News: Rabbi Lionel Blue memorial address

The former chaplain of Grey College, The Revd Canon Dr David Kennedy, gave a moving address at the memorial service of Rabbi Lionel Blue, who died earlier this year. The text of his address follows.

I feel deeply honoured to have this opportunity to speak of Rabbi Lionel Blue who, for fifteen years, was so much a part of the life of Grey College and Durham University.

Lionel’s membership of Grey was down to one man, his friend Henry Dyson. Henry brought many distinguished people into the life of this College – we are surrounded by Thetis Blacker’s work in this Chapel – and it was through Henry that Lionel first came to Grey with his partner Jim, when Victor Watts was Master. Most summer terms would find them here among us. They loved living in their flat in Grey and we so grateful to Karen our Bursar for enabling this, and what a blessing they were to us.

I first met Henry and Lionel on my very first day as Chaplain of this College in 2001. I was in the vestry, robing for my first service. Henry knocked on the door, introduced himself, and informed me that in the congregation would be Rabbi Lionel and another distinguished Rabbi from the United States. It was Eastertide and I’d prepared a booklet for the Eucharist. It was full of Passover imagery from a Christian perspective and I was terrified it would cause offence. At communion time, Lionel and his colleague came forward. I knew they wouldn’t be receiving communion, but we have a tradition of giving a blessing. I kind of panicked – what should I say? A Christological blessing would be unthinkable – I know, I’ll use the Jewish priestly blessing, but, help, can I as a Christian priest do that? By that time, Lionel was before me, so I extended my hand and said, ‘Rabbi Blue, may the Lord bless you and keep you’. Lionel looked up, smiled, and said ‘Thank you very much.’ I’d needn’t have worried, because here was the greatest affirmation I could ever have received, and I have to say, that the welcome Janet, I and of course our six year old daughter Claire, received that night, showed what an extraordinary community we had joined.

Over drinks that evening, we had – well, it must have been two hours of brilliant discussion with the group of students present. And I have to say, that in their terms of residency each year and on other visits, Lionel and Jim worshipped with us on Thursdays, and on Sundays, they would often come down to the Cathedral for the 11.15 service. Lionel said he liked our short services, and he loved the after service drinks and discussion and we loved to have him among us. Here was the true spirit of ecumenism, which arose from a conviction that we all worship the same God, and seek authentic not false religion. He often quoted the words an old Rabbi had told him, ‘Judaism is your religious home and not your religious prison’. And he believed and taught that religion at its best should lead to open-mindedness, tolerance, compassion and actively working to mend the world. At its worst it leads to bigotry, self-righteousness, and if unchecked, persecution. 

There are many aspects of Lionel’s life we could celebrate today. His breath-taking honesty about his struggles, with faith, with God, with religion, with sexuality, with identity, with fear, with simply being human. We rightly celebrate his skill as a communicator, as a speaker and a writer, his work in television and his unsurpassed contribution to Thought for the Day on Radio 4, where he was the nation’s Rabbi – how we miss his wisdom, humour, humanity, and insight into our common human condition. We must in this academic setting recognise and honour his remarkable intellect – he was a giant and I would listen with awe to the sheer depth of his learning. We can celebrate his contribution to Anglo-Jewish life and spirituality, and not least, and I say this as a fellow liturgist, in the three volume service books, Forms of Prayer for Jewish Worship for the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain.

But, here today, I would like to honour his contribution to this College and University. Lionel and Jim gave themselves fully to College and University life. Not only was Lionel sought after as a speaker in Colleges, societies, and Departments, but he loved simply being with students, whether that was a conversation over a meal or in the bar, or around the corridors. Lionel loved to listen to students, to share jokes with them, and where appropriate to give counsel and advice. He had a particular role with LGTB+ members of the University, where his support and advice was invaluable. He organised some unforgettable seminars here in Grey, exploring issues of faith and life, where he was concerned that there should be diverse and informed debate. He would sum up the key issues with magisterial clarity. When addressing students in Hall, he would always say, ‘Remember your successes make you clever but your failures make you wise. In an age where everyone has to appear to be a winner, this importance of failure for psychological health is often overlooked.’

Lionel had time for individuals. I used to notice how he gave everyone their full human worth and without distinction – whether you were an eminent visiting Professor or a porter, an undergraduate or a member of the domestic staff. And I have to say, personally, that Lionel made me think about how I relate to people – he made my religion more authentic. And how we loved his humour – I remember one of his birthday celebrations in the Pennington, when after supper we simply had a jokes session. We laughed until our sides ached! And of course, there are symbols of his time here – Lionel and Jim gave the barometer and the gong in the SCR, and bought the picture Calvary, the work of one of our students, Ben Perkins, to adorn this Chapel. It was therefore only fitting that Lionel should be honoured as a Fellow of this College and in the bestowal of an Honorary Doctorate by this University.

In Lionel Blue – My Obituary, broadcast at the time of his death, Lionel described this life as ‘a departure lounge’. I chose the reading from Job, because in some ways, Job is a character I sense Lionel would identify with. Job struggled and wrestled with life and suffering, he asked many questions of God and the book is a protest against simplistic, uncritical religious platitudes. And yet in all his suffering and testing, and all that was simply beyond comprehension, Job’s faith prevailed and in the end he found his peace. ‘I know that my Redeemer lives – at the last I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold’.

Lionel showed us something authentic about God. I for one, as a fellow pilgrim, have been helped a few more steps along the way by knowing Lionel. I believe and trust that I and we shall see him again in glory. May he rest in peace and may his memory be a blessing to us all.

Added Monday 15th May 2017