee? Would the cathedral not obviously benefit from a registrar to oversee its day to day administration?

I have mentioned his concern for academic values. Naturally he was keen that graduates and undergraduates should do well in their examinations and their research. But, like a former Master of Balliol, he hoped above all that they would acquire the ability to recognise when a man is talking rot.

He thought that a college ought to produce men and women who would benefit the world, not just by their possessing this or that expertise, but by being people with humanity of outlook and clarity of vision. He believed also in the value of a sense of community, not only amongst present members of the college, but also amongst former members. One of his last acts as Dean was to bring about the creation of the Christ Church Association to foster just such a sense of mutual affection and common interest.

Naturally he valued clarity and good sense in the academic field; and not just for their own sake. He also thought it important to communicate what was valuable in academic studies to a wider world. His own academic expertise lay in the field of Old Testament studies. But he was impatient with the minutiae of academic research, and, for the most part, his books were aimed at making the fruits of scholarship accessible to others. What he produced were not tired decoctions, but works which were fresh, lively and stimulating: notably Everyday Life in Old Testament Times (1956), The Hebrew Kingdoms (1968), and especially his first book, His Servants the Prophets (1949), later enlarged as The Old Testament Prophets, and still being reissued.

But he was an original thinker too, especially in his treatment of the school tradition of the Old Testament. His interest in this was already apparent in his earlier works, and explicit in his most obviously scholarly book, Solomon's New Men (1974). And the topic would have been further explored in the Bampton Lectures which he had been due to give in 1980. As it turned out, however, his becoming Dean of Christ Church led him to shelve these plans, and it was not until 1994 that he finally returned to them. He was again invited to give the Bampton Lectures, and published then as The School Tradition of the Old Testament.

There were, no doubt, a number of reasons why he found the schoolmen congenial. Certainly they were sophisticated and urbane. They also faced theological difficulties with honesty and clarity of mind. But what he admired above all was their attitude to goodness, to moral value. Like them he believed in objective value, and like them he believed in our natural ability to discern it. It is not that we rely on some special revelation about the nature of God and his commands to enable us to know how to behave. Rather our knowledge of God comes through our natural, if God given, power of understanding what is good.

This attitude to the relation between God and morality also shaped his views about the duty of the Church. He was highly suspicious of doctrine; at any rate he though that the Church should not teach people to believe unintelligible things. He did think that it should help to teach people about morality; but emphatically not morality which was peculiar to Christians, but that morality which it was possible for all people of good will to discern.

If his theological views were liberal, his views on liturgy were more conservative. But there was no contradiction here. He valued decorum and transparency. He was suspicious equally of charismatic enthusiasm and of ritual. He thought that a service should be, like prayer in George Herbert's words, "Heaven in ordinary".

Eric Heaton did not hold in high regard very much contemporary work in Theology or Biblical Studies. In many cases he though that he recognised rot. An undoubted exception was the work of C.H. Dodd, in his time the leading New Testament scholar in the country, and the general director of the New English Bible - a work he much admired. It was particularly happy, therefore, that he should have married Rachel Dodd. It was particularly happy too that they should have complemented each other so perfectly. Throughout their married life, in Cambridge, Salisbury, Oxford and Durham, their house was a place which radiated friendship and warmth. It was a place where academics and rugby footballers, soldiers and business people, the distinguished and the ordinary could feel equally at home.

Eric William Heaton, priest and theologian: born 15 October 1920; ordained deacon 1944, priest 1945; Curate of St Oswald's, Durham 1944-45; Chaplain, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge 1945-46, Dean and Fellow 1946-53; Canon Residentiary, Salisbury Cathedral 1953-60, Chancellor 1956-60; Tutor in Theology, Official Fellow and Chaplain, St John's College, Oxford 1960- 74, Senior Tutor 1967-73; Dean of Durham 1974-79; Dean of Christ Church, Oxford 1979-91; Pro-Vice- Chancellor, Oxford University 1984-91; DD Lambeth 1991; married 1951 Rachel Dodd (two sons, two daughters); died Oxford 24 August 1996.