John Sweet: Biblical scholar and educator who taught a raft of Church leaders

Thursday 06 August 2009 00:00
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John Sweet was a faithful priest and academic, full of compassion, wisdom and care. In his death, the world has lost someone irreplaceable.

For 36 years, the Revd Canon John Philip McMurdo Sweet gave unstintingly of his time and energy, his scholarship, wisdom and his pastoral gifts to teaching and caring for his students both at Selwyn and at other Colleges in Cambridge.

Born in Ootacamund in Tamil Nadu, Dr Sweet's childhood was spent in India, where his father served in the Imperial Forestry Service. Educated at Eton, he won a scholarship to New College, Oxford, where he got a first in theology, in spite of a two-year interruption for national service, for which he was commissioned in the Royal Green Jackets.

He then spent a year at Yale Divinity School as Commonwealth Fellow, before returning for ordination training at Westcott House, Cambridge. Ordained in 1955, he served as curate at St Mark's in Mansfield before returning to Cambridge as Fellow and chaplain at Selwyn College and a lecturer in theology. Here he spent the remainder of his working life, before retiring to the College he loved where students and staff, past and present, loved him dearly.

Dr Sweet was always gracious and generous in his criticism of his students' work. In a supervision class with a fellow student who'd rushed his essay, Sweet said, "This is a very wobbly piece of work. It could do with more attention to the text." In my case, arriving as a young lawyer from Uganda, he commented: "You must not treat the examiner as a jury to be convinced."

He was always concerned about the body, mind and spirit of his students. He was a kind and caring tutor who always had our welfare very much at heart. Many treasure the memory, especially, of the wonderful Sunday lunches he and his family hosted for cash-strapped and hungry graduates and undergraduates. And in tutorials, the students he supervised were always treated to home-baked scones, cakes, a pot of tea and crumpets, warmed on the gas fire.

Academically, his commentary on the Book of Revelation was both wise and balanced, and played a very important role in helping ordinary readers make sense of this strangest and most puzzling part of the New Testament. He tried to see it as a whole, without the distortions of inherited assumptions. Drawing on the latest scholarship, Sweet explored the literary and theological dimensions of the text with great skill and lightness of touch, with the commentary serving as a reference point for students and scholars ever since its publication in 1979 by SCM Pelican Commentaries.

Alongside the academic was Sweet's own devotional life, which was reflected in his introduction to Using Common Worship: Times and Seasons, where he wrote: "Worship is what we were made for."

He taught his students and lived his life in a way that made this evident to all. His former pupils include three Archbishops of England and Wales (Rowan Williams, Barry Morgan and myself), together with numerous bishops and clergy in the Church of England. Many of us were taught not only Greek and the New Testament, but also a way of being in the world marked by graciousness, kindness, generosity, courtesy – old-fashioned values that are all too rare these days.

My abiding memories are of him cycling down King's Parade conjuring images of a tall ship sailing stately down the river. Many of his alumni will recall the fingerless gloves he wore on "F" Staircase against the winter cold.

Others have remarked on his holiness, yet he would have been the last person to think that about himself. Not only was he a great scholar and pastor, he was, of all the people I have ever come across, one of the most humble and caring, and a true servant of others.

His wise counsel, sense of humour, gracious manners, and quiet and witty presence, will be greatly missed.

Dr Sweet was indeed a respected Cambridge don of the old school. His empathy, compassion and hospitality shown towards all members of the College community were deep and genuine and lasted for years, even decades. He was a godly and scholarly man whose humility and deep Christian faith encouraged so many that came into contact with him.

He has, in his ever-self-effacing way, made a major contribution to the education and training of Church leaders. Though his passing is a great loss, we want to celebrate and give thanks for a life that enriched the lives of very many others beyond measure. Our thoughts and prayers are with Mary and the family at the close of a life lived well and to the glory of God.

Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York

Dr John Sweet, teacher, pastor and Biblical scholar: born Ootacamund, India 10 June 1927; married Mary Trotman- Dickenson (one son, two daughters); died Cambridge 2 July 2009.

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