History of Leicester Theological Society: 1958-1990

by James Gray MA (written in 1990)

The establishment of the Leicester Theological Society was due almost entirely to the vision, enthusiasm and pertinacity of one man. He was Frank Morton, a Methodist layman.

He began to attend lecture courses on Biblical and theological studies in the middle 1950s at Vaughan College. He surprised himself by being able to understand the lectures, and furthermore to enjoy them. He began to read widely and with great delight.

We used to walk together to the bus after some of these classes, and he talked with me about his wish to leave money in his will to establish a lectureship to bring to Leicester each year a leading Biblical scholar or a renowned theologian. But as time went on his enthusiasm turned to something more immediate. Why not establish a Theological Society in Leicester during his lifetime?

So, in 1957 and 1958, he went to see all the leading clergy and ministers in Leicester, as well as numerous non-clerical church leaders, to share his vision and to enlist their support in his project. His efforts were so successful, and the backing he received so widespread and cordial, that the Theological Society was established.

Its first meeting was held in Vaughan College on October 3rd 1958. The President for the first session was Dr R R Williams, the Bishop of Leicester; and the Inaugural Lecture was given by Canon Alan Richardson, then Professor of Christian Theology at the University of Nottingham.

During the thirty-two years since 1958 the Society has played a considerable part in the life of the Churches in and around Leicester. It has brought together leaders of the various Churches, Anglican, Free Church and Roman Catholic, men and women, clerical and lay, for the serious consideration of theological issues: biblical, historical, theological, ecumenical, not overlooking practical issues such as the communication of the faith, preaching and teaching, and the relation of theology to science and the arts.

No records of attendance have been kept. There have naturally been ups and downs; but there has always been a strong nucleus of regular members, with varying numbers of less closely attached attenders: it has never been a closed society. My impression is that attendances in recent years have matched those of the enthusiastic first years. Certainly the programmes of recent years have been as full of profound and vital theological topics, and of distinguished lecturers, as ever they were.

Much of the success of the Society has been due to the continuity provided by a nucleus of people who have given energetic leadership and dedicated service to it.

For the first fourteen years the Society met in Vaughan College, which ensured its scholarly respectability! From 1972, the Society has enjoyed the hospitality of Stoneygate Baptist Church for its meetings. Happily the intellectual fare offered has been of the same consistently high quality as before; but the warmth of our fellowship has blossomed through the generous provision of the 'tea and scones' after each meeting, which has long been a treasured tradition. For this the members of the Society owe a debt (which we never pay!) to the ladies of the Baptist Church, and to the gracious and inconspicuous supervision of Don Middleditch. The finances of the Society have benefited all these years by the generosity of the Baptist Church in not charging the Society for the use of the lounge.

From the beginning there was a small committee which planned the programmes and chose the successive Presidents. Its meetings were few, and its control was lightly exercised; its success was due to the devoted work of the officers. It is worth recalling the names of some of those who served the Society so well in its early years, a few of whom are still active survivors.

The first treasurer was Frank Morton himself. He was succeeded in 1960 by Don Middleditch, who served in that capacity for eight years; then in 1969 he became secretary, and he has occupied that office ever since. None of his colleagues will begrudge his being given special honourable mention in this brief memoir, for the Society owes more to Don than to any other single person. His benedictory presence hovers over every meeting; we have come to expect his welcome, his delight when things are going well, his paternal concern just before 7.30 p.m. if he fears the attendance is going to be 'down'! But above all, we have learnt over the years to marvel at his wide acquaintance with leading Biblical scholars and theologians, and at his skill in persuading them to come and address our not very august society.

Others who served on the committee in those early days, who thankfully are still active members, are Dr Arthur Kirkby and James Gray. Other members we remember with gratitude are Reg Cleaves and John Denman (who was treasurer since 1971), now no longer with us; Harold Lockley, and from 1971 onwards, Ray Walters. Arthur G Widdess was secretary from 1959 to 1963.

General Theological Background: 1958-1990

by Canon F R Walters

The Leicester Theological Society came into existence at the time when scholars were emerging from the domination of the Barth-Brunner controversy over the nature of revelation, and were re-discovering 'biblical theology'. This was undertaken with particular attention to semantics and gave to the writings of such scholars as William Temple the character of belonging to another generation. A new historicism associated with the work of W Dilthey, and the voice of an emergent Marxist view of life replaced the post-Hegelian idealism in spite of RG Collingwood's careful insistence on its value. The relevance of theological thinking was challenged by the analytic approach of Gilbert Ryle's Concept of Mind. Anglo-Saxon pragmatism turned to the concept analysis of AJ Ayer and Anthony Flew's God and Philosophy challenged the Psalmist's assertion that 'the fool has said in his heart, there is no God'. Ian Ramsey in his Religious Language played a leading part in the theological response by adopting the new fashion of phenomenological method and proposed 'mapping' the terrain of religious experience. Nevertheless it was clear that there was a logical 'leap' into theological discourse which became the basis of Paul Tillich's attempt to bring the then new philosophy of Existentialism into service. Tillich's Systematic Theology was the only work of note since Barth's Church Dogmatics had earned the comment of Eric Mascall that life is too short to follow German thoroughness to its last page. Helmut Gollwitzer's The Existence of God as Confessed by Faith attempted a response on the more conservative Barthian lines.

The 'bombshell' of John Robinson's Honest to God popularised the previous twenty years of academic controversy. The bastion of biblical theology, which proclaimed the Old Testament as the work book of the New was vigorously assaulted and interest was focused on the function of myth in the biblical record. John Hick explored the new meaning that this might give to inter-faith dialogue. Donald Cupitt offered to re-define the meaning of biblical concepts like salvation in ways which placed the Christian's personal devotion alongside the Hindu concept of bhakti, and M D Goulder and others in The Myth of God Incarnate claimed to set aside the uniqueness of the 'Word made flesh'. C F D Moule's The Origin of Christology gave a conservative answer to the uniqueness of Christ. Anthony Harvey, James Barr, John Macquarrie et al, in the symposium God Incarnate; Story and Belief took the middle course of an exposition of the issues giving indications as to where Christian responses might be found. Their work indicated the lack of an accepted metaphysics which alone enables such issues to be discussed. Basil Mitchell, Richard Swinburne and others have moved towards the necessity of such a theological facility, but no theologian has addressed this issue directly.

In the sphere of Old Testament studies the Society has seen the days when H H Rowley's Rediscovery of the Old Testament commanded a wide interest, and The Old Testament in Modern Study is still a definitive statement of the work of a generation of a careful historical approach to the Old Testament. Martin Noth's History of Israel began historical Israel with the Exodus. The Library of Old Testament Commentaries published by A & C Black is a monument to this work. Sigmund Mowinckel introduced in The Psalms in Israel's Worship a cultic dimension into Old Testament studies and Ludwig Kohler's Old Testament Theology was replaced by Gerhard Von Rad's Old Testament Theology and Wisdom of Israel. The Qumran texts discovered in 1947 were gradually becoming available and Roland de Vaux's Ancient Israel showed the growing presence of Roman Catholic scholarship in this field. The Nag Hammadi library texts have brought the necessity of a re-evaluation of the inter-testamentary period, providing new evidence for a more accurate delineation of Gnostic sectarianism.

New Testament studies were well resourced by British scholars such as C H Dodd and C K Barrett whose writings on the Fourth Gospel and on Pauline topics are still essential reading. Oscar Cullmann presented Christ as the focal point of time and history in his Christ and Time, and Kümmel gathered in his Introduction to the New Testament an indispensable summary of contemporary scholarship. Foundations were laid for future commentaries by G Lampe's early work on a new lexicon based on patristic and papyrus sources, the first sections of which appeared in the 1960s. Subsequently J C Dunne made his mark in Christology in the Making; a comparison with D M Baillie's God was in Christ shows what a radically different approach has been achieved. This is further illustrated by E P Sanders' Jesus and Judaism and the use of sociological methods has brought a new language into the study of the New Testament. 'Reader-response criticism', 'feminist interpretation', 'narrative theology' and 'liberation theology' are now ideas which are explained in R J Coggins and J L Houlden's Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation.

The effect of Vatican II in promoting Biblical and Patristic studies in the Roman Catholic Church brought a new source of support to the Society and Catholic scholars, such as Fergus Kerr, are found among speakers giving Christian unity and Ecumenism a new dimension. The revision of the liturgies of the Christian churches did not attract great interest, although this was a time when the liturgical study of the past hundred years was re-shaping the worship of the majority of churches. The lack of papers on this subject was in part due to the difficulty of securing authoritative people to present this subject, but Gordon Davies of Birmingham was here a notable exception.

The seventies and eighties saw a great deal of attention given to ethical, ecological and inter-faith topics, and scholars from other disciplines were invited to speak from their expertise on such issues as medical ethics, genetic experimentation and scientific responsibility for the use of natural resources. Racial harmony and social responsibility became matters of concern which would attract significant support of the Society. Stephen Clark and John Polkinghorne were among those who addressed the Society on these subjects.

There remain, however, areas of theological interest which occupy and will occupy the Society for years to come. The work of the study of the Qumran and Nag Hammadi texts and other papyri provide a source for a rich investment in the interpretation of the biblical documents. The search for a new metaphysics to enable us to speak of Divine activity in creation, the growing together of the Christian churches in the dialogue with other faiths, the working out of new forms of responsibility for our use of the natural advance of technology on our life style and values will give the Society an agenda as large as the one with which it came into being.


The two articles reproduced above are taken from James Gray. Leicester Theological Society 1958-1990, Leicester, 1990.


Speakers: 1958-1990

The Society has from the outset succeeded in gaining some of the leading scholars of the day to address its meetings. In 1990 James Gray collated from its records the names of some of the key contributors listed below. These were in addition to papers by members, and the annual lecture given by the President for the year.

1958-1959 Alan Richardson, William Neil, Eric Heaton, C F D Moule

1959-1960 H H Farmer, J K S Reid, G B Caird, I D Edwards, G W H Lampe

1960-1961 Ian Ramsey, H A Hodges, Alan Gilmore, Robert Leaney

1961-1962 Charles Raven, John Huxtable, R P C Hanson

1962-1963 Nathaniel Micklem, James Atkinson

1963-1964 F G Healey, Gordon Rupp, F W Dillistone, A S Herbert

1964-1965 Eric Fenn, C B E Cranfield

1965-1966 Ninian Smart, C Kingsley Barrett, E J Tinsley

1966-1967 C S Duthie, C F D Moule

1969-1970 R A Vidler

1970-1971 Ernest A Payne, Michael Taylor

1971-1972 HD Lewis, G Henton Davies, Paul Rowntree Clifford

1972-1973 John Hick, John Macquarrie

1974-1975 George A Appleton, formerly Archbishop in Jerusalem, Robin I Davies

1975-1976 Peter Baelz, David M Thompson, Kenneth Graystone, Basil Mitchell

1976-1977 Donald Hudson, Henry McKeating, R P C Hanson, Norman Pittenger

1977-1978 J Gordon Davies, Maurice Wiles, Michael L Gaudoin-Parker, Rex Ambler

1978-1979 H D Lewis, I P Ellis, D Z Phillips

1978-1980 Harry Morton, Don Cupitt, Michael Goulder, Fergus Kerr

1980-1981 Paul Oestreicher, David Jenkins, Andrew Morton, W H Vanstone

1981-1982 John Hick, Michael Taylor, C R Rutt (Bishop of Leicester), John A Habgood

1982-1983 Hugh Montefiore (Bishop of Birmingham), Richard Harries (then Dean of Kings College, London), R D Williams

1983-1984 John Ferguson, B L Hebblethwaite, Graham Leonard (Bishop of London)

1984-1985 John McIntyre, Colin Morris, Philip Morgan

1985-1986 Don Cupitt, George Mitchell, Frances Young (the first woman theologian to address the Society)

1986-1987 Keith Ward, David L Edwards, A R Peacocke

1987-1988 James Barr, J C Polkinghorne, Donald English, Brian Haymes

1988-1989 Dewi Phillips, Nicolas Stacey

1989-1990 R F Holloway (Bishop of Edinburgh), Richard Bauckham, David A Pailin, David E Cook

History of Leicester Theological Society: 1990 to the present day

Since James Gray wrote his reminiscences of the Society in 1990, it has continued to thrive and indeed outgrow the lounge of Stoneygate Baptist Church, moving first to the Congregational Church on London Rd, then to Christchurch in Clarendon Park Rd, and finally to Holy Cross Priory on Wellington Street/New Walk, where it currently meets. When Don Middleditch's failing health meant he reluctantly had to retire from the post of Secretary, his place was admirably filled by the Revd Alan Williams, a Methodist minister, and on his death the baton was passed to Mary Warrener of the Catholic Church, with the Baptists well represented by Roy Winter as Treasurer. One highlight of recent times was the fortieth anniversary of the Society when the Rt Rev Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Wales, gave the anniversary lecture. This was the second occasion on which he had addressed the Society, his connection with it growing from his tenure of the post of Canon Theologian at Leicester Cathedral.

Presidents Of The Society

The following list gives the Presidents of the Society from its foundation in 1958 until the present day.

1958-1959 Rev Dr R R Williams

1959-1960 Rev Dr A H Kirkby

1960-1961 Rev David Edwards

1961-1962 James Gray

1962-1963 Rev L F Bowles

1963-1964 Rev C Hughes Smith

1964-1965 Rev Cuthbert Casson

1965-1966 R J Roberts

1966-1967 Rev G D S Galilee

1967-1968 Brian Thompson

1968-1969 Rev R P Symonds

1969-1970 John Roberts

1970-1971 Rev F R Walters

1971-1972 Rev T W Allen

1972-1973 Rev D W Gundry

1973-1974 Rev R W Cleaves

1974-1975 Rev Dr R R Williams

1975-1976 Rev T W Allen

1976-1977 Rev F R Walters

1977-1978 James Gray

1978-1979 Richard Gill

1979-1980 Dr John F Butler

1980-1981 John R Baker

1981-1982 Rev Arthur W Banks

1982-1983 Rev J S Findlay

1983-1984 Oscar Wallis

1984-1985 Rev Dr C R Rutt

1985-1986 Dr Alan B Theobald

1986-1987 Rev J G Alan Williams

1987-1988 Rev Michael Drew

1988-1989 John M Denman

1989-1990 Dr Robert Norman

1990-1991 Rev Glynn Richerby

1991-1992 Mrs Angela Jagger

1992-1993 Ven T Hughie Jones

1993-1994 Rev Brian H Brookes

1994-1995 Pastor Betty Swarbrick

1995-1996 Rev Fr Fabian Radcliffe OP

1996-1997 Rev Andrew Lunn

1997-1998 Mr Howard Fitall

1998-1999 Mrs Mary Warrener

1999-2000 Dr Clifford Sharp

2000-2001 Mrs Gwyneth Little

2001-2002 Rev Martin Mitchell

2002-2003 Rev Canon Glynn Richerby

2003-2004 Rev Fr Duncan Campbell OP

2004-2005 Rev Sheila Stevenson

2005-2006 Dr Robert Norman

2006-2007 Rev Dr Alan Race

2007-2008 Rev Canon Dr Stephen Foster

2008-2009 Rev Michael C King

2009-2010 Dan McEwan

2010-2011 Elizabeth Wayne

2011-2012 Rev Canon F David Jennings

2012-2013 Rev Fr Fabian Radcliffe OP

2013-2014 Rev Michael C King

2014-2015 Richard Gill

2015-2016 Dr Angela Jagger

2016-2017 Dr Thomas Bartsch

2017-2018 Rev William F Myers

2018-2019 Rev Alan Hawker

2019-2020 Fr Matthew Jarvis OP

2020-2021 Ian Dutton