The Revd Professor W H C Frend

by Simon Tebbutt

from Signs of the Times, No. 19 - Oct 2005

It has been my privilege to have known William Frend for all of forty years, first as a distant academic and finally as a fellow priest in the Peterborough Diocese. The Times obituarist had it entirely right when he said:

"He was humbly delighted to be accepted for ordination training on retirement from academe. He was made deacon in 1982 and ordained in 1983. From 1984-90 he served as priest-in-charge of the Barnwell group of parishes in the diocese of Peterborough. He admitted that he found it difficult to get the hang of the liturgy, but he took his pastoral duties seriously and was well liked in his parishes. He expressed a genuine astonishment at finding himself expected to stand in a pulpit and guide others ('far better chaps than I am') in the Christian life."

But he had just that mixture of authority and homeliness that his people loved.

This was the period in which I came to know him and Mary more intimately. He did indeed take the pastoral side of his ministry very seriously; the confidence he had displayed in the lecture theatre seemed to desert him as a parish priest. He was hopeless with vestments and from the word go dispensed with them in whatever parish he was in. William and Douglas Feaver had been on archaeological digs together in North Africa and maintained their friendship over a long period. Douglas was the distinguished Vicar of Nottingham Parish Church, who worked at the Church Times with Ted Heath. He often told of his surprise when a letter arrived from Downing Street inviting him to be Bishop of Peterborough at just the moment when he thought he ought to be looking for a less demanding job. His joy was there for all to see; 'Purple' Feaver glowed. Glancing through the Church Times, he noticed that his old friend had been ordained in St Andrew's Cathedral. It was the first of many phone calls to distinguished old friends - repeating as best he could, the honour done to him by Ted Heath. 'William' came the crisp voice, 'I want you to take on a job which is one that you will do well - I want you to be the Rector of Barnwell - we must have someone who is someone. You see the Gloucesters live in the Castle.' William gasped. He had served 15 years in Glasgow and was homesick for Cambridge. He approached his Bishop who was shocked at the suggestion that someone with so little experience of ministry should have such an appointment. 'You shouldn't touch it with a barge pole, William.' But, explained William to me, 'It was so near Cambridge'. This I am sure was part of the explanation for his assiduousness in doing his pastoral work. Those he respected had challenged him and in his old-fashioned way he was determined to prove them wrong.

And so he did! Mary and William graciously entertained friends at their elegant rectory and on one occasion when I dined there an old friend from my leather trade days joined us. 'Simon', he said, 'William is loved by us all in the village - he and Mary have captured our hearts.' I, like William, was a late ordinand and know the challenge of coming up to scratch - there is more than a little scepticism from colleagues who have spent a lifetime serving. William wore his learning lightly - his job from now one was pastor and friend.

For over fifty years William was a member of the Modern Churchman's Union and, whilst he fully accepted women into the priestly ministry, he thought the finer points of non-sexist language were tedious and unnecessary. The title 'Churchpeople' was a change he accepted but was not enthusiastic about. His greatest and unique contribution to the Union's continuity was his Editorship of the Journal from 1963 - 1983. Churchmen and theologians of many traditions contributed serious papers for him to put into shape and then print to an informed audience. When the time came to pass over this particular jewel to Dr Tony Dyson, it was in good order.

William Frend's knowledge and erudition has guided many a Council meeting. His plea was always for us not to theorise but to go to the sources in antiquity - there and there alone could we sort out much of our theology. His sources were more inclined to the artefact rather than the document which relied on the interested body to hand it down to posterity. To him the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Nag Hammadi library containing genuine documents of the time proved all the time the need to look for the original source. His distinguished wartime record gave to him poise and certainty, which enabled him to tackle head on those who questioned the authenticity of his views. From the point of view of the Union, we had at the helm of our Journal an ecclesiastical scholar whose writings were required reading for every candidate for ordination. He was not a great conference attender but rarely missed an Annual General Meeting, to which he usually made a contribution. Bishop David Jenkins of Durham endured many attacks for his forthright views and he must have been surprised to find William Frend attacking him for his dismissal of the Christmas event as 'so much mythology'! William never went in for headlines - every argument should be sustained by evidence, David Jenkins' evidence was more hunch than fact in his opinion.

When Mary died, he lost a lot of his bounce which so endeared him to us, but to the end he remained a faithful friend to me and to the Union.

Simon Tebbutt has been a member of the MCU since the 1960s and for many years was a Council member, Trustee and Vice Chair. He is now an MCU Vice President.