An Oxford priest offers a brief appreciation of a great Anglican theologian who helped many hold on to and deepen their faith
Reminiscing a short time ago about his time at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity from 1970 to 1986, John Macquarrie commented that he and his distinguished fellow theologians Maurice Wiles and Henry Chadwick were still living and of a good age. ‘It seems,’ he said, ‘that if you want to have a long life you should be a Professor of Divinity’ It was suggested to him that perhaps this was because God allowed professors the necessary time in which to repent. ‘Ah, you may well be right,’ he replied with a smile. On another occasion, when surgery for cancer had necessitated the removal of his stomach, he was observed enjoying his food. Asked how he managed to eat, he explained, ‘Well, it’s rather like buses. If they can’t go down one route, they find another.’
A casual encounter with John Macquarrie was unlikely to suggest that you were meeting one of the most eminent English-language theologians in the world. But then he did not need to assume airs and graces. His books spoke for themselves. His Principles of Christian Theology was a required textbook for many of us. He gave massive support to those struggling to maintain the faith in the midst of a questioning generation as he showed that more recent trends in philosophy (notably existentialism) and biblical criticism might actually give renewed impetus to the Church’s thought and mission, rather than being seen as threats. Moreover, he gave Catholic Anglicans reassurance and a certain pride in knowing that one of their number was at the forefront of the theological enterprise and held in honour by his peers.
Catholic by conviction
Some of the best Anglicans are those who have come to a Catholic persuasion from outside. Certainly this was true in Macquarrie’s case. The official obituaries have charted his course from ordination in the Scottish Presbyterian Church to his reception into the Anglican Communion and his ordination there. One of the chief factors in that move was an appreciation of the importance of the episcopate. This was to have a significant impact on his later thinking about the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Originally, Macquarrie had believed that there were no theological objections to such a step, but as he observed the division which it caused, he came to believe that questions of order and ecclesiology are theological, and that the action taken by the Anglican Church on women’s ordination could not be justified. (It was surely significant that he might be seen at the Bishop of Ebbs-fleet’s Chrism Mass.) He was also prepared to defend at General Synod a Catholic understanding of the sacrament of reconciliation, even though Synod (bishops included) refused to listen.
A pastoral priest
It would be wrong to see Macquarrie solely as an academic theologian. He was a priest with a strong pastoral sense, and he wrote not only for specialists but for hard-pressed parish clergy and the man and woman in the pew. His style of writing was lucid, with the clarity born of long and careful thought. Unlike some of the theological academic fraternity, he was keen to help the inner life of the people of God. Paths in Spirituality and Mary for All Christians are books which refresh the spirit as well as the mind. He continued to reflect and write in retirement, making good use of the library at Pusey House, of which he had been a Governor. His last book was a study of mysticism.
One of John Macquarrie’s greatest contributions to the life of the Church in our time was his witness to the fact that theology, to be worthy of the name, can never be separated from active involvement in the Christian fellowship. When he retired, the dedicated scholar and teacher engaged in priestly ministry at St Andrews, Heading-ton. People representing all aspects of his career were present there for his funeral, but it was impressive to see the affection and respect of those who had known him not primarily as a fine theologian, but as a dedicated priest whose great gifts were consecrated wholly to the service of God. May he rest in peace.