John Fenton

Rob Gallagher remembers an occasion at his theological college:

I had a tutor, John Fenton, at St Chad’s College Durham, who turned me up-side down. He used to regale us for our second-hand essays copied from the books who would say to us, “I know St Paul believes this, but I don’t believe you believe it. What do you believe?” We had fellow student-priests in tears, ‘losing their faith’. We began to think of petitions to remove him, for not telling us what to think, what to do. One day of tension and frustration, John was sat opposite me in such a ‘tormented’ group, asking us – asking me – ‘Why have you come here? Why have you come to this college?’ I was humiliated. All I could think of, was ‘for the power’, ‘to pull the women’, ‘to dress up’. What blurted out before thinking, was, ‘I think the only reason I’m here is, that after Robin Hood, Jesus was my hero!’ A big smile spread across John Fenton’s face, and he said, “At last! We’re getting somewhere.”… and walked out of the room. Left to ourselves, we all began to share the ‘skeletons in our cupboards’, our poverty of ideas, seeds of our own thoughts, and we became a ‘college’, a community of thought.

Good for John Fenton. The tragedy is that many religious training colleges positively train people not to think for themselves. Then they become – or at least try to be – clones of each other. Perhaps people who want to be told what to think should be asked to accept that thinking isn’t their strong point. There are other things to do in life. They might even be good priests – but not teachers or preachers.Recently a few people, noticing my opinions expressed in certain parts of the internet, have decided to enter into communication with me. They sound to me like conservative evangelicals. Since I believe that serious, listening dialogue between people from different traditions is important and should be encouraged, I’m prepared to spend some time on it. However it must be genuine dialogue, attempting to understand each other’s points of view. I’m not interested in being ranted at. Here are some samples:

I’m sure Jesus, the God who became flesh, would still be weeping over your naturalistic presuppositions, and declaring ‘there are none so blind as those who cannot see’!
The hope is that as Paul became the man who could write of the church and the christian in the divine categories he did in his glorious sentence in Ephesians 1.3-14, so you too might escape from your earthly heritage and vision.
I’m trying to listen to what He said while you have stopped your ears to the very concept of divine revelation.
I am not denouncing you for having views different from mine, but for seeking to encourage all who would read your material to have views different from Jesus Himself and His Heavenly Father.
The Bible does not give us any option regarding Jesus Christ. Either He was misguided, or a fraud or He was indeed the Son of God. IMO if you believe either of the first two options you shouldn’t be in a position of authority in the Church.

You get the idea. Don’t think, just accept. Why? These people seem to think they know exactly what Jesus thought and what God thinks. How have they achieved this superhuman feat? By reading the Bible. This works if two things are true:

  1. the Bible expresses exactly what God thinks;
  2. there are no problems of interpretation.

Both would have to be true, but anyone who has studied the Bible well enough to have a grasp of its variety knows that neither is true. Nevertheless it’s a popular idea in some circles. The desire for a sense of certainty is often strong. People who are attracted to it usually do not want the hard slog of developing an expertise. A rule book with the exact answers looks attractive.

You wouldn’t want your car repaired by someone whose only knowledge of cars is reading one book on car maintenance, however many pages it has. You wouldn’t want to be operated on by someone whose only claim to be a surgeon is reading one book, still less a book nearly two thousand years old.

If it matters about God and how we relate to God, John Fenton was a better guide. Alan Wilson has a brief obituary of him here.