Obituary: John Coulson
Tuesday 20 April 1993
JOHN COULSON was an important contributor to the movement for change which passed through the English Roman Catholic church after the Second World War, a movement which helped to prepare the ground for the Second Vatican Council, and which suffered something of a reverse in the 1980s.
It was largely a lay movement, and it encouraged English Catholics to think ecumenically, and to find in John Henry Newman a bond and not a barrier between Rome and Canterbury. The central theological problem of modern Christianity - how to rethink the Christian faith in a culture each day growing more remote from the circumstances in which that faith had originated - could no longer be kept at arm's length by authority. Newman's writings offered a method - so Coulson taught - of bringing together two worlds which had drifted far apart.
In Newman and the Common Tradition (1970), the result of two years' work at Oriel College, Oxford, under Ian Ramsey and David Jenkins, and Religion and Imagination (1981), he linked Coleridge the Anglican with Newman the Catholic to argue that the study of imaginative literature made intelligible the sources of religious experience. This was the ground of the Religion with Literature degree which he started and fostered at Bristol University from 1975.
Coulson had come to Bristol as a young man after war service in the Education Corps to be Warden of the Bristol Folk House, an adult education centre which had close relations with Bristol University. He himself had taken a degree in English and Philosophy, but his intellectual centre was always in religious studies. In these early Bristol years he gradually moved from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and in 1953 he left the Folk House and went to teach in the Benedictine school at Downside, in Somerset, where he came under the influence of Christopher Butler.
Two currents now combined which increasingly dominated John Coulson's life. First, it was in 1956 that the Abbe Nicolas Theis gathered in Luxembourg the first of the International Newman Conferences, a remarkable mixture of Newman scholars, attracted by Newman as by no other 19th-century religious writer, and of those who were more concerned with the cause of Newman's canonisation. Second, Coulson himself became one of the leaders of a group of lay Catholics, who made Downside Abbey a centre of theological discussion. It was also in 1956 that he contributed to the first of a long series of Downside Symposia, perhaps the most important of which, from his point of view, was Theology and the University (1964), which he edited for publication, and which made a case for a Catholic theology which would accept the discipline of existence in a secular, open university.
This was what he wanted to do himself, and in 1968 he joined the recently formed theology department at Bristol University as Downside Research Fellow in Theology. He became a full-time member of staff in 1973, and was a kind and stimulating teacher of all his students. He had much of Newman's patient hopefulness.
At the present moment there is perhaps a danger that Christian theology, including Newman studies, will go back into the laager, that Newman himself will be interpreted as a great opponent of 'modernism' in general. That was not how John Coulson understood him. He wanted, as he believed Newman had wanted, an intellectually open Christian community in which the claims of the Church and of individual human faith were held in tension.
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