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John Hughes memorial address

An address given at the Memorial Service for the Rev'd Dr John Hughes.

Professor Janet Soskice, President of Jesus College and Chair of the Faculty Board of Divinity
11 October 2014 at the University Church of Great St Mary's

We have come here today to honour and remember John Hughes, beloved Dean and Chaplain of Jesus College. Yet our very presence in Great St. Mary’s attests to how many beyond the walls of Jesus College John’s life touched. For it was evident from the outset, when planning this memorial service, that Jesus College Chapel, much as it was loved by John, would be too small to accommodate the many who would wish to honour him today.

So I would like to begin by thanking Canon John Binns and his team at Great St Mary’s for generously hosting what is in many ways a College memorial service in the University Church, and by welcoming all of you here today, and most especially Janet and Hywel Hughes, John’s parents. If I speak today, for the most part of John as Dean and Chaplain of Jesus, I do so fully minded of those who worked with and loved him as family and as friends in Exeter as a curate, in Westcott House, Emmanuel and Merton College, Oxford, in Little St. Mary’s, the Faculty of the Divinity, the Diocese of Ely and more specifically his fellow young priests. All these were dear to him and by all his loss is felt, but I hope by speaking of John at Jesus College to find a prism through which we may all see John and celebrate his life.

For many of us here today John’s death is both still recent and raw, and I think especially of Jesus undergraduates who had gone down just before the car accident which took his life on 29 June. Some of you younger ones may never have attended a memorial service before. This University Church has hosted many, with recollections of long, illustrious careers, early triumphs on the river, government committees chaired, University departments founded and even Nobel prizes won. But today we are remembering someone who died at just 35 years of age with, what it is only natural to feel, humanly speaking, so much of his life in front of him. It is a loss of one so young, so gifted and we must also say so ‘good’ that it can’t but be felt as a blow.

In the week immediately following John’s death, Jesus College had a perceptible, sad stillness - like some great creature that had been punched in the stomach and stood bent over itself in a silent pain. And yet, as the College nurse reminded me, there was beneath this grief a feeling of great unity. As though when we suffered this loss we realised, vividly, that ‘we’ were a ‘we’.

A College is a complex thing –its students and fellows, but also its chefs and catering team, its porters, secretarial and finance division, its gardeners, boatman, conference office and IT services, its choirs and choristers, librarians, archivist, and housekeepers, the admissions, tutorial, and human resources personnel, its development office, maintenance and bursarial staff. It was evident in those first weeks that John’s death touched us all. Along with the Master, John Hughes as Dean was the one Fellow known to almost all who studied, taught at, or worked for Jesus College and the shock was not just at the sudden death of one so young, but at the loss of one who was, for many, a real friend.

Few members of any College community know what a good Dean or Chaplain does. In fact it might be more accurate to say that, apart from themselves, no one does, since a good Dean or Chaplain is quietly and continuously working both publically and confidentially across all sectors College life. The ‘job’, if we can call it that, goes far beyond any written description, and that is why, for someone ideally suited to it as was John Hughes, it is not a job but a vocation. A good Dean is simply ‘around’ (which is not such a simple thing to be) acting not only publically in the worshipping life of the Chapel, on a score of its committees, at graduate hall or in the raucous congeniality of the student bar of an evening, but privately and confidentially where someone has a crisis of work or confidence or love life, or a child is ill, or a member of College, of whatever age, branch or division, faces loss or death. A good Dean or Chaplain - and John Hughes held both offices in turn - does this with apparent joy and effortlessness, moving from complex planning for Choir tours to careful encouragement of an anxious graduate.

At the tea in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral after John’s funeral, one of the members of the choir who had known John for some time said, apropos the sermon which we’d just heard, that they did not realise John was a highly regarded philosopher of religion and leading voice in Christian social thought. For them (the Choir), she said, he was ‘just John’. Tributes written in the book of remembrance testified to the fact that for Choir parents and choristers, John was also ‘just John’ - not that they were unaware of his other gifts, but to them he was a dear and trusted friend. And this story could be repeated across all the College’s branches and divisions. I’m told that shortly after becoming Dean, John sent a note round to all the College heads of departments (bursary, maintenance and so on) with an invitation to all members of staff for ‘a short historical tour of our beautiful chapel’, with tea and cakes in John’s room to follow. About 20 took up the offer and, cramming into John’s study at the end, were astonished to find John busy boiling four kettles and providing all the cakes himself. We were all in receipt of countless little emails and invitations, every week or more, to some special service, an outing, cocoa after Compline. I don’t think John expected us all to go, but it had the effect that we all knew that the Chapel, and more specifically John, was there for us. Just the week before his death John laid on and conducted a special guided tour of the Chapel for the Finance Department and was planning to do the same soon for Housekeeping.

John was born in 1978 in Exeter, the only child of Hywel and Janet Hughes. He came to Jesus from Dawlish Community College in 1997 to read Theology and Religious Studies. I was his Director of Studies.

John’s powerful intelligence was immediately evident, though concealed somewhat by his modest matter. Weekly essays written for me in his second year (which I recall stretching to eight or 10 tightly spaced, typed pages) were almost publishable as they stood – in fact his first publication for an international journal, an essay on King Lear and forgiveness, was written while still an undergraduate.

John seemed able to read and understand dense primary texts by the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth with the ease with which others might read the sports pages, and have plenty of time left for astute appraisal of voluminous (and optional) secondary reading. (A bit daunting for a supervisor.) Another tutor, to whom I’d farmed John out for the notoriously difficult philosopher, Plotinus, said it was clear from the outset John, at the age of 19, knew more about Plotinus than he himself did. John’s First Class degree seemed inevitable when it came.

Even at this young age John appeared to be entirely himself – quizzical, kindly and quietly humorous, with hair that never quite sat down and gave him a boyish look well into his thirties. He seemed to have no need for the varying experiments in self-presentation that most of us go in for in our late teens and early twenties. Part of his self-knowledge was his certainty early on that, if found acceptable, he would be a priest in the Church of England. After a Masters at Merton College, Oxford, he returned to Westcott House for ordination training and a PhD under Catherine Pickstock subsequently published as The End of Work, a distinguished re-animation of Anglican debates on labour, leisure, and capitalism which has been hailed as ‘the finest theological treatment of the topic of work’ for many years. Following a curacy in Exeter he returned to Jesus as Chaplain in 2009 and then as Dean in 2011.

John loved the Church of England, its language, prayer books, and liturgies, but above all he loved the living church itself. Theologically and liturgically Anglo-Catholic, the services he organised and sermons he preached were never exclusive or cultish, and always deeply informed by his study of Scripture. He inherited from Tim Jenkins and Jonathan Collis, previous Dean and Chaplain, a lively and well integrated chapel. With Mark Williams, the Director of Music, he oversaw a golden age of Jesus Chapel worship, not just for the beauty of its music and liturgy but also, as a Benedictine monk of Glenstall Abbey who made Jesus his preferred place of worship in Cambridge during his sabbatical here said to me, for its atmosphere of prayer.

Student chapel stewards were more or less openly bribed into office by the promise of Chapel trips. The big ones were in the Easter vacation and in alternate years open to non-student, as well as student members of College. On one trip that John took to St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, with myself as Sinaitic sidekick, the Jesus College party made an unusual addition to the complement of guests at the run down, Red Sea hotel which was our base, otherwise frequented by Russians on package holidays. The Jesus College contingent, quickly up on the dance floor after dinner to 'Una paloma blanca' and ‘Rock around the clock’ as sung by an Egyptian crooner, ranged in age from 10 (a Fellow’s daughter) to 70 (the widow of a Fellow) and included the French Lector, the College’s Financial Controller, ordinands, undergrads, graduate students, and assorted academics. Although daily prayer and eucharist were on offer for those who wished (on the beach for we were not allowed to hold religious celebrations in the hotel) not being a chapel-goer or religious person was no bar to participation in these delightful expeditions... another spring expedition involved walking part of the Way of Compostela. No other events in my experience at Jesus College have so formed friendships across the various sectors of College life as these trips, which John took endless pains in organising and in luring people to sign up for, finding money where needed to help students who might otherwise be College to take part.

John emanated unruffled energy. He never appeared to be rushed even while, along with all his chapel and College duties, I knew he was researching, lecturing, publishing, and supervising and examining both undergraduate and graduate students. In the Faculty of Divinity he was a highly regarded colleague in theology, philosophy of religion, and ethics. Amongst his contemporaries he was widely regarded as the most gifted Anglican theologian of his generation.

One of John’s important College responsibilities was that of being ‘lead’ for our team of tutorial advisors, and famously relied on by the others (so they have told me) for the really difficult cases. This might mean an awkward conversation, or a call at any time of day or night for an acute need. Nothing seemed to be too much for John – cocoa (and port) in his rooms after Compline, Morning Prayer on the roof of N Staircase for Ascension Day, looking across roof leads, turrets, and trees. As another member of the College staff (the College Nurse) put it, ‘he just made everyone feel special. It didn’t matter’, she said, ‘who you were, he always had time for you. Nothing was too much trouble and he always seemed really interested.’

I think John seemed really interested because he was really interested, and this went right to the heart of his guiding theology and of how he understood the office of a priest in the College community. He would never have conceived this as a matter ‘bringing the Gospel’ to dark corners, as though the Gospel were a large lardy cake to be deposited on the desks of unwitting and unwilling recipients. John did not need to bring God to people because according to his Anglican Thomism God was already there. His job was to make us glad and help us rejoice as we worked, whether as students, Fellows, or in one of the Colleges many other departments for, as he wrote in The End of Work, ‘labour whose only end is efficiency and functionality, labour free of responsibility, intellect and delight’, is not worthy of human beings.

We were all his people. Our Financial Controller told me that because of the many needs of the Chapel and Choir, he had tried to persuade John to set up a direct debit account for these purposes, but that John initially refused the offer because it would mean he would not need to come into the Finance Office as often to chat to staff. This is typical of John. When made more aware of the work this would save the team, John completed the form but found other ways to visit the Office on a regular basis.

John's Anglo-Catholicism by no means that he spent his hours lurking about the vestry of the College’s medieval chapel and musing on Cranmer’s prayer book (which he loved). Anyone who knew of his affection for Thomas Aquinas would recover from the mistake of thinking him a fusty medievalist by a glance at his first book. There they would find not Aquinas (at least not overtly) but Hegel, Marx, Weber, Adorno, and Hannah Arendt under discussion. For John was profoundly interested in social justice, and embedded in that tradition of Anglican social thought which, from the 19th century, responded to what they perceived as an idolatry of utility - the growing demands of a world where only the markets matter and people are reduced to consumers, and, especially for the global poor, as commodities to be bought and sold themselves.

This book was entitled The End of Work and by this John did not mean romantic aspirations towards the abolition of work but that we consider, deeply and with urgency in our time, the end, or purpose of work. What is our work ordered to? Which means asking ‘what are our lives ordered to?’ Faced with the overwhelming tyranny of utility, John cites Hegel with approbation ‘there is not only use, there is also blessing'. Yet it was not to Hegel or Marx but to English social teaching that John looked for critiques of an all-consuming mentality of utility – to John Ruskin, F.D. Maurice, Gandhi (a disciple of Ruskin), to William Morris and his recovery of work as craft. Not just to political theorists, then, but to artists, guilds, and artisans. He thought this line of thought most adequately captured by 20th century's artists who tried to marry English social criticism with Catholic metaphysics, especially Eric Gill and the Welsh poet and artist, David Jones, in his remarkable essays on work and sacrament.

I think we can see why John felt himself to be completely at home in Jesus College Chapel, rebuilt and recovered as it was in the 19th century by just those energetic artists and social reformers who understood themselves to be trying to change the world of work – not just by romantic recovery of a Gothic past but by framing a habitable future for all. John, surrounded by the Pugin glass and candlesticks, and the Morris company windows and draperies, was in the cockpit of his campaign to make us all - Christians first but then society more generally - think seriously about the ends of work, meaningful and rewarding daily lives, for as he said, citing William Morris, ‘Happiness without happy daily work is impossible’. In John’s Anglo-Catholicism, this recovery of work had to go hand in hand with love of beauty and life ordered to the Good, that is, to God... Human beings, as Aquinas marvellously said, are naturally oriented to the Good, and because of this, even in our work, naturally at home in the world. And this is why they are also attuned to Beauty, since the human mind is not ‘going against the grain of the Universe but in harmony with it’. And this is because, in John’s Christian understanding, this world is creation, rather than chaos – a loving gift.

John in his duties, meeting us on committees or in social gatherings, finding us in our places of work, whether that was student room or study, library or kitchen, or leaning up against a keg of beer and chatting to the Head Chef at the Staff and Fellows’ lunch, was supporting us in our worlds of work and at the same time doing his own. And this was underscored by his ‘work’ as a priest in the daily liturgy of the Chapel, for that rather churchy word – ‘liturgy’ – derives from the Greek for ‘the work of the people’. This was, for John, a work of praise and thanksgiving and John was only perfectly at home in the Chapel because he was perfectly at home everywhere else in the College.

Near the end of The End of Work, John wrote that it is not enough to just talk about things, and most of all not enough to just talk about God as the supposed end of all our work. ‘Indeed', he writes, ‘the most holy work will be directed towards the Highest End entirely unconsciously and without show, like the best artists’. I’m sure John would squirm if we identified his day to day being amongst us as ‘holy work’, but yet many of us have found ourselves saying since his death - he was always there, he always seemed to have time to talk to me, he never seemed rushed, he always was so interested. In attending to us he was waiting on God.