Lesslie Newbigin – Bishop of Hope

2009 is the Centenary of Lesslie Newbigin‘s birth. Churches Together in Britain & Ireland decided to celebrate this with a Conference held at Queen’s College, Birmingham.

CTBI Newbigin Centenary Conference logo
CTBI Newbigin Centenary Conference logo

This post is….

  • part brief background on Newbigin;
  • part a quick glance at some of his theology;
  • part a ‘back of an envelope’ report on the conference;
  • and part a personal reflection on ‘Uncle Lesslie’
  • with a comment on the source of the CTBI banner photo above.
  • and… it should possibly be a ‘page’ rather than a ‘post’ – we’ll see.


    Lesslie Newbigin was a Presbyterian minister and missionary who – considering that background, and not really approving of church hierarchies – rather surprisingly became a Bishop of the united Church of South India at it’s formation in 1947. In fact not once, but twice – first in the Madurai-Ramnad diocese, then later as bishop of Madras, as Chennai was then known. In between, he was in Geneva with the World Council of Churches. On ‘retiring’ from Madras in 1974, Lesslie & Helen Newbigin made their way back to Britain overland using local buses, carrying just a couple of suitcases and a rucksack – I love that; sort of reverse hippy, on so many levels!

    Lesslie & Helen Newbigin, Cecil & Eleanor Cutting, Wilfred & Mary Hulbert 1937
    Lesslie & Helen Newbigin, Cecil & Eleanor Cutting, Wilfred & Mary Hulbert in India, 1937

    This photograph shows The Troika, or the Three Graces, as the three ‘girls’ were sometimes known: Helen Henderson, Eleanor Alexander, and Mary Macdonald-Smith were all students in the Arts Faculty at Edinburgh University. Eleanor met and married a mature medical student, Cecil Cutting, and Helen & Mary were both bridesmaids. All three girls ended up, with their husbands, working in India. (Mary actually met her future husband whilst staying with the Cuttings on one occasion. You will have guessed another Cutting connection Cecil & Eleanor were my grandparents.)

    India was the place where so much of Lesslie Newbigin’s practical experiences gained a theological framework; and where his theoretical theology became practical. He became so fluent in the local language, Tamil, that he was heralded amongst Indian scholars as being one of it’s best advocates and speakers, with a huge literary dexterity.


    Transmission - Newbigin special edition
    Bible Society Transmission magazine - Newbigin special edition - click download

    How can one briefly sum up Newbigin’s theological legacy? His bibliography is extensive. There are a number of folk who have managed to summarise some of Newbigin’s key areas of theological importance – see Michael Goheen, or Howard Mellor, for example. No list should exclude his work on Culture, and Christ’s place within it (See Newbigin: The Gospel in a Pluralist Society) – some think that he was one of the first to consider the church in the post-modern context. There is also much material – for example here – on the Gospel and Culture movement (See Newbigin: Foolishness to the Greeks). He is also widely acknowledged as an important practitioner and commentator on missiology (See Newbigin: The Open Secret).

    Not all of his work was pitched at the same deep intellectual level. He also, in wanting to communicate the Good News in ever new ways, turned his hand to illustrating the theology of St Paul by way of Limericks… (Another colleague of mine from theological college, a bright Oxbridge graduate, presented his final diploma thesis completely in rhyming couplets. The college almost failed him for his impertinence. I know Lesslie Newbigin would have had a very different view! Fortunately, despite the college’s concern, colleague went on to become a bishop.)


    The Conference, called by CTBI, had Dr Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen as keynote speaker on the theme of ‘The Church in the Post-Christian Society Between Modernity and Late Modernity: Lesslie Newbigin’s Post-Critical Missional Ecclesiology’. Other contributors included Rev’d Dr Paul Weston, Dr Eleanor Jackson, Rev’d Dr Andrew Kirk, Dr Michael Goheen, Dr Ann Holt, Rev’d Dr Joshva Raja, and Adam Dodds.

    Finish-born Dr Kärkkäinen, Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, gave two lectures, from 14 pages of tightly written and argued script. He has an astonishing grasp of theology, Newbigin, and English! One of his sub-headings was “Adopting Fallibilistic Epistemology while Resisting the Nihilism of Postmodernism“. I was clearly not alone in the room in nodding sagely whilst not having a clue about that one – initially! His lecture was

    There were a number of other contributions, available online here on the CTBI site, in preparation for the conference, where a wide spectrum of theologians contributed submissions on Newbigin’s enduring legacy – again very helpful snippets of his work.

    In the plenary towards the end of the day, the conference was asked what people thought Newbigin would consider of the state of the church now. Some were concerned that he may be disappointed at the way in which the church in the west seems to still be diminishing – and in a way he might. But I concurred much more with Eleanor Jackson, who said she always thought of Lesslie Newbigin as a Bishop of Hope. Whether with a tiny rural south Indian congregation, or with a community of folks struggling with a church at the gate of a prison in the UK, as a keynote-speaker at a major conference, or befriending a young priest – Hope was what radiated from him.

    Personal Reflection

    Cuttings, Newbigins & Hulberts in India, 1943
    Cuttings, Newbigins & Hulberts in India, 1943

    This photo shows members of all the of the Troika families. Lesslie is third from the left; Cecil Cutting on the right, with William Cutting, my father, standing in front of him, sling-shot in hand. These families, deep friendships being valued, continued to meet – even the next generation have carryied on the tradition of meeting.

    As a child of third-generation-missionary parents working at a hospital in rural South India in the 1960s and 70s, I remember visiting Lesslie & Helen in Madras – we used to go the 12 or so miles from Jammalamadugu to the nearest railway station at Muddanur, then taking the slow, dirty, delicious-smelling stopping steam train the 180 or so miles to Madras (renamed Chennai in 1996), taking about 12 hours if I remember, for major shopping trips a couple of times a year (for things unavailable locally: corn flakes, and tasteless white margarine in huge sealed cans comes to mind).

    Lesslie was terrific at maintaining encouraging friendships. In the mid-1980s, whilst I was at theological college, Bishop Newbigin came as a visiting lecturer. It had not been a good year for me at the college; never the sparkling academic, me. I was sitting next to a tutor who did not hold a very high opinion of me, on the front row during the lecture. At the end, Lesslie came straight across to see me, shaking me warmly by the hand and greeting me by name. After he was whisked away by the college principal, the tutor next to me, somewhat astonished, asked how I came to know the bishop (on first-name terms). “Oh, Uncle Lesslie?” I cheekily dropped in “We used to stay with him in Madras when he was bishop there”.

    I attended his funeral in February 1998, and heard Dan Beeby’s excellent obituary of Bishop Lesslie. A paragraph in it reminded me of a time when Lesslie had invited and me and a group of others studying at Westhill College, Selly Oak, to bring our multi-media presentation to his little church at nearby Winson Green, opposite the prison, in Birmingham. What a gentle encourager to our fervent student exhuberance. Dan wasn’t describing something I saw – but having seen him with his congregation there, I can almost picture this incident:

    Not too long ago, some children in Selly Oak were helped to see the world upside down when the aged bishop stood on his head! Not a single one of his many doctorates or his CBE fell out of his pockets. His episcopacy was intact.

    Banner Photo

    On closer inspection of the image of Bishop Newbigin used on the publicity for the conference (see top of this page), it looked a little familiar – no wonder, as it is cropped from the photo below.

    Bishop Lesslie Newbigin at Alastair Cuttings Induction as Vicar of Copthorne 25 March 1996 - click for larger version
    Bishop Lesslie Newbigin with Kay & Alastair Cutting at Alastair's Induction as Vicar of Copthorne 25 March 1996

    I had forgotten I had posted it as ‘public domain’ on the Lesslie Newbigin Wikipedia page (which, in case you were interested, I originally created), and see it has also shown up now on Bishop Newbigin’s Library Thing page too.

    For me, the fact that he bothered to come to my induction as a very ordinary young priest embarking on a new ministry in a local church, spoke volumes. I still feel the grasp of his arm that the photo shows, and the support it represents.

    A couple of useful Newbigin links:

    Newbigin.net searchable database of writings
    A Newbigin Interview with Andrew Walker
    Dan Beeby’s tribute to Lesslie Newbigin
    Lesslie Newbigin archive of letters & documents at Birmingham University.
    Gospel & Our Culture website
    Part 1 of an article in Christianity Today
    Part 2 of the Christianity Today article
    Another article by Brother Maynard at Subversive Influence on Newbigin

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