The Reverend Canon John Fenton: Gregarious priest, teacher and scholar of the New Testament

Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Fenton, Biblical scholar and teacher and a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford from 1978 to 1991, was an unusual human being. Big and well-built, he exuded cordiality and goodwill. He was often to be heard laughing uproariously, sometimes at a slightly risqué joke of his own telling. He was eminently what Dr Johnson called a "clubbable" man.

But he had a deeply serious side to him. He was an extremely devout man, and well versed in the literature of prayer, mysticism and the spiritual life. Perhaps rather unusually, he combined this with a theology, and particularly an understanding of the New Testament – his special field of study – which, if not exactly radical, certainly accepted unreservedly the outlook of modern critical scholarship on the Bible. This came to light in his writings about the New Testament, for example in his commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and John, the latter an object of interest to him throughout his working life.

Born in 1921, the son of a Liverpool vicar, Fenton was sent to school at St Edward's at Oxford, and in 1940 went up to Queen's College as a Bible clerk charged with saying Latin grace in Hall before dinner. He read theology, and was much influenced by two people during his undergraduate career. The first was the remarkable college chaplain, V.K. Johnson, who had a knack of pricking undergraduate bubbles without causing offence or hurting feelings. Under his influence, Fenton's horizons were widened and his naively extreme Anglo-Catholicism thought through thoroughly. He was introduced to the writings of the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, who became a great influence.

His other mentor was his tutor, Professor R.H. Lightfoot, who had done a lot to persuade English-speaking scholars of the value of contemporary thinking in Germany. By his example, as well as his teaching, Lightfoot persuaded Fenton that a fully open attitude to modern biblical criticism was compatible with deep religious devotion. After Oxford, Fenton went to the theological college at Lincoln (The Bishop's Hostel), where he came under the influence of another remarkable man, Eric Abbot, later Dean of Westminster. Abbot was a master of what is now called spirituality and found in Fenton a receptive and perceptive pupil.

Fenton thus approached his first post, a curacy in a poor parish on the outskirts of Wigan, well prepared at one level. He realised, however, that he had a lot to learn about life from the parishioners and worked hard among them, though he found time to continue with his academic work, studying for a BD in New Testament textual criticism under the general supervision of his old tutor. Fenton earned his degree and his work eventually appeared in print.

After three years he was invited back to Lincoln, first as chaplain and then as sub-warden. In 1954 he became vicar of Wentworth in Yorkshire, but after four years was appointed Principal of Lichfield Theological College. His time there was marred by the death of his devoted wife, the mother of his four children, in 1960. He later married again and had three children by his second marriage.

In 1965 he became Principal of St Chad's College, Durham, which, during his time there, moved over from being an Anglican theological college to a constituent college of the university. His last appointment was as a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford (1978-91) where, in addition to a pastoral ministry, he did a prodigious amount of tutorial teaching for the theology faculty. He was a thoroughly good teacher and a striking and memorable preacher who always held his congregation's full attention, though a tendency to dwell at length on human shortcoming, very much including that of his hearers, occasionally caused some dismay.

In addition to his other duties, he frequently gave talks to groups of lay people about the Bible and its significance for the leading of their lives, followed by lively question-and-answer sessions, until his increasing deafness made that impossible. He also carried on a ministry to individuals and was greatly valued as a spiritual director.

He produced more than a dozen books, mostly concerned with the New Testament, though some of them reflected his concern with devotion and the spiritual life – perhaps he would have regarded the implied distinction as a false one. He contributed articles to a number of periodicals, and his series of pieces in the Church Times suggesting how the liturgical readings for each Sunday might be used in preaching were much appreciated by the clergy.

It must be confessed that alongside his affability there ran a fatalistic streak which, when interpreted in terms of providence, sometimes made him seem curiously detached and tempted him to acquiesce too easily in unsatisfactory situations. His relations with his children were not always close; among them was the poet James Fenton, who was Professor of Poetry at Oxford for a time as well as a distinguished foreign correspondent.

Fenton's was a varied and fruitful ministry, as was recognised by the award of a Lambeth DD in 2001. Those who knew him personally will probably remember him best as a very human being, one with a tremendous zest for life until illness intervened, a gargantuan figure, in the Rabelaisian, as well as the physical sense, with a quizzical sense of humour and a penchant for propounding surprising and often initially disconcerting ideas which on reflection often proved profound and enlightening.

He is hard to describe because he was a sui generis, an unusual combination of opposites: a free spirit with his feet firmly on the ground; a speculative theologian who had something very earthy about him; a thoughtful man with bold ideas who advanced them with great diffidence; affable and outgoing but with a strong interior life; a deeply devout man who knew how to enjoy himself and help others to do the same. If the image persists of a lively and generally cheerful boon companion, it must never be allowed to obscure his character as deeply thoughtful and devout and determined to put his religion into practice as far as in him lay.

Dennis Nineham

John Charles Fenton, priest and theologian: born Liverpool 5 June 1921; ordained deacon 1944, priest 1945; Assistant Curate, All Saints, Hindley, Wigan 1944-47; Chaplain, Lincoln Theological College 1947-51, Sub-Warden 1951-54; Vicar of Wentworth, Yorkshire 1954-58; Principal, Lichfield Theological College 1958-65; Principal, St Chad's College, Durham 1965-78; Canon of Christ Church, Oxford 1978-91, Honorary Canon 1991-92 (Emeritus); married 1945 Mary (Tonia) Hamilton Ingoldby (died 1960; two sons, two daughters), 1963 Linda Brandham (two sons, one daughter); died Oxford 27 December 2008.