Lesslie Newbigin

He Swung the Lamp of Resurrection

'When he dropped a name, it was always the name of Jesus.' At Lesslie Newbigin's funeral on 7th February, Rev Dr Dan Beeby gave the following address…

Because I was brought up as an English Presbyterian, it seems I can hardly remember a time when I didn't know Lesslie as a legend, but we first made contact in 1965 when our two sons conjointly had a difference of opinion with their headmaster and were not welcome in the school for a spell. Lesslie and Helen were in Geneva, my wife was in Taiwan, I was in New York, and the next day was my doctoral oral. When I was farewelled on retirement in 1986, Lesslie read out my letter. He had kept the letter.

Where does our thanksgiving begin? Lesslie would have us begin with God, and for Helen, greatly loved and greatly loving. What other retiring bishop's wife would, with two suitcases and a rucksack, have taken a bus from Madras to Bromley? Need I say more?

We give thanks for a man of prayer. When he asked you how you were, you knew it was a prayer-backed question.

Thanks for Lesslie as Bible expositor. Why is his commentary on John so little referred to? For Lesslie as theologian. One of his biographers sees him as one of a handful of the outstanding Christian thinkers of the 20th century.

For Lesslie the missionary statesman who was first a missionary, the missiologist who took his missionary thinking into his theology, his epistemology, his political and social thinking and his limericks.

For Lesslie, the brilliant, rapid writer – The Other Side of 1984 was written in just over a week. For the world-famous preacher, perhaps happiest in an Indian village and in Winson Green. As Presbyterian bishop, as teacher, as raconteur – 'Did you ever hear the one about John Baillie and Karl Barth?'

As speaker to children. Not too long ago, some children in Selly Oak were helped to see the world upside down when the aged bishop stood on his head! Not a single one of his many doctorates or his CBE fell out of his pockets. His episcopacy was intact.

As spell-binding lecturer on many topics, often with the same great themes, but always you heard them for the first time.

As traveller, fearful of wasting a minute. He wasn't often late, but sometimes, like Waterloo, it was a damned close thing.

As ecumenical prophet bearing the cares of all the churches on his soul.

As ecclesiastical civil servant, wanting to be in a pulpit or preaching in a street.

Lesslie's identification with India gave him a deep understanding of its religious faiths. This, and his total commitment to Christ, produced a contribution to interfaith dialogue which cannot be ignored. As on so many major issues, agree or disagree, approve or disapprove, you have to face him. There is no honest way round. We disagreed on two things: how long it took to the railway station or the airport. And we never discussed Margaret Thatcher.

Some of us are tolerant because we have so much to tolerate in ourselves: a sin-based tolerance that sometimes tolerates the intolerable. Lesslie's tolerance was cruciform, giving him a sterness in his mercy. He could afford to be severe, but the severity was healing.

He couldn't say 'no' to any opportunity to serve, writing numerous introductions to other people's books and covering the globe to lecture, preach, broadcast and debate. He knew everybody and talked easily with the great, but easiest with the humble, poor and lost. When he dropped a name, it was always the name of Jesus.

Like Barth, he could sum up his theology in 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.' I have often puzzled over how the knowledgeable St Paul could say he knew only one thing – 'Jesus Christ and him crucified' – and have often thought that the Christian life is the endeavour to fathom that text. Lesslie helps me immensely. Able to write and lecture on so many subjects and always with illumination, the heart of it all was so very simple: Jesus, Lord and Saviour; Jesus true; Jesus public truth; Jesus universal truth; Jesus the Truth with the Father and the Spirit.

To know Lesslie was to live in the light of the resurrection and to enable us today to say 'goodbye' with the full assurance that God is with him and he with God. We are allowed to be sorry for ourselves – the family for a wonderful husband, father and grandfather, some of us for a mentor, a colleague and friend; all of us for an exceptional man – but we are not allowed to be sorry for Lesslie.

We know (and of course all knowing begins with faith) that he is having the time of his new life. He basks in the light of the true Enlightenment. His mansion in his Father's house is crowded. He's probably already met Joe Oldham and Archie Craig, Robert Macky, Visser t'hooft, Polanyi and, of course, Augustine. Now he is being measured for his debating armour in case Descartes, Locke and Kant are there.

Perhaps now is the time for us to take up arms. The agenda is still unfinished, but Lesslie has written his last chapter and the succeeding ones are ours to write. We have a new vocation.

Lesslie never touched anything that he did not adorn, illuminate and advance. His influence before 1983 was enormous, but with The Other Side of 1984 and its successors, I believe there was something totally new, with long roots, but new: a new mission for a new cultural situation. A new analysis, new eyes for us to see with, an old faith renewed and a new and proper confidence born. In a faltering age with hope run low, he swung the lamp of resurrection over increasing gloom.

We can no longer leave it to Lesslie; his farewell is also a call, almost a command. Our agenda; things to be done.

Rev Dr H. Dan Beeby is Consultant to the Bible Society.

Funeral Address ¦ Andrew Walker ¦ Iwan Russell-Jones ¦ Interview with Lesslie Newbigin ¦ Resources and Links

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