Jonathan Baker remembers The Revd Dr Geoffrey Kirk, theologian
Geoffrey Kirk was a man of sharp mind and fierce intelligence. As a satirist and a polemicist, he was unafraid to wield either in exposing what he perceived to be woolly, careless or lazy thinking; he loved to provoke, and he could not resist a good argument. Thank God for all of that. But the priest and writer who conceived April Heavisides and the rest of the extraordinary cast of characters who peopled the pages of New Directions in the nineties and noughties (a cast worthy of Peter Simple at his best) had, of course, much more to him than the ability to lampoon or to compose the devastating pasquinade. He was a serious theologian, one whose grasp of the Scriptures, of Christian doctrine, and of the writings of the Fathers would have qualified him in a different era to have been at least the principal of a theological college, a canon theologian in a major cathedral, or even a senior postholder in the academy.
Geoffrey’s theological heroes were Austin Farrer and E.L. Mascall; alongside them (interesting, this) he had a great regard for John A. T. Robinson’s early work The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology. But if I may suggest this (declaring an interest as a member of the same trades union,) what gave Geoffrey’s approach to Christian doctrine its distinctive contours was the fact that he was, originally, a graduate in English Literature – and not just a graduate, but a successful doctoral student too. Geoffrey loved texts, and he understood that the great texts convey truth not after the manner of an instruction manual for a washing machine, but through the subtleties and resonance of language, imagery and symbol. And because (Geoffrey understood) the biblical texts form an integral part of God’s self-revelation, their governing and guiding images, metaphors and symbols are themselves part of the ‘deposit.’ They comprise essential (and not merely accidental) material which God Himself has given in order to help us grasp what it is that God has chosen to reveal to us about his nature, his purposes, and the means by which he has redeemed the world. For Geoffrey, then, the theologian’s task was never to begin with a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion,’ but always rather with the thrilling pursuit of truth as it emerged through a deep engagement with the biblical images and metaphors, and the way in which those images and metaphors are put to work in the Tradition.
For Geoffrey (as for me, as I look back on the work we did together in the early 2000s) all of this meant that the biblical and patristic language of the Fatherhood of God; of Christ, whose incarnation as a human being was fittingly and indeed necessarily in the male sex, as Bridegroom, and of the Church as Bride; and of the bishop as typon tou patros could not simply be set aside, could not be consigned to the basket marked ‘adiaphora.’ To do so would not simply be to change a detail in the story of salvation, but to change the story itself. C.S. Lewis had made this point with reference to the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood. Austin Farrer (to whose pious memory Geoffrey dedicated his 2016 book Without Precedent) taught that it is by living with, and feeding upon, the great revealed images of the Bible that we are led to knowledge of the supernatural mysteries of the Christian religion. All of this was meat and drink to Geoffrey; and, while he could be devastating in debunking the attempts of certain kinds of feminist scholars to ‘prove’ the ordination of women from fourth century mosaics, from the references to ‘Theodora Episcopa’ or from the place of Mary Magdalen in the Gospel record, it is in expounding this ‘big picture’ theology of the biblical and patristic grammar of salvation that Geoffrey’s most serious theological contribution surely lies.
As far as I know, Geoffrey’s publications in book form comprise his contribution to Consecrated Women?; a chapter in a volume published in 1996 and edited by my predecessor as Bishop of Fulham; and Without Precedent, to which I have already referred, published after Geoffrey had been received into the Roman Catholic Church. In addition, there are (literally) hundreds of articles written for this magazine, adding up to hundreds of thousands of words. One day, someone needs to go through the entirety of New Directions to compile a Geoffrey Kirk bibliography. Geoffrey was, of course, a regular contributor as the author of The Way We Live Now, a column whose traditions (and quality) are admirably maintained today by Fr Christopher Smith. Among his longer and more substantial pieces, one in particular struck me as I trawled a random sample of issues to assist with the writing of this article. It was published in January 2007 under the heading ‘Genesis of Error.’ It is a response to a piece previously submitted by the then Bishop of Bolton, David Gillett, which proposed some scripturally based arguments for the ordination of women. Two paragraphs struck me, each illustrative, I think, of Geoffrey’s ‘big picture’ engagement with the subject. The first addresses a supposed tension between catholic and evangelical adherents to the inherited position:
‘It has often been said that Anglo-Catholics, with their arguments from iconic representation and a representative priesthood are at loggerheads with Evangelicals who stress headship. Not so, of course. Leadership in the church is naturally and inevitably expressed in eucharistic presidency. The role of paterfamilias as head of table in the domestic church naturally transposes to the bishop as principal celebrant of the Eucharist in the local church and as guarantor of doctrine and order.’
The second (from which I quote only a sentence) engages with Bishop Gillet’s suggestion that the ‘trajectory of Scripture’ reveals patriarchy to be a postlapsarian development grounded in sin. Geoffrey writes:
‘Genesis 1 and 2 at least arguably present benevolent patriarchy as the natural and created state of mankind, preparing for the benevolent action of the Father when he sends his Son, the Second Adam, the Suffering Servant, to redeem all the sons and daughters of Eve.’
There, I think, we see the Geoffrey who was ‘fascinated by the nature of story’ getting to the heart of the ‘story of stories,’ the only truly true story, the story of our salvation.
I conclude not with an article written by Geoffrey, but with a sermon preached by him at Pusey House in February 2004. In that sermon, reflecting on the Pauline concept of Christ the New Adam, Geoffrey said this:
‘Jesus takes our nature out of the dust of the grave (of the earth, earthy) and exalts it to the right hand of the Father (spiritual and of the heavens.) To the particularities of a human existence – born of Mary, under the law – he gives eternal value.’
Geoffrey Kirk was nothing if not a ‘particular’ human being. As we give thanks for his life and we rejoice in the memory of wonderful times in his company, so we pray that, forgiving all his sins, God will give ‘eternal value’ to Geoffrey’s pursuit of truth and to his love for Our Lord Jesus Christ, the one eternal Son of the heavenly Father, Head and Bridegroom of the Church.
*Geoffrey Kirk, discussion of C. Booker The Seven Basic Plots (London 2004) in New Directions, April 2007
The Rt Revd Jonathan Baker is the Chairman of the Editorial Board of New Directions.