I remember him differently than some might. He seemed at once formidable and yet gentle. A towering intellect, and yet a sweet spirit, with a good sense of humor as well. In some ways outgoing, but in some ways shy, especially on the telephone or in casual conversation. Had you only seen Charles Kingsley Barrett behind the pulpit or the lectern you would only have known one side of the man, the public face as it were. You would not have known, for instance the man who sang Methodist hymns during his last days whilst in the infirmary awaiting the door to open into the next world, very much like his beloved forebear– John Wesley, who ended up singing Isaac Watts hymn “I’ll praise my Maker whilst I have breath….” The picture above of him in his last home in Pity Me just outside Durham shows a relaxed man, not to mention his beloved Margaret’s blue socks!
Kingsley Barrett was my doctor father, and looking back closing in on 40 years, I am ever so glad I chose to go to Durham and work with him rather than going to Oxford where I had also been accepted. He was the finest Methodist NT scholar anywhere, and all of the adjectives before the word ‘scholar’ were important to me in making the final decision. Mister Wesley would have said it was a singular providence of God that I was led to that place and to study with that man. I believe that’s right.
When I knew the man, he was coming to the end of his tenure as Divinity Professor in the Department of Theology at Durham. He would soon thereafter retire. He had accumulated a large assortment of doctoral students, some thirteen when I was there in the late 70s, from all over the world— Australia, New Guinea, Africa, Germany, Canada, America. It was a remarkable testimony to CKB’s well deserved reputation as a NT scholar, but also as a Christian gentleman and a devout Methodist.
Almost as soon as I got to Durham and learning I was a Methodist clergyman, he had me put ‘on the circuit’, and I found myself preaching hither and yon in little villages around Durham and Darlington, mostly on Sunday afternoons and evenings. Much to my surprise Methodism in Durham was much more low church than the Methodism I was raised in, in North Carolina, and so I was to forgo the robe, forgo the Apostle’s Creed, and adapt to the hymn sandwich, as it was called— a hymn and a prayer, a hymn and a Scripture, a hymn and an offering— did I mention a hymn.
After having preached for a couple of years like this I remember making my second journey to a particular little village’s Methodist chapel. After the service an elderly woman came up to me and said “You certainly do like that St. Francis hymn don’t you, as we sung it the last time you were here”. It suddenly dawned on me that this meant I had preached the same sermon more than a year previously at that chapel, but the lady didn’t remember the sermon. No, like a good Methodist, she remembered one of the hymns we sang. That was a nice dose of humility on that Sunday morning. And then there was the time on Easter that the chapel steward sought me out as I was coming up the hill from the bus stop and said “I must ask you a question” looking anxious. When I told him to go ahead, he said “You do believe in the resurrection don’t you, as the chap we had last year didn’t, and talked all this nonsense about the cycle of the seasons and blooming of the flower again” I reassured him I believed in the resurrection, and that it didn’t happen periodically— like the spring flowers or the Easter bunny.
It was Kingsley who sent me off on all these adventures in Methodism though occasionally on a Sunday morning I got to hear him preach at Elvet Methodist in downtown Durham. He too was ‘on the rota’ and preaching somewhere almost every Sunday, following the ‘musical chairs in the pulpit’ routine that characterized that whole Methodist circuit.
Kingsley would invite his doctoral students to his home on Western Hill, and we would have our seminars there around his large old dining room table, discussing our fledgling efforts at scholarship while munching on Kasemann’s cookies and quaffing Margaret’s good tea. I remember, that I, to my horror, discovered one evening when I had been frantically taking notes at this seminar, that my pen had gone through the paper and made several impressions of words on that table. I mentioned this in a whisper to Kingsley, and he looked at me with sad eyes and said “do you think it will come out?” I had made a lasting impression on the Barrett’s but not the one I had hoped for! Like the kind man he was, he never mentioned it again, but I stayed embarrassed about that for a long time. I so badly wanted to please him, but you know how it is as a student— sometimes you end up looking like a clumsy fool without intending to do so.
Kingsley always gave me time when I needed to see him, to review my chapters of my thesis on Women in the NT, or to discuss other important matters. I loved going to his lectures, though we were not required to take classes, lectures on NT Theology, or the like. The department seminar also run by Kingsley was always daunting, peopled as it was by a galaxy of star scholars (Cranfield, Rogerson, Sykes, Parker, and visitors like Metzger, W.D. Davies, Morna Hooker, and Judy Lieu) and a bunch of wide-eyed doctoral students frightened to open their mouths. I remember the year we worked through the Didache. It came my turn to translate and comment on a passage, and I did my best. There was a dramatic pause, and then Barrett staring down at me from the end of the table asked— “and what precisely do you mean by that?” My immediate temptation was to reply “honest sir, I didn’t mean anything by that” and then crawl under the table, but I gave some faltering answer which I don’t remember now. It was an intimidating situation for a doctoral student.
And then came my VIVA voce at the end of my third year and the external examiner put his foot down and wanted more work— I had not failed, I had not passed with flying colors, I had to make changes and additions before the degree could be awarded. I went to see Kingsley in shock, not understanding what this all meant. He asked very gently “and will you do it? Will you revise the thesis and then let Mr. Hanson see it again?” I told him I would certainly do that, and so it took me another year to get the degree, a year when I pastored 4 churches in rural North Carolina and we had our second child. I asked him on that crucial day “Why didn’t you tell me I needed to include more discussion of the critical issues about the authenticity of this or that passage in the Gospels?” His answer I will never forget— “I didn’t want to press you too hard, as I’ve had previous students who lost their faith in the rigors of such work”. In other words, he was being pastoral with me, and cared more about my soul more than my degree. I shall never forget that. And when Old Shire Hall in Durham failed to send Mr. Hanson the thesis for several months after they had received it, Kingsley went and read them the riot act, and Hanson signed off quickly, as the thesis had already been accepted for publication by Cambridge U. Press.
On the surface, and from the outside, Kingsley Barrett might have seemed to be just traditionally British– he did not drive, he walked everywhere, or Margaret drove him around. He took his tea at the proper hour. He dressed in browns and tweeds, looking every inch the British professor. He was very ‘proper’, and it was endearing to go into his home and see him insist on helping Margaret with ‘the washing up’ and other things. You see, there was an extraordinarily kind Christian person and a devout Methodist to be found if you really got to know the man. And a good husband and good father too.
I remember long after I had been at Durham and when I had become editor of the New Cambridge Bible Commentary series, I asked Kingsley if he would consider doing the Galatians commentary for that series. He thought about it and said– “I’m afraid I haven’t kept up to the degree I should, to be able to do that on Galatians, having gone off the boil a bit”. This was after his monumental Acts commentary had not only emerged, but he had done a paired down popular version of it as well. He didn’t want to do anything that was less than his best work. That always impressed me. He was in many ways a humble and modest person.
Today, exactly four years ago, CKB went to be with the Lord being some 94 years of age (born 1917). I still miss him and his good advice. I still have fond memories of his coming and lecturing here when I came on faculty at Asbury. Amazingly, his colleague Charles Cranfield lived to 100 and passed away just last March of this year. The giants in the land that I studied with in Durham are all gone or long retired. Indeed, their successors like Jimmy Dunn are all retired as well. And Professor Walter Moberly and his family now live in Kingsley and Margaret’s old home. I visited it when I was there in 2013, but it wasn’t quite the same. Time marches on, but those God-whispered words I heard again and again from CKB, in person, in the pulpit, from the lectern, live on and continue to inspire. It’s one of the reasons I am a professor today.