Monday 19 November 2012

A Tribute to Rev Dr Stuart Barton Babbage AM

Rev Dr Stuart Barton Babbage AM passed away on Friday 16th November at the age of 96. I heard the news with sadness because he was a dear friend who I will miss greatly, but also with thankfulness, knowing that he is with his Lord.

Stuart Barton Babbage was born on the 4th January 1916 in Auckland New Zealand, the eldest of 6 children. His early life was in a home of modest resources and his childhood was marked by many challenges. Interestingly his Great Grandfather Charles Babbage invented the first mechanical computer that was the precursor to the computers of today. Stuart was educated at Auckland Grammar (a state school). He recalled many memories from his school days including becoming a member of the Crusader Union after Dr Howard Guinness visited the school to launch the organisation for the first time.

In his teenage years he was heavily influenced by his elderly Bible Class teacher J. Barnard Brown. When he was 16 he was taken to hear Rev W.P. Nicholson who was conducting a mission in Auckland. He went forward when the appeal was made. He wrote in his book 'Memoirs of a Loose Canon' (2004) '...that his conversion experience had far reaching consequences'. He later enrolled at Auckland University College (part of the multi-site University of New Zealand) as a 16 year old in Arts and Journalism and pursued majors in History and Economics, choices which Stuart described as 'revealing in my naivety'.  He joined the Evangelical Union on campus and eventually became President. In his final year of his Arts degree he was awarded a scholarship to St Johns College where he completed the degree. He went on to complete a Master of Arts in History even though he did better (to his surprise) in economics. He was aged 20 at its completion.

Stuart left New Zealand in 1937 for England via Sydney to study theology. In his five day stop over he was to meet the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Howard Mowll while staying with Canon R.B. Robinson whose son Donald Robinson (a teenager at the time) was to become Archbishop of Sydney in 1982. He also met T.C. Hammond, the principal of Moore College, on the same stopover. He travelled on by sea to England where he enrolled at the Bible Churchmen's Missionary and Theological College and eventually took the ordination exams which he passed. However, he needed to wait until he reached the age of 23 (the canonical age) before ministry, so he enrolled in a PhD at King's College, London. He gained a job as a part-time tutor at Oak Hill Theological College. His motivation to enrol in a PhD was to consider the evangelical revival and work of Wesley and Whitfield, but he was persuaded to consider the work of R.G. Usher on 'The Reconstruction of the English Church'. It was some years later before the thesis was published as 'Puritanism and Richard Bancroft'.

Stuart was eventually ordained on the 17th December 1939 and established what we would today call a 'church plant' in Havering-atte-Bower, a small village on the outskirts of London in the Borough of Havering (Essex). He attempted to reach the villagers through children's ministry. In his memoirs Stuart describes his early days this way:

"The Battle of Britain was fought over our heads. Sometimes we saw a dogfight and often, trails of vapour in the sky. Then the night raids began...In the parish there were numerous bomb craters and some property damage but no loss of life. A land mine descended by parachute and landed on the vicarage, almost demolishing it. All the windows of the church were blown out...."

After three years at Havering-atte-Bower Stuart applied to join the RAF and become an air force chaplain. He was posted to Fetwell in Norfolk in 1942. This was a major base for heavy bombing raids against targets in Europe. It was during his years as a chaplain that he met C.S. Lewis who frequently preached for the Chaplain's Department of the RAF. He recalled with great fondness long leisurely walks across the Norfolk fens with Lewis. It was while based at Fetwell that Stuart met the woman who was to become his wife, Flight Officer Elizabeth King. They were engaged and after a short courtship they were married on the 26th May 1943 in Fetwell. His overseas posting arrived the same day. Within fine months he was posted to Iraq and Persia for two years. They would eventually have four children, Veronica, Malcolm, Christopher and Timothy during a marriage that lasted 40 years.

After the war there were five major phases to Stuart's life, each with richness and complexity which cannot be captured in such a brief post. The first post-war phase saw Stuart and Elizabeth move to Sydney where he was to become 'Diocesan Missioner' for the Anglican Church. This was a one-year appointment to undertake 'special duties'. He took up the interim appointment in 1946 and in 1947 was appointed as the 3rd Dean of Sydney at the age of thirty. There were many highlights in this period. He wrote regularly for the Sydney Morning Herald ('Religion & Life') and enjoyed many opportunities to preach and welcome distinguished visitors including (memorably) Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. In this period he was to begin his regular religious instruction at Fort Street Boys' High School. Justice Michael Kirby has commented at length on Stuart's impact on him and many other boys during this time. 

In 1953 he was appointed as Principal of Ridley College in Melbourne, a post he held until 1963. His years at Ridley were fruitful ones and in 2010 the College saw fit to confer on him the title of 'Principal Emeritus'. There were once again many highlights during this period of his life including his role on the Billy Graham Crusade Committee in 1959.  In 1953 he was also surprisingly asked to combine the role of Dean of Melbourne with his role at Ridley. He held the post of part-time Dean until 1972.

When he concluded his role as Principal of Ridley he began a period of more focussed academic. He had enjoyed a Fulbright Fellowship to Columbia Theological Seminary in 1961 and returned as a Visiting Professor. There were many possible moves and positions during the next decade but much of his time was spent in then USA at Columbia, teaching Apologetics and Church History. He was later invited to take up the position of President of Cornwall School of Theology, a position he held until appointed as second Master of New College at the University of New South Wales. In this fruitful decade he wrote many of his books, including 'Sex and Sanity' (1965), 'The Vacuum of Unbelief' (1969), 'The Mark of Cain: Case Studies in Literature and Theology (1966)'.  He also edited the 'Columbia Theological Journal' and 'The Holman Study Bible'.

Rev Dr Stuart Barton Babbage with the Hon John Howard at a formal dinner, New College, 2011

In 1973 he was appointed as Master of New College, where he succeeded Noel Pollard. It was an all male college when he arrived but it was quickly converted into a coeducational residential college much to the relief of all who had found the all-male community difficult. In his ten years at New he was to put his stamp on the community and bring a constant range of distinguished speakers to formal dinners. He and Elizabeth entertained regularly for the residents, contacts that they had within the community and from within the wider church. The list of people who enjoyed their hospitality is a very long one indeed. Stuart also took on many other projects. He was asked by Archbishop Loane to fill the short-term role of Acting Dean of Sydney following the death of Dean A.W. Morton. He also assumed the role of Registrar of the Australian College of Theology (CAT), a role he kept until 1992. The ACT was actually run for a time from within New College. The years at New College were happy ones for Elizabeth but sadly when they left in 1983 to their new home at Waverley, it was just six months until she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and within months she had died.

The years following Elizabeth's death and his departure from New College were marked by his ongoing work for the Australian College of Theology, continued writing and scholarship, including his book 'Memoirs of a Loose Canon'. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1995 "In recognition of service to the Anglican Church of Australia to education and to the community". Stuart continued as a faithful servant of Christ, as father, preacher, friend, evangelist, mentor, dinner host and pastor. His preaching around Sydney was legendary; he was always interesting and had a significant presence in the pulpit. Until just a few years ago he was regularly driving to churches all over Sydney to deliver inspiring messages and was a regular preacher at St Jude's Randwick. In the years after Elizabeth's death his home was also home to a stream of international male students who needed good home stay accommodation while studying at university. Stuart also employed some of them to help in the kitchen and wait on his guests.

Like many people, I saw Stuart as a dear friend. My friendship with him began just ten years ago when I was appointed as 5th Master of New College. Within weeks of my arrival Stuart had invited my wife Carmen and me to the first of many wonderful dinners at his home. Stuart was always the perfect host, cooking, setting the table and fussing over every detail. He would carefully plan who he would invite and then ensure that he connected the people he wanted to connect with his deftly designed seating plan. Stuart was the most hospitable of people. I asked him one day, "Stuart, you are a very hospitable person. To what do you owe this gift? Was there someone in your life who modelled this for you?". He replied simply, "No, I read in the Scriptures that we are to be hospitable, so I thought, I had better do it."

Stuart was generous with his time and his concern for me right to the end. He visited me just last week to give me a book and battled into the building on a single cane while his carer waited (no doubt due to his insistence) in her car. It was to deliver one of his books that he wanted me to have. In it describes the relationship of C.S. Lewis to the RAF chaplaincy work and the links to Stuart's relationship with him. He commented simply, "I thought you'd appreciate this". And I did of course. I insisted that I walk back to the car after the visit, in spite of his protests. For a very independent man used to giving out, receiving care was a little harder to accept. I will miss this wonderful man but know that he is with his Lord who no doubt will have commended this good and faithful servant.

If you would like to read more about Stuart's rich life his own account in 'Memoirs of a Loose Canon' is the best resource. He wrote a sequel to this in the last year or so and distributed copies to a small number of lucky people (me included). It has many stories never told and as he handed it to me, he said with a twinkle in his eye, "Perhaps this one is best not to be published". 

Relatives and friends of Rev. Babbage are invited to attend the service and interment at St. Jude's Anglican Church, 106 Avoca Street, Randwick, on Friday (November 23, 2012) at 10 a.m.

Other tributes to Rev Dr Stuart Barton Babbage

Ridley College HERE
Anglican Church League HERE

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