Austin Farrer, a name probably unfamiliar to most Americans, has been described by Richard Harries (bishop of Oxford, and a leading authority on both Farrer and C. S. Lewis) as the greatest mind produced by the Church of England in this century. Harries’ judgment is not far from the mark.
Farrer was renowned as a philosophical theologian and in this capacity produced the incredibly abstruse Finite and Infinite. He was also a scholar of the New Testament and in his book St. Matthew and St. Mark1 defended the unfashionable view that Matthew had been written before Mark. In addition to being a philosophical theologian and a New Testament scholar, Farrer was also a great preacher.
Born in 1904, Farrer was the son of Augustus Farrer, a lecturer in church history at Regent’s Park College in London. Regent’s Park College is a Baptist theological college which subsequently moved to Oxford. As a student at the prestigious St. Paul’s School in London, Farrer was early recognized as a brilliant student. In 1925, he “went up” to Oxford, where his early promise of academic achievement was realized in three first class degrees: in Classical Moderations, “Greats” (Arts and Letters), and Theology.
It was also at Oxford where Farrer made the most important decision of his life. Although raised in a staunchly Baptist family, when he matriculated at Oxford Farrer was not yet a member of any church. Oxford in the 1920s was hardly a place congenial to Baptists and other Nonconformists, and Farrer found himself inexorably drawn into the Church of England. In May of 1924, Farrer was baptized and confirmed in the Latin Chapel of Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral.
Unlike his near-contemporary C. S. Lewis, Farrer did not experience a dramatic conversion from atheism to theism to Christianity; the choice for him seems never to have been belief or disbelief in God. Rather, Farrer had to decide in which church he could best serve God. Although he never wrote of his decision to join the Church of England, years later his sermon, “On Being an Anglican,” does illuminate the decision of his college days:
We are Anglicans not because of the psalms or the poetry of George Herbert or the cathedral, but because we can obey God here. The Church mediates Christ. To be a loyal churchman is hobbyism or prejudice unless it is the way to be a loyal Christian — to see through the Church to Christ as a man sees through the telescope to the stars.2
In due course, Farrer was ordained a deacon (1928) and priest (1929) of the Church of England. After a year of parish work in northern England, Farrer returned to Oxford to become chaplain and tutor in St. Edmund Hall (1931-35). Further and more prestigious academic appointments were to follow, and he went on to become chaplain of Trinity College (1935-60) and, finally, Warden of Keble College (1960-68).
Farrer the pastor was never completely submerged in Farrer the theologian. Friends and students, recalling his years as an Oxford don, consistently note his faithfulness as a priest of the Church of England. One of his students from St. Edmund Hall writes:
[In chapel] this most self-forgetful of men seemed to clothe himself in a new authority as he entered and took us with him into the heart of the mystery. Obedient to the Prayer Book, he never failed to give us a two-minute homily after the Creed: these paragraphs might at first put a strain on our unbreakfasted intellects, but as our ears accustomed themselves to that fastidious prose, we came to sense and eventually to share his love and understanding of the Eucharist.3
Years later, in Keble College’s enormous barn-like chapel, Farrer the Warden, a small man, had difficulty projecting loudly enough to be heard. The students referred to him as the “Happy Wanderer” when he lost his place while conducting services from the Book of Common Prayer. Even at the height of his career, Farrer found time to prepare students for confirmation. One student, troubled by doubts about Christian doctrine, received a note from Farrer which read, “Don’t worry.” The student wrote, “The Warden never imposed his views on me, but listened with patience and treated me as an equal….”4
Farrer died shortly after Christmas in 1968. His last sermon, broadcast on the BBC on December 22, was entitled “The Ultimate Hope.” The funeral, conducted by the bishop of Oxford, was held on January 1, 1969. A former student attending the funeral recalled a line from one of Farrer’s books: “… to grow up is good, but to die is better — provided we die right.”5
Until his death, Farrer preached often in the chapels of Trinity College and Keble College. Judging from the number of his published sermons, he seems to have had few free Sundays. The principal sources of Farrer’s sermons are four collections: Said or Sung?, published in the U.S. as A Faith of Our Own (1960), A Celebration of Faith (1972), The Brink of Mystery (1976), and The End of Man (1976).
The marks of a philosophical theologian and a Bible scholar are unmistakable in his sermons, but his learning is never intrusive. There is hardly a citation from the original Greek, much less learned remarks on the unity of God. Farrer’s sermons are never scholarly exegeses and seldom address current affairs. (One sermon begins, “Perhaps you are all set to hear a terrific sermon about the state of world affairs. If so, you are doomed to disappointment.”6 Rather, Farrer’s sermons are intended, in the words of a friend’s preface to a volume of Farrer’s sermons, “to help its hearers to know God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly.”7
Two features consistently stand out in Farrer’s sermons. First, in his sermons Farrer gave new life to images, both biblical and every-day, much as he believed the writers of the New Testament had done. Second, he preached a consistent theology of grace and resurrection.
Farrer was a keen observer and took inspiration from the unlikeliest sources. One sermon begins, “In the year of grace 1929 … I dropped my spoon into my soup.”8 Thus began “Responsibility for Friends.” One of my favorites among Farrer’s sermons took its cue from the motto of a van parked in front of Farrer’s college: “Crosses and wreathes made to order.”9 That would have started the wheels turning in the mind of any preacher, but perhaps only Farrer would have applied it to Mark 8:34 in such a striking way. Like the poet-prophets of the New Testament whom he admired so much, Farrer seems to have abandoned himself to the images:
… God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts and He prepares for man such good things as pass man’s understanding. … It becomes painfully obvious that our crosses will never deserve our crowns. If you want to see a wreath and a cross to match it, you must go as far as the empty sepulcher outside Jerusalem…. Look closely at this cross and there you shall see, like a little jewel laid over the intersection of its arms, whatever cross you have faithfully borne for God’s sake. Alone, it would not be measurable against the glorious cross, but the great arms of Christ’s cross extend the spread of yours and fit it to the heavenly scale.10
Because Farrer’s imagination was so fertile, it is somewhat easier to see why he attributed such imagination to the writers of the Revelation and Mark’s Gospel.
Farrer was not a preacher who drew his primary inspiration from secular images. Though most of his sermons do not give the particular text from which he preached, many of them do. “Spirit and Form” is based on 2 Kings 4:2, the story of Elisha, the widow, and the inexhaustible supply of oil. Farrer was a High Church Anglican with the warm-hearted piety of an Evangelical or Methodist. Preaching to 2 Kings 4:2, he used it to question the validity of ceremony.
… the elaboration of ceremonies creates in my mind spiritual disquiet, which reaches its most acute when I find myself called upon … to rehearse something like a pontifical high mass. Here the intricate and absolutely dead etiquette of old Constantinople is draped around the supper of the Lord … before I know what I am doing I am asking myself whether fixed forms of any kind can really be the vehicle of God’s Spirit … 11
The application of the story of Elisha and the widow’s vessel of oil is obvious: the forms and liturgies through which we worship are only valuable if God pours life into them. However, Farrer does not rest with these remarks on public worship. He goes on to show that public worship is only the means to the end that we make God’s grace visible in the world. Farrer says that the true worshipper comes to the forms, rites, and ceremonies, and says: “Why did I come to be mended, except that I might hold the Holy Ghost? … Show me the prayers, the deeds, that follow from it!”12
In “Wise Fools,” the sermon on Amos, Farrer made one of the profoundest theological points in any of his sermons. The epistle which must have been read along with the Old Testament text of Amos was 1 Corinthians 1:20-25. Farrer, speaking to a university congregation, asked if St. Paul’s and Amos’ elevation of simplicity and even foolishness meant that the pursuit of knowledge and the cultivation of the intellect were all in vain. He denied that:
What is our perplexity? Is it not that the sphere of science and cool rational wisdom claims to embrace the whole world, and there appears no room left for the sphere of faith? … It is in his potato-patch that the crofter [farmer] is called to be a prophet and a martyr. So the province of faith, and the province of scientific reason, appear to cover one another completely.13
Reason and faith are not in conflict, because although they inhabit the same physical space, they are concerned with different realms of time: When God called Amos “what province did God claim as the area in which His creative and redemptive power would move unconfined? … the future … God’s salvation, from now to eternity, from here to Paradise, is all our future, but the world of scientific enquiry is always the past.”14 Farrer’s sermon about simple Amos and wise Paul who discounted his learning moved from a consideration of the conflict between reason and faith to an affirmation of the grace of God who justifies us: “Christ banishes the shadow with His immortal light and calls us into a future which is simply His.”15
Farrer’s sermons were sometimes influenced by his New Testament studies. “St. Mark,” a sermon which must have been preached on the feast of St. Mark, contains some of his most perceptive remarks on the theology of Mark’s Gospel: “Shall we reduce St. Mark’s Gospel to three lines?
God gives you everything.
Give everything to God.
You can’t.
True, there is a fourth line: Christ will make you able, for He has risen from the dead.”16 What Farrer meant by his three line formula is that the pattern in Mark’s Gospel is three-fold. First, Christ’s healings and works of power are recounted. Second, Christ teaches about suffering and sacrifice. Third, there is the disciples’ abandonment of Christ, of which the most dramatic incident is Peter’s denial:
Perhaps the Mark of the gospel was the John Mark of Acts after all. And perhaps all this emphasis on desertion, running away, the failure of good intentions has something to do with that most painful text in the Book of Acts: “Barnabas wished to take John called Mark with them; but Paul thought it not well to take with them him who had turned back from them in Pamphylia, and not gone with them to the work.”17
Another remarkable feature of Farrer’s sermons is the consistency of his theology. Although he never wrote a systematic theology, one could reconstruct one just from his sermons. What is most distinctive about the theology Farrer preached is his unification of two basis Christian themes: resurrection and grace. Farrer seems to have brought together patristic Greek theology and the characteristic theology of the Reformation.
For Farrer, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was (and is) the paradigmatic example and the source of grace. Christ’s resurrection frees us not only from death but also from the deadly power of the temptation to construct our own salvation.
For example, in Farrer’s sermon “Sabbath and Sunday,” he wrote: “Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, before anyone had done a stroke of work or acquired a jot of merit, He rose from the sepulchre, bringing new life to His disciples.” But I think the best statement is in “St. Mark” which I have already cited: “… Christ will make you able, for he has risen from the dead.”
In Mark, Farrer found the message of grace which Luther and Calvin located primarily in Paul. In the darkest portrayal of the Resurrection, Farrer found the gleam of the Bible’s great Good News: Christ’s resurrection shattered the power of the Law by which sin and death had bound us.
1. Austin Farrer, St. Matthew and St. Mark, 2nd ed. (Dacre Press, 1966).
2. Quoted in Philip Curtis, A Hawk Among Sparrows, (London: SPCK, 1982), p. 24. NB: This is the only biography of Farrer, and I have drawn on it for these details of Farrer’s life.
3. Ibid, p. 130.
4. Ibid, p. 163.
5. Ibid, p. 231.
6. Austin Farrer, The Brink of Mystery, ed. Charles Conti (London: SPCK, 1976), p. 1.
7. Farrer, The End of Man, ed. Charles Conti (London: SPCK, 1973), p. ix.
8. Brink, p. 57.
9. Farrer, A Faith of Our Own (New York: The World Publishing Co., 1960), p. 6.
10. Faith, p. 31.
11. Brink, p. 71.
12. Ibid, p. 73.
13. End, p. 137.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid., p. 138.
16. Faith, p. 112.
17. Ibid., p. 113.

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