Memorial Address for Basil Mitchell


Luke 14. 11: ‘Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.’


I suspect that commonly congregations attending memorial services come away with the conviction that the giver of the address has caught exactly how the subject viewed himself, and in the short term there is no doubt a sort of logic to that kind of approach. But given the age at which Basil Mitchell died and his own self-perceptions, it seems to me that this would be quite the wrong way of going about things. Talk to him in life or read his autobiography in death and there was a humility that seemed to conceal even from our subject where his significance stood. John Lucas plans to expand on the nature of that character. So here I conceive of it as my task to indicate Basil Mitchell’s wider significance both for the world of academia and for the Church.

It is a commonplace to observe that in the modern world the speed of change is accelerating, and this is something that Basil experienced both as a Fellow of Keble and as Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oriel. Keble moved from being a distinctive Anglican college, part of the tradition of the Oxford Movement, to a more amorphous identity, while the Nolloth Chair founded in 1920 in a Theology School that refused to make anything compulsory beyond AD 461 (the year of the death of Pope Leo the Great) was gradually finding its role moving from the margins to demands that theology participate in interaction with the challenges of the contemporary world. A natural conservative but, more importantly, a reconciler and a gentleman, Basil was uniquely placed to ease both college and school into such changes. Much of twentieth century theology sought an answer in confrontation with a pagan world, but the methodology of a Barth or Balthasar were not for Basil. Instead, by diplomacy and argument he advocated the gentle reasonableness that he believed had characterised the best in Anglican apologetics. To be sure, this is not the place to produce detailed analysis of such discussions. Nonetheless, two of the major concerns that run through the seven books that he published during his lifetime do merit highlighting here

The first is his attempt to steer a middle course between the enforcement of Christian morality upon wider society and the founding of social ethics on what he saw as the very thin basis of liberal values. To modernise the argument, if the appeal of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron to liberal values is all that English society has in common, then there is no good reason for Scotland to remain part of the Union or indeed for others to argue that all should be determined by Brussels. It is, on Basil’s view, a more illusive tradition that binds society together and, while non-Christians may well recoil from some aspects of that past, to stand totally apart from it is to in effect to question their own identity.

Equally in his writings on the philosophy of religion he opposed on the one hand the narrowness of theologians who rejected questions of justification altogether and on the other Christian philosophers who think themselves capable of offering knock-down arguments for religious belief. To put the issue in contemporary terms, he would have been just as unhappy with William Lane Craig’s uncompromising assertions on behalf of Christianity as he would have been with Richard Dawkins or A C Grayling on the other side. Drawing on the wisdom of a longer tradition that includes Butler’s Analogy of Religion and Newman’s Grammar of Assent, he insisted instead that what draws us to belief in God is multiple facets of our experience: what he called a cumulative case for theism. More importantly, like Newman he stressed that this is how most of our thinking works, not in rarified discourse but in the minutiae of daily living.

And it is in such attention to detail that he also made a decisive contribution to the Church of England that he so loved, not only in Oxford itself in keeping interchange active between philosophy and theology among academics in the Metaphysicals and among undergraduates in the Socratic Club when he succeeded C. S. Lewis as President, but also in the wider Church. In a period in which English law changed on a number of moral issues, Basil dutifully served in a number of Church of England committees – on abortion and euthanasia for example. But he was also present on its Doctrine Commission, ensuring that, if change there must be, it would be expressed in a manner that indicated both continuity with the past and concern for discipline in the Church’s rush to embrace contemporary images and metaphors. Then in retirement he continued to serve as Chairman of both the Parish and Parochial Church Councils in his local village of Wootton.

As I penned these few lines, I did reflect on how Basil might compare with his predecessors in the Nolloth chair, Clement Webb, L. W. Grensted, Ian Ramsey or the great might-have-been, Basil’s own hero Austin Farrer who turned down the chair. Basil was the most self-effacing of this group, the most easily under-estimated. Yet, without his presence, Oxford theology might well have torn itself apart and the Church of England moved towards change in a more troubled and anxious way.

So, in conclusion, in the version of Jesus’ words that Basil himself so loved: ‘He that humbleth himself shall be exalted.’ Amen.