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The Revd Dr Barrington Raymond White

An address by the Revd Professor Paul S. Fiddes at Dr White's Thanksgiving Service, New Road Baptist Church Oxford, 28 November 2016

 

Barrington White Dear Friends — 44 years ago I stood with Dr Barrie White on this very spot in New Road Baptist Church, to begin a new chapter in the story of Regent’s Park College.

He was being inducted as the 12th Principal of the College, a Baptist minister and college tutor who had already made a mark on the world of scholarship with his ground-breaking book on The English Separatist Tradition, and who had made more than a mark, a huge Barrie-shaped dent, on the life of Baptist churches far and wide.

It was no secret that a large Baptist seminary in the USA wanted him badly as their Professor of Church History. But he had turned down the invitation when Regent’s called him to serve it, as he was to do superbly for the next 17 years.

And I was standing with him that day in October 1972 because I was also being inducted into Regent’s as the youngest member of staff, a Junior Research Fellow. It was his idea to have a joint induction service, senior and junior together. He wanted to share what was a historic moment for himself and the college with the youngest, newest arrival on the scene. It was an act typical of Barrie’s generosity and his gift of encouragement to others, and it was also a sign of his vision to build a real community in Regent’s, not just a place where everyone fulfilled their own individual function and pursued their own goals.

He had been tutor in Church History for the previous five years at Regent’s before becoming Principal that day and he had come to the conclusion that community was what was badly needed. So he set out to make it by a variety of means. The first sign that a new era had dawned was the including of wives of tutors and students at meals in college – they were all wives in those days – and Margaret underlined this new making of fellowship by creating the Partners’ Group. When the university offered the possibility of going co-educational a couple of years afterwards Barrie grasped it immediately.

The first major task to be tackled was the formation of Baptist ministers, and he wasn’t satisfied by the existing situation of just adding in a few lectures about pastoral practice to a theological timetable. He had a vision of ministers being formed in community together, facing the challenges of ministry together, with a proper programme to enable them to do so. He straight away lured a retired, experienced Baptist minister from Cambridge, Arthur Jestice, to be an unpaid tutor in pastoral studies (Barrie was always very convincing), and then later launched a campaign to appoint and pay for a full-time person.

During his first few years Barrie also realised that community meant families living together in college, not dispersed all over Oxford, and Gould and Angus House rose from the site where there had been before a rather dilapidated garage. Later Barrie was to carry the same vision through to the South East Corner on St Giles. On both sites there was also to be a tutor’s house, so that the Principal and up to three tutors could be living with the student community, and especially with families of ministerial students.

Barrie set about raising money for these projects, mainly from the churches, heedless of discouraging voices. So successful was he in this, and in attracting ministerial students of all ages, with their families, that the chapel was bulging at the seams by the 1980s and he was seriously thinking of extending it out over the quadrangle on stilts – or perhaps the more ecclesiastical word would be cloisters.

Times and needs have changed, of course. Ministerial students are now mainly formed through a church base where they live. Single undergraduate students enjoy the accommodation originally planned for families. But I firmly believe that the spirit of community in Regent’s, which our students constantly remark upon, remains as a gift from Barrie. He wove it into the very fabric and stones of the place. It is still there as a shaping force; it’s the presence of Barrie, even more potent than his portrait or his name carved in golden letters into the Principal’s Board.

At the same he set about expanding undergraduate numbers, again with a clear vision of what he was doing. He explained over and over again that he wanted lay men and women in the churches to be formed as Christian people and Christian leaders by being part of the Regent’s community. The church needed not only trained ministers but able lay-leaders, and he thought Regent’s was the place where this could happen. And let’s add that while this was his particular concern, he was also deliberately creating a community where all were welcome, regardless of their faith and world view, and that spirit has certainly persisted into the present day.

And then there was the community that Barrie created among the tutors themselves. I look back on the years of his principalship as a quite wonderful time of shared friendship and common aims. Barrie was the centre of this and built a team which was as much founded on laughter as on praying together in the daily chapel services he originated. I recall that when Rex Mason was appointed as Old Testament Tutor, Ernest Payne made the only joke I ever heard him make. This eminent Baptist, former President of the World Council of Churches and – by the way – former Dean of Regent’s, pretended to object to Rex’s appointment in the College Council. His grounds, he said, were that with Barrie and Rex in the same SCR there would be so much laughter that no work would ever get done.

I’m glad to say that we had the humour and the work. It’s true that many of our American visitors, dining with us on a Friday night when Barrie held court in the SCR did not always get the joke, and would seriously report back to their seminaries that Regent’s was all right because the Principal constantly referred to himself as a simple bible-believing Christian.

Barrie was, of course, devoted to Scripture, though ‘simple’ might have been stretching things a bit. Barrie was out of college preaching somewhere nearly every Sunday and was greatly in demand. It was said of a famous American conductor that he created an earthquake on the podium, and Barrie created an earthquake in the pulpit, in customary Reformed garb of gown, collar and bands, whether in college chapel or the wider churches. He was a big man – physically, yes, but big also in personality and spirituality. Everyone who met Barrie felt it was a significant moment for them, and people still tell me stories about it years afterwards.

And he had a similar impact on his research students as he created a community of learning in Regent’s. A whole generation of Baptist research students from the USA in particular owe their doctorates and their careers to Barrie, as he motivated them and passed to them his scrupulous care for detail and for truth in scholarship. One of them (R.T. Kendall) wrote to me just this week: “I have long been convinced he was literally the only person at Oxford who could have got me through a successful completion of my degree. I am eternally thankful to God for him”.

And then this former student adds:

“During the darkest hour in my pastorate I turned first to him. I will never forget it. When he prayed for me that day he got down on his knees, knowing of my deep hurt. I will never forget that.”


Barrie was deeply respected in the Faculty of Theology here in Oxford, which called him for a period to be the Chairman of its Board. He gave Regent’s a firm place in the life of the University. More, he made the subject of 17th-century Baptist studies an accepted academic subject in a traditionally Anglican University, no mean feat, rooting Baptist beginnings in the wider English Reformation. For this he had a world-wide academic reputation.

While Principal, he published a series of cutting-edge research articles, as well as a small book on English Baptist history. He had aimed to write more substantial books when he had laid down the weight of the Principalship and had more time for his own work. With the onset of his illness this was, sadly, not to be, but for a year he went back to teaching church history to undergraduate students with a grace, a joyousness and a typical humility. 

Let me make an academic judgement: whenever Baptist scholars today place Baptist life in the context of the whole church of God – what Barrie called ‘the Great Church’ – and whenever they contest the view of Baptists as a narrow, sectarian group, this is largely due to the influence of Barrie among Baptists in many countries. They may not know it, but he created an earthquake in Baptist studies as much as in his preaching of the Word.

I am so grateful to have been asked to talk on this day of sadness and thanksgiving about Barrie’s part in the story of Regent’s. I thank God for the waves of disturbance that Barrie created around him, unsettling mere habit with his sharp humour and shrewd insight. And I thank God for his pastoral care that made him one of the very greatest scholar-ministers of the 20th century.


The Revd Professor Paul S. Fiddes is Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Oxford, and Director of Research, Regent's Park College, Oxford

See also:
Tributes to leading Baptist historian
The Revd Dr Barrington (Barrie) White - an obituary

 

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