In memoriam Colin Gunton
Andy Goodliff’s post this morning reminded me that it was ten years ago today that Colin Gunton died.
I remember snapshots of that day vividly. It was a Tuesday, the day of the Research Institute in Systematic Theology seminar at King’s College London. Jenny Gunton phoned me, apologetically, about 10.30 – Colin was ill, would not be in – she’d tried to leave a message with the admin staff, but they seemed not to be answering their phones. A stomach bug, she said, but she was obviously a little concerned – a serious stomach bug, at least.
Colin had shown no trace of illness – he had flown in from lecturing in the States the Thursday before, taken part in a RIST day conference on Polanyi (if memory serves) on the Friday, preached that Sunday in his home church in Brentford – Colin always packed more into a week than most of us can contemplate for a month…
Then another phone call, that evening at home. From Shirley, a good friend, one of Colin’s students, given the task by Jenny. ‘It’s Colin…’ she said. I could hear something in her voice. ‘Is he alright?’ ‘Steve – he’s dead!’ That sudden.
The next morning I broke the news – very badly; I remain sorry – to our Head of Department, and, with our other colleague Murray Rae, we began to plan how to move forward. But Colin had been my doktorvater, my mentor, a colleague for six years, a close friend, an endless inspiration – there has, simply, been a hole in my life, personal and professional, ever since. Inevitably, Murray and I both soon left Kings – with no disrespect to anything or anyone there; certainly none to Oliver Davies, who took Colin’s chair – walking those corridors, sitting in Seminar Room 2E, without Colin seemed – seems still, to me – too painful to contemplate.
Colin was the most intellectually able British theologian of his generation by some distance; this judgement seems to me simply incontrovertible. Many others were more politically-skilled and so prospered better in the university environment; some had better judgement on what and when to publish and so produced a more even corpus of work; a few – not many, if any! – might have had a better grasp of the breadth and the detail of the theological tradition; but in terms of sheer theological ability, Colin comfortably outstripped them – us – all.
He had the capacity to inspire intense personal loyalty amongst those of us who knew him well. Others seemingly respected him and tolerated him whilst being somewhat amused by his eccentricities, but for many of us there was nothing we would not have done for him. His own loyalties – to his friends, to his present and former students, to his theological heroes (and indeed to his favourite restaurant) – were just as strong; his dislikes, particularly his theological dislikes, were almost as powerful. Colin saw the theological world, past and present, very much in black and white.
Two particular things I gained from Colin are worthy of mention. First, a sense of joy in the possibilities of the discipline of theology: the intellectual work is hard, and is also important, but there is more than that: Colin attributed it to Barth, and it is certainly there, but he appropriated it more than any other Barth scholar I have met: theology done properly must be cheerful work. How can we speak (read; write) of God’s infinite grace poured out without limit in the gift of Jesus Christ, and not find our hearts warmed, our sorrows comforted, our failures rendered into proper perspective? How can we not be basically joyful, if to do this is our life’s work?
Second, a belief that theology belongs – not just to the church, but to the churches. Colin and I came from traditions that differed on baptism, but were joined by a commitment to congregationalist ecclesiology: it is the local, gathered, congregation that is (in John Smyth’s words) ‘the chief and principal part of the gospel’. The theologian cannot do his/her work without being seriously committed to a particular local fellowship, with all its eccentricities, peculiarities, joys, and frustrations. Too much theology, still, regards the churches as embarrassing, and tries to proceed by cruising 30 000 feet above their messy lives. It was from Colin that I learned that this can never be right.
What is his legacy for the discipline? The books and articles, of course; Colin will go on being read. I suspect however that the students he inspired might, in the final analysis, be the greater legacy: across the world, there are students of Colin’s teaching the next generation of pastors and theologians. He poured his life into ours, and inspired us with his vision; what we give to our students, so often, we owe first to Colin.
Three quotations to close. The first, from a book he gave me a few months before he died, a book I have cause still to refer to every couple of months. On the half-title page he wrote ‘To Steve, friend and fellow-theologian; I hope we will have many opportunities to talk about these subjects in the years to come. Colin.’ That unfulfilled hope still hurts, each time I pick up the book, and between.
Second, a memory of a choral performance; Colin and Jenny had been singing; afterwards, we got to discussing Requiems, and Colin extravagantly praised Brahms’s. His argument was theological: Brahms chose Biblical texts, not the Latin mass, and chose well; in particular, the choice of ‘I heard a voice say unto me, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord’ was, in Colin’s mind, exactly right for a Christian funeral liturgy.
Third, the last words Colin ever sent to be published, in his book Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The typescript came to me soon after his death – the publishers had mangled the Greek quotations and wanted to know if I could reconstruct them; they also asked for a foreword. I read it, sometimes crying as I recalled vividly him giving this or that chapter as a paper somewhere; as I reached the last page I discovered that Colin’s writing career ended with the words ‘the sure hope of the resurrection of the dead.’
Today I remember a great man, a great friend, our greatest theologian – and I remember with sadness, of course. But I also remember with rejoicing in the faithfulness of God revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord, and with serious, but cheerful, hoping and longing for the coming Kingdom. To do otherwise would be to be unfaithful to Colin’s memory.