Obituary: The Right Rev John Tinsley

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The Independent Online
Ernest John Tinsley, priest, born 22 March 1919, priest 1942, curate St Mary le Bow Durham 1942-44, South Westoe 1944-46, Lecturer in Theology University College of Hull 1946-61, Senior Lecturer and Head of Department of Theology Hull University 1961-62, Senior Lecturer and Head of Department of Theology 1961-62, Examining Chaplain to Archbishop of York 1957-63, to Bishop of Sheffield 1963-75, Professor of Theology Leeds University 1962-75, Dean of Faculty of Arts 1965-67, Honorary Canon of Ripon Cathedral 1966-75, Bishop of Bristol 1976-85, Special Lecturer in Theology Bristol University 1976-84, Hulsean Preacher Cambridge University 1982, Bishop John Prideaux Lecturer Exeter University 1982, books include The Imitation of God in Christ 1960, The Gospel According to Luke 1965, Tragedy, Irony and Faith 1985, Tell it Slant 1990, married 1947 Marjorie Dixon (died 1977; two daughters), died Oxford 20 July 1992.

JOHN TINSLEY was a scholar-bishop of unusual acumen and sensitivity. For him the bishop's 'cathedra' was always the chair of a teacher available and encouraging to those who listened. While Bishop of Bristol, from 1976 to 1985, he was happier sitting on the edge of a table rather than robed in the pulpit six feet above query or contradiction. He stretched his hearers, gave them the licence to think for themselves, to question and to doubt.

Obviously hesitant, he won the respect of many outsiders, including those producing television programmes and the Home Office 1977-79 Committee on obscenity and film censorship on which he served. His academic work on the complex story of Christian attempts at 'the imitation of Christ' and his freedom from any form of ecclesiastical double-speak gave a mature stature to his nine years on the bishops' bench. He remained available to enquirers and friends until his final illness.

Tinsley, the son of a Lancashire farmer, was born in 1919 and educated and ordained at Durham. He and his wife Marjorie were at home in the north of England. As a Lecturer at Hull University he worked to build up an autonomous theological department between 1946 and 1961. He was Professor of Theology at Leeds University from 1961 to 1975. His students caught his delight in the visual and his sense of God as artist, even if this occasionally meant just too many slides to illustrate Byzantine iconography and Romanesque architecture.

All his days he retained the good don's ability to see those who wanted to talk far into the night, even if the subject was their own follies. His belief in the divine gift of freedom increased the sense of trust so many experienced when he was their professor, examiner or bishop.

Emily Dickinson's injunction 'Tell it slant' early caught his attention. His northern common sense, fortified by his deep knowledge of Continental theology, rejected the notion that the imitation of Christ is an endeavour to mimic the historical Jesus. Instead, he drew attention to Soron Kierkegaard's distinction between 'admiration' and 'imitation'. He urged the Church to find a contemporary 'yes' to God in faith and total commitment.

In his thinking as an educationalist and an evangelist, Tinsley opposed all forms of manipulation. For him, divine revelation itself, as in the Incarnation of Christ, was not direct but allusive, parabolic and persuasive. Archdeacons and other close friends would pass on to him that people found him hard to follow. His diffident but firm teaching ministry only gradually persuaded those who had relied on the fundamentalism of creed or the scriptural text. He pointed to something more profound than they had yet grasped. Bristol heads, originally nodding out of courtesy or slumber, began to experience their faith as a reality beyond words.

Both the city and the Church in Bristol could be against change. Tinsley believed, 'A Bishop is charged to experiment and take risks.' He faced opposition over the reorganisation of the historic city-centre churches. He also had plans for the needs, especially educational, of the housing estates and inner-city areas such as St Paul's. He faced a flood of protests. He did not retreat but remarked with a determined twinkle, 'The idea that religion does not mix with politics is a very English way of sitting on the fence.' He carried the reorganisation of the city churches to the Privy Council and won.

His concern for more resources for education, both for the young and for adults was central to his ministry. He served as Chairman at Church House of the Synodical Board of Education. In addition he argued strongly that the bars to women in the Church should be removed. All this was costly to someone who read and considered all the letters he received. He was a reforming bishop, resisting the temptation to appease and soothe.

The Church also gave him the ecumenical task of negotiation with German Lutherans, to whom he was drawn through his knowledge of Luther and Bonhoeffer. These negotiations have now resulted in the Meissen Agreement between Anglicans and Lutherans. The loneliness and sorrow he experienced over the death of his beloved wife Marjorie, and his long widowhood, may well have deepened the quality of his pastoral care.

He enjoyed his family and friends and, being a Francophile, extracted enormous pleasure from holidays in the Auvergne, Alsace, Paris and especially Bordeaux with which Bristol is linked. Wearing a black beret with a tassle, he slipped lightheartedly into France.

John Tinsley, his writings and teaching, influenced many more people than he ever realised. Alert, shy, orthodox-minded yet liberal, he once expressed his faith in these measured words: 'God is not at the disposal of our reason, our imagination or our emotion; we are at His.'