Thursday, 9 August 2012

Ruth Etchells

I was deeply saddened today to hear of the death, yesterday, of Ruth Etchells, the former Principal of St John's College Durham. Ruth inspired a generation of young people, many of whom have given their lives to the service of Christ in different ways. She preached a wonderful sermon about Esther (the only book in the Bible not to actually mention God but full of characters behind whom there is a great sense of God's activity) at Holy Trinity Cambridge in the early 1980's which I can only describe as one of the reasons I am a priest in the church today. I have so much for which to be grateful to her - in my generation, she opened our eyes to what was possible and believed we could, by the grace of God, and only by the grace of God, achieve it.

The Revd Professor David Wilkinson, present Principal of St John's College writes   

'Ruth was the first female Principal of an Anglican College and was the architect of seeing John's as a place of academic excellence coupled with an ethos of a gentle and confident Christian faith. 

'She was a person who embodied such an ethos.  Many of us were deeply influenced by her pastoral encouragement, wisdom, inspiration and life of prayer.  A gifted preacher and teacher, we were privileged that her last sermon was given as part of College Communion last year.

'We give thanks for such a rich and fruitful life and that at death she looked forward to resurrection with her Lord.

'A few years ago, [Dr] Margaret Masson and I nominated Ruth for an award from the University.  She was awarded the Chancellor's Medal for services to the University.  In what we wrote on that occasion you will get a sense of Ruth's unique contribution to St John's:

''Without Ruth Etchells' vision and tireless work, St John's may not have survived as a recognized College in Durham University.  In addition, she has been a gifted academic, a groundbreaking leader and a servant of the University beyond Durham.

''Ruth Etchells arrived in Durham in 1968 to be a lecturer in the English Department and also to be a resident tutor at Trevelyan College where she was later Vice Principal.  Her first and continuing contribution to the University was as an outstanding and inspiring teacher of undergraduates.

''For many years, she taught a groundbreaking course on Modern Drama which allowed students at the time to study cutting edge, even shocking material - it was the era of Beckett, Osborne, the emerging Pinter - and all this was new and radical within the context of Durham English.  Ruth's course gave students exciting new insights into what it meant to study English Literature and in particular, ways in which it might have something to say about issues of ultimate meaning in their own lives and culture.  Derived from her teaching, Etchell's popular book, "Unafraid to Be" was influential on a whole generation of students across the land and was one of the early catalysts to the emerging discipline of Theology and Literature.  She influenced countless students to continue this kind of cross disciplinary exploration and engagement with contemporary culture; some of them in turn went on to become influential figures in their own right.

''Influential, inspiring and groundbreaking though she was as a teacher, Ruth's key contribution to the University was in her ten year Principalship of St John's College between 1979 and 1989.  When Ruth took up this appointment in January 1979, it seemed like a risky and courageous choice.

''It was unexpected in a number of ways: Ruth was a lay person taking on the leadership of a college which was responsible for training clergy.  Her discipline was English Literature, not Theology.  And she was a woman - the first female Principal of a Church of England Theological College and at a time when the Church did not ordain women to the priesthood.  The college had only started admitting women as students five year previously.

''There is no doubting that Ruth's dynamic leadership established St John's as a flourishing modern college respected in both University and Church.  But her most exceptional contribution has probably been the fruit of her remarkable personal and pastoral skills, her perceptive ability to read people as well as she read her beloved literature and her capacity to inspire others to see even the most mundane as ablaze with meaning.  Her sometimes uncanny prescience about people was always accompanied by a kindness and humanity and a sureness of touch that helped to restore perspective and hope.  Confidante of shy undergraduates and Prince Bishops of the church alike; wise, forgiving, humane, and utterly confidential - Ruth continues to be a much valued advisor long after she has retired.

''Ruth's was one of the leading lay members of her time of the Church of England.  She served most significantly, on the Crown Appointments Committee, using all her political, personal and spiritual skills to help shape the Church of England through the eighties and nineties. 

''In retirement, Ruth has served on a number of significant national and local committees, continuing to serve both Church and local community wherever she could.  She has also continued to write, most notably publishing a number of volumes of prayers. She also took up a new craft: working in stained glass.

''She has excelled in this new medium and her works continue to be in demand around Durham and further afield.

''Uncompromising yet deeply human, utterly serious yet with wonderful taste for the absurd, Ruth Etchells is a remarkable woman whose leadership and life has made an indelible impression on countless individuals and as well as on one small but much loved college in Durham.''

Thank you to Dr Margaret Masson and Professor David Wilkinson for those words of tribute which bring Ruth so vividly to mind. Margaret's address at the time of the award of the Chancellor's Medal to Ruth in 2010 can be read at

Ruth was a poet, so I will end with her own words which, like her, gently challenge us to think differently.

The Ballad of the Judas Tree

In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever haning on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
"It was for this I came" he said
"And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept
In three days' time I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell"
So when we all condemned him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first

© D. Ruth Etchells

1 comment:

  1. I'm one of those individuals whom Ruth influenced.She has given me almost fiftyyears of support, friendship and inspiration. I owe her more than I can say.Jackie Wilkin