Obituary: Canon F. W. Dillistone
Friday 08 October 1993
F. W. DILLISTONE was a theologian of unusually wide sympathies whose personal warmth and restless imagination made for over 60 years a distinctive contribution to religious life and thought in England and North America.
Nurtured on the Bible by his widowed mother, he discovered the Church through public-school religion and was drawn into the newly emerging liberal evangelical wing of 1920s Oxford. A mathematical scholar at Brasenose and a tentative participant in street and seaside missions, he prepared from 1925 for ordination at Wycliffe Hall and was led through the Evangelical Union into missionary circles. After a curacy in Southsea he returned to Wycliffe as tutor and offered himself for missionary work.
He was always more thinker than activist, not comfortable with displays of religious emotion, and when the Church Missionary Society suggested teaching at the United (until then American Presbyterian) College at Saharanpur in north India he prepared himself by writing on salvation in Christianity and Hinduism, soon a BD thesis. This opened up a lifelong engagement with religious pluralism, religion and culture, questions about 'communication' and a fruitful collaboration with Max Warren in the intellectually serious Evangelical Fellowship of Theological Literature.
It was this passion for interpretation and communication coupled with a profoundly biblical faith, rather than any technical biblical scholarship, which drew Dillistone into the beginnings of the 'biblical theology' movement. Family health problems had dictated an early return to Oxford where, from 1934, he continued his theological education as an incumbent before, in 1938, joining the long line of Oxford theologians who have found their wings in Canada, as Professor of Systematic Theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto. There his former colleague John Bowman involved him in planning and helping to edit the Westminster Study Bible, and this led in 1951 to his 40 years' association with the important new journal Theology Today, that aimed to expose human life in all its variety to the searchlight of divine revelation.
A string of books on doctrinal topics flowed from this period. After a short spell back in England, immediately after the war, with Donald Coggan at the London College of Divinity, Dillistone entered his most fruitful period in the more liberal climate of a Harvard soon to appoint his heroes Paul Tillich and Amos Wilder, before, in 1952, making the once quite common move from academy to cathedral.
Liverpool after the war was no Barchester. There was no close and the cathedral begun by the second bishop of Liverpool, Francis Chavasse, was still in progress. The completion of the nave was under way and in the hands of the Building Executive Committee. The Dean did not have to be a fund- raiser. Dillistone, Dean from 1956, was more interested in people than buildings, though he was keen to develop the cultural potential of a great cathedral. He left, however, before Liverpool became world- famous in the mid-Sixties. His quiet wisdom, gentleness, eirenic spirit, and gift for friendship are still remembered in the diocese with gratitude. The affection was mutual. The recent naming of a court near the cathedral after him brought him pleasure.
A return to academic life was sensible for a man who still had much to write, and a return to Oxford particularly enticing. From 1964 until his retirement in 1970, Dillistone was Chaplain and Fellow of Oriel College. But he had never been a typical Oxford theologian. Always open to new ideas and sensitive to social and cultural change, he had seen himself since ordination on an unending quest for an alternative to the high church and mildly modernist Oxford theology of 1880-1930 ('from Gore to Temple') that was rooted in Greek metaphysics and the Fathers. The faculty to which he returned in the 1960s had changed, but it still seemed less responsive to a fast-changing world than the Cambridge of Soundings and his gifts were perhaps under-appreciated in his own country. The stream of some 20 books continued to flow, most notably The Christian Understanding of Atonement (1968) and his Bampton lectures Traditional Symbols and the Contemporary World (1972) which took up the theme of his prophetic work, Christianity and Symbolism (1955). Several of these revealed a deep understanding of the novelist's and dramatist's creativity. The National Conference for Literature and Religion was founded in 1982 on his initiative, in approaching David Jasper.
In retirement Dillistone discovered a new gift when asked to write the biography of another Liverpool (but Cambridge) theologian, Charles Raven, published in 1975. The success of this led to a less natural request to write on CH Dodd (1977), the Welsh genius of British New Testament scholarship whom he had known, with Amos Wilder, from his student days' association with Mansfield College. He then wrote insightful biographies of two of his closest friends, Max Warren of CMS (1980) and - most difficult - Joe Fison, the charismatic bishop of Salisbury (1983).
Despite the incongruity of becoming a college chaplain at 60-plus instead of 30 his genuine interest in people, and belief that what they were doing or thinking was important, made 'Dilly' a sympathetic tutor. He was a self-effacing teacher, making space for his pupils to grow, and he avidly followed the progress of many of them, expecting them to do well. In these Oxford years his home became a place for Enid's endless hospitality to visiting American friends who knew they were welcome. He came to love the Common Room of Oriel as much as Brasenose and lived to mourn the passing of nearly all his contemporaries. But he constantly made new friends, even late in life.
We may best remember a character full of grace and charm that was far more complex than a prose summary can convey, in his favourite couplet of Edwin Muir:
One foot in Eden still, I stand
And look across the other land.
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