Fri 23 March 2018

Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901)

Thursday 27 July

Bishop Westcott just squeezes into this series on leading church figures of the twentieth century. He died on July 27th 1901 after a long and varied career in academic and ecclesiastical circles. He was born in Birmingham, obtained a double first at Cambridge in mathematics and classics and was ordained priest in 1849. He spent seventeen years teaching at Harrow School where weakness in class control reduced his effectiveness as a schoolmaster. Perhaps it was a relief for him to become a Canon of Peterborough Cathedral followed, in 1870, by election as Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.

His years at Cambridge enabled him to extend and deepen his studies of the Bible and particularly of the New Testament and he was a major influence on the publication of the Revised Version of the Bible in 1881. He believed it right to have a scientific approach to Bible study so that detailed investigation into ancient texts would produce an improved understanding of the scriptures. This was very significant for a generation coming to terms with the impact of Darwin's theories of evolution on the previously accepted Authorised Version of the beginnings of the world.

Westcott's profound influence on the way Biblical studies should be pursued affected the training of ordinands which, in turn, led to the founding of the Cambridge Clergy Training School, later re-named Westcott House. But Westcott was not to be allowed to end his days contentedly in his professorial chair for, in 1890, at the age of 65, he was consecrated Bishop of Durham. Some doubted that an intellectual from such a previously sheltered academic environment could be an effective bishop in a diocese containing so much heavy industry and commerce.

Indeed, few of his congregations in the mining communities of Durham could follow the involved and obscure themes of his sermons and yet they came to love him. This was because he immediately absorbed himself in the practical problems of everyday living and he was determined that the Church should face up to current social and economic problems.

In 1892, he personally called together both sides in a bitter dispute in the Durham coalfield and persuaded them to accept a solution to their difficulties. He staunchly supported the Co-operative movement and was a champion of the Christian Social Union. Through his theological studies and writings, Bishop Westcott made a huge contribution to our understanding of the New Testament and, particularly to that of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. But any understanding of the Gospel was only of value to Westcott if it was also applied to the challenges of this earthly life.

This was the example he set through his humility, his wisdom and his genuine love for his fellow human beings. 'The humanest and kindliest of men' was how one of his Durham parish priests described him.

Richard Allen