Obituary: The Rev Professor Ulrich Simon
Saturday 16 August 1997
The Dean rushed to be with the student, asking his fellow interviewer, the theologian Ulrich Simon, to look after me - for I was, of course, the candidate. What part of the Old Testament was I working on? I mentioned Genesis. "Then you know what you should read?" I expected some weighty piece of German scholarship to be recommended. Weighty and German it certainly was, but not conventional scholarship: Thomas Mann's great novel Joseph und seine Bruder.
What I was then quite unaware of was that Simon had known Thomas Mann during his childhood in Berlin: a childhood not always very prosperous in material terms, but surely an intellectual feast, with such as Mann and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as near neighbours. Simon's family were non- practising Jews, but, practising or not, their lives were at risk in the Third Reich and, after flirting with the Communists, Simon came to Britain in 1933.
His father was later put to death, and among Ulrich Simon's books his A Theology of Auschwitz (1967) must be the most chilling. His account, in his autobiography Sitting in Judgement (1978), of the difficulties of his reception in Britain is a reminder that attitudes to refugees have not changed much in the intervening years.
Unexpectedly the non- practising Jew found himself attracted to the Church of England, and in what seems to have been an astonishingly short space of time he had become a Christian, and enrolled at King's College London with a view to ordination. He graduated and, after a brief time at Lincoln Theological College, was ordained in 1938 (would he have been interned as a suspected enemy alien if that had not happened?) and, after two parish curacies, returned to King's to spend the rest of his working life on its staff.
For many people, theology at King's was embodied by the unlikely combination of two wonderful but very different pastors: its Dean, Sydney Evans, the establishment man and superb organiser par excellence, and the utterly unpredictable Ulrich Simon.
Simon wrote extensively (a dozen books), but he never fitted into neat categories. He loved the Hebrew Scriptures, and his lectureship (later Readership) was in Old Testament. But as my first experience of him showed he was never a conventional Old Testament scholar. His study of Isaiah 40-55, Theology of Salvation (1953), displays rare insights, but features on few conventional reading-lists.
It was a disappointment to him that he did not receive the Old Testament professorship, but the electors wisely offered the chair to someone more in tune with mainstream scholarship. When Simon became a Professor, it was a personal chair with the title of Professor of Christian Literature - an apt and imaginative choice of title, for his knowledge of Christian literature was all- embracing. Dante, Blake, Holderlin, Dostoevsky - the range was enormous, the knowledge profound.
The students loved him. When in the 1960s students wanted more say in the organisation of their programmes, I had to organise a straw vote finding out their wishes. Simon, whom I had thought might be quite alien to them, was their first choice. And it was not only theological students whom he could captivate. King's is known for the Non-Theological Associateship of King's College (AKC), the arrangement by which large numbers of students from every discipline could attend lectures offered by the theology department. Simon always attracted vast numbers.
He was never an administrator. He ended his academic career as Dean of King's, but unashamedly relied on others to see to the nuts and bolts of daily organisation. What he would have thought of current styles of university life, with research assessment exercises and the like, beggars description.
Ulrich Simon was a man of many paradoxes. He wrote two books on heaven, Heaven in the Christian Tradition (1958) and The Ascent to Heaven (1961), and the hope that it embodies. Yet there was a side of him which was deeply pessimistic. The phrase "sick humanity" occurs frequently in his autobiography, and he was deeply distrustful of liberalism, both the ineffective liberalism, as he saw of it, of his German childhood, and the theological liberalism of more recent times.
It was the deep resonances of worship which had first attracted him to Christianity, and the "mateyness" of much contemporary worship he regarded as deplorable trivialisation. Yet there was always hope, perhaps most naturally enshrined in playing or listening to the string quartets of his beloved Haydn and Mozart; I am told that his last act, the day before he died, was to get his violin restrung.
Ulrich Ernst Simon, theologian: born Berlin 21 September 1913; ordained deacon 1938, priest 1939; University Lecturer, King's College London 1945- 60, Reader in Theology 1960-72, Professor of Christian Literature 1972- 80, Dean 1978-80; married 1949 Joan Westlake (two sons, one daughter); died London 31 July 1997.
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