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Dr David Robin Goodbourn: 1948-2014

An innovative theological educator and ecumenist who gave a lifetime’s service to the churches as a lay person

David was born on 1 August 1948 to Albert and Olive Goodbourn in Deal on the East Kent coast. He was the youngest child, having two sisters, Valerie and Rosemary. The National Health Service began in 1948 as one of a number of collaborative and communal institutions formed following the end of the war.  David was the first NHS baby born in his GP practice. 1948 was also the year the churches formed the World Council of Churches, a body which was later to play a significant part in his life. His death in 2014 was in a period when the kind of thinking that informed such institutions and his own philosophy was being questioned.

David GoodbournDavid described himself as an accidental Baptist. Children had been evacuated from Deal during the war because of its exposure to shelling from across the channel. As children returned home, Walmer Baptist Church was the first in the area to re-open its Sunday School. He followed his sisters there, with Valerie being one of his teachers. As he grew up, he joined their thriving young people’s group and eventually expressed his faith in Christ in baptism.
In childhood, David is described as behaving very much as he did all through his life, being good tempered, taking everything in his stride and being a hard worker. He attended local primary schools and at eleven went to Sir Roger Manwood’s School in nearby Sandwich. He characterised the school as a 16th century grammar school with pretensions above its station. From there he went to Grey College at Durham University, where he took joint honours in politics and economics.
David was active in the local Baptist students’ society at Durham, becoming its president. A contemporary described David as standing out for the quality of his thought and leadership. This led to involvement in the national Baptist Students’ Federation (BSF) which was to have a profound effect on the rest of his life. It was through BSF that he first met Lynn, a student from Aberdeen who was to become the love of his life. They married at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in London on 29 July 1972. One friend observed that Lynn supplied the unconventional and the spontaneous that met his dry humour and his instinctive caution: a perfect match. They later had two children, (Jonathan in 1975 and Rebecca in 1977), and four grandchildren (Nara, Oliver, Beatrice and Stanley).

It was also through the BSF that David began a life-time of service in the church. In those days, the Baptist Union offered a sabbatical position to serve the BSF from Baptist Church House. On graduation, he became the full-time secretary of BSF for two years. His work with students resulted in the Baptist Union establishing a pioneering poverty education campaign in the churches. So for a further two years he ran this, producing educational and awareness raising material and trying to engage the churches and associations. This reflected an enduring passion for justice. He experienced both the possibilities and the challenges of doing adult education in the churches.

However, his own career plan pointed to the civil service. He was half-way through the selection process when he was encouraged to apply for an innovative post as tutor in lay-training at the Northern Baptist College in Manchester. The civil service missed out on an excellent administrator but his role in Manchester enabled him to exercise and develop his other gifts.

In the summer of 1973, between leaving the London and settling in Manchester, he and Lynn enjoyed running a seaside holiday for 30 Ugandan Asians still in resettlement camps after their expulsion by Idi Amin. The group included five Hindu children who arrived without their parents.

In the emerging collaboration between the Manchester theological colleges, David worked two-thirds time for the Baptist College and one-third for the Congregational/United Reformed College. Under the inspirational leadership of Michael Taylor, the Northern Baptist College became a pioneer in theological education for all in the community of the church. Encouraged by the experience in other parts of the world where ministerial formation was undertaken whilst practicing ministry, an Alternative Pattern of Training was introduced. The integration of learning and practice, undertaken concurrently in the local church context as well as in the academy, was new to Britain and was regarded with some suspicion, if not hostility, among Baptists. However, it quickly became the norm, so it is important to recognise how innovative this was at the time.

This was a time of many initiatives at Northern in which David played a leading role. The resources of the college were made available to people in the churches through open courses, events and Saturday conferences in Manchester and across the region. His concern was for a theology of the people done by the people.

However, Michael Taylor and David were not only concerned to develop learning opportunities for Baptists. They recognised the need for people to learn ecumenically. The result was the creation in 1976 of the Manchester Christian Institute which was sponsored by Anglican, Congregational, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Unitarian and URC bodies, as well as the Baptists. Part of the function of the Institute was sharing information and coordinating Christian education and training in Greater Manchester. It also took initiatives in offering ecumenical learning opportunities. The continuing work of ecumenical theological education at Luther King House is based on these foundations.

David was true to his educational philosophy of relating academic learning to practice by first taking a postgraduate Diploma in Adult Education, then a Master’s degree by thesis, then finally beginning work on a PhD through the University of Manchester.

After 12 years, David moved to Edinburgh to work for the Church of Scotland, researching and developing a new pattern of education for lay people in the churches. The outcome was the creation of a programme called Training for Learning and Serving (TLS) that became the main adult education programme of the Church of Scotland. TLS was built on the insights of theological education by extension and contextual education which had also influenced developments in Manchester. Although TLS was eventually discontinued by the Church of Scotland, it continues in the URC. 

David’s address to the 10th anniversary celebration of TLS illustrates a theme that permeated much of his work: “TLS was about the future of the Church.  We believed that tomorrow’s church would be far more a lay church, breaking away from its over-dependence on the ordained ministry. It would be a church which couldn’t afford to waste the gifts of its members, but had to develop them for ministry amongst Christians and within the world. It would be a church where theology had to be set free from the specialists to become the work of the people.”  

A parallel outcome of David’s work was the Scottish Churches Open College where major denominations (Church of Scotland, Episcopalian, Congregational and Roman Catholic) shared some of their adult education provision. David served as Dean for several years. Unfortunately, the financial problems of the churches meant that the Open College did not survive long after David’s departure.

Whilst in Edinburgh, David was able to complete his PhD. He was also part of the group that founded what is now the Journal of Adult Theological Education and served as general editor. He was active in various ecumenical networks including the Association of Centres of Adult Theological Education (ACATE) and the Ecumenical Association for Adult Education in Europe (EAEE). Although an employee of the Church of Scotland, in private his life he remained a Baptist, worshipping at the Canonmills Baptist Church in Edinburgh.

In 1999, David was appointed general secretary of the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland shortly before it became Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. He was the first lay person to hold the office, although many people kept assuming he was ordained. Even in those traditions which ought to know better, like Baptists, it was presumed that someone who was a good theologian, creative Christian educator, hymn writer and thoughtful and engaging preacher must be a minister. David and Lynn returned to live in London and rejoined Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church where he served as a Deacon.

Much to his frustration, David’s time at CTBI was one of retrenchment. The optimistic climate around the new ecumenical instruments, inaugurated when the Roman Catholic Church joined as full members, had gone and a more cautious attitude prevailed. Funding for bodies like CTBI was reduced by member churches and he had to cut the staff from around 35 to around 20. David was deeply disappointed that it proved impossible for the churches to speak together about the invasion of Iraq. It says much about his character that he was able to persevere. 

Consequently, there were also positive initiatives – the creation of Roots for Churches to produce resources for worship and learning; the work on survivors of sexual abuse; the development of the Churches Agency for Safeguarding; the work done with asylum seekers and racial justice. Another positive trend he encouraged was the growing inclusion of black and minority ethnic churches. David’s role made him an ex-officio trustee of Christian Aid, giving him an insight into issues around charity governance which he was able to utilise later in different contexts. This role was also consonant with his lifelong concern for justice.

In 2005 David returned to Manchester, after a few months dividing his time between there and London to finish off some responsibilities with CTBI, as the first full-time president at Luther King House (LKH). The partnership for theological education in Manchester had developed beyond collaboration between the founding denominational theological colleges. The role of president involved the oversight of BA, MA and PhD programmes and relating to validating universities for which David was well equipped both as an educator and a careful administrator. 

He also had to relate to changing expectations and policies of churches in respect of formation for ministry. Both secular and ecclesiastical authorities provided frustrations but he helped LKH meet those creatively. He had responsibility for an increasing number of independent students at LKH, many of whom came from black and minority ethnic churches. The modules he taught and the research supervision he gave were much appreciated. In policy and practice he remained true to the principles of contextual theological education.

As part of his wider involvement in theological education, David was an honorary associate lecturer of the International Baptist Theological Seminary (IBTS) in Prague, now Amsterdam. He regularly visited Prague to teach on the Masters’ programme. Most recently the European Baptist Federation asked him to chair the group that reconsidered the work and location of IBTS.

We noted that his birth coincided with the birth of the World Council of Churches. In the latter period of his life, he became closely involved in the work of the WCC. As an ecumenical educator, he was invited to serve on the WCC’s Commission on Education and Ecumenical Formation. He represented the British churches on the WCC Central Committee and from thence was appointed to the Executive Committee. He became moderator of the Programme Committee which oversees and accompanies the programmatic work of the WCC.

At international gatherings it is the lot of those whose mother tongue is English to be asked to write up reports and minutes. It is not only a matter of being able to express complexities coherently but also dealing with members who wish their issues to be reported, even when not necessarily germane to the matter in hand. David became recognised for his ability to do this with patience and diplomacy. Like many organisations, the WCC had found it hard to develop effective and responsible governance structures. David used his experience of charity governance to help the WCC think through how 350 churches of different traditions located around the globe could participate without organisational paralysis.  

David retired from Luther King House in 2011, when he was 63. His plan was to wind down gradually, whilst steadily increasing the amount of time spent with the family and travelling with Lynn. Winding down for David meant using his knowledge and experience of governance as a member of the Trustee Board of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, chairing Feed the Minds and continuing his involvement with the WCC, in addition to preaching, teaching and writing. He put his wisdom and clear sightedness at the service of the Christian community.

He was not to know that cancer would soon change everything. Characteristically, David faced the situation with realism. Emails updated friends with wry humour on his determination to make the most of his remaining time. Exceeding the initial prognosis of his life expectancy meant that some travelling with Lynn could be done. Very shortly before his death he was able to ride on the new Manchester tramline to the airport, opened ahead of schedule as if just for him. 

The reactions to the news of his terminal illness led him to write a widely circulated article Parting Thoughts. He did not reject the conventional comments people offered but received them as signs of love. However, he did not find traditional theological expressions helpful, preferring to write about being held in God who is eternally now. His honest reflections on dying and on God were challenging to some and comforting to others. They could only have been written by someone of integrity who had thought deeply and loved much – and by someone for whom death was not a concept but an immediately approaching reality. 

At his funeral David was described as a man who was open minded and interested in people and who lived to serve because his life was rooted in the love of God.

Simon J Oxley

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