Funeral Oration for Derek Kidner

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Derek Kidner’s family invited gifts to his memory to Tyndale House in Cambridge. (Tax deductible gifts can be given through American Friends of Tyndale House.)

I’m posting below, with permission, Bishop John B Taylor’s funeral oration for Derek Kidner. I found it to be both honoring to his work and memory, and encouraging to my own life and ministry.

In his commentary on the Book of the Psalms, Derek wrote about the Psalm 121 which we have just listened to. In a way it is also a commentary on his own life. For ninety five years he has been able to say, The Lord has been my keeper; the Lord is my defence upon my right hand. And in that confidence he can say to us today, as we meet to give thanks to God for him, that the Lord will keep you also from all evil, He will protect your soul. He will watch over your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore. Let me quote the words that he wrote:

To be kept from all evil does not imply a cushioned life, but a well-armed one. The psalm ends with a pledge which could hardly be stronger or more sweeping. Your going out and your coming in is not only a way of saying ‘everything’; it draws attention to one’s ventures and enterprises and the home which remains one’s base; to pilgrimage and return; to the dawn and sunset of one’s days. But the last line takes good care of this journey. It would be hard to decide which half of it is the more encouraging: the fact that it starts from now, or that it runs on, not to the end of time but to time without end; like God Himself who is my portion for ever.

With a life that lasted so long it would be impossible for me to encapsulate it in the time allotted to me. He was known to the people of this parish because for the last thirty years he has lived in this village of Histon and ministered here in his retirement. Many thousands more will know him through his writings, his carefully crafted commentaries, his so readable expositions of Old Testament passages, his daily notes for Scripture Union, his priceless legacy of book after book on the Bible: the scholarship which he shared so freely with the wider world to their lasting benefit. This was the result, not only of a fund of scholarly knowledge and familiarity with the Biblical text, but of a life of strict discipline, which even in retirement worked away tirelessly at the next book that was on the stocks, tapping away at his typewriter for day after day, interspersed with time spent playing his beloved piano and his constitutional daily walk.

He would be the first to admit that he was a slow worker. Once when asked how he was getting on with the latest commentary, on Jeremiah I think, his reply was “About an inch a day”. The reason for this was that for Derek, only the best would do. Every sentence, every paragraph needed to be chiselled with care and precision to meet his own exacting standards. That was a measure of his view of the sacred text he was handling and also, I would guess, of the Lord to whom he was offering his work. The result was that his words were a delight to read and the elegance of his language found a lodging-place in people’s hearts and, in my case, in the sermons that I and many others like me have preached with his assistance. I recall his brief comment on the first chapter of Jeremiah where God calls the young prophet and warns him of the struggles that await him in his dangerous calling. “They will fight against you, (says the Lord) . . . but I will be with you”. Derek wrote: “Both for Jeremiah and for us, God’s way is not to stop the fight but to stand by the fighter”. How true!

It has been my good fortune that my life has intersected with Derek and Mary from time to time over the past fifty years. I was too young to know of his ministry at St Nicholas Sevenoaks as a curate, but I first heard tell of him when I was an undergraduate at Christ’s and discovered that he was an alumnus of that same college and also an Old Testament specialist and a former CICCU president to boot. I do recall visiting him in his vicarage in Felsted in Essex, not many miles from the country parishes where I was to serve as incumbent some ten years later, but I cannot for the life of me remember what excuse I made for the call. Then in 1964 came the invitation to me to follow in his footsteps as the OT tutor at Oak Hill College when he moved to Cambridge to be the warden of Tyndale House. Derek had been one of that immensely influential triumvirate with Alan Stibbs and Leslie Wilkinson who had attracted crowds of ordinands to Oak Hill to sit under their inspired teaching in the l950s and early 1960s.

As Derek’s successor I was regaled with many stories about him and his teaching gifts which left me feeling hopelessly inadequate. He seemed to have a memorable phrase for everything. But the one which I shall never forget was the droll comment that must have been uttered during one of his farewell occasions at Oak Hill. He declared that if ever he had to choose between change and decay, he would go for decay every time. Derek’s fourteen years at Tyndale House were a great time for consolidation and achievement. During those years he estimated that no less than 38 former readers or residents had gained doctorates, half of whom obtained university posts and most of the others were in theological colleges in Britain or abroad. And with the lecturers went the literature. Four Tyndale commentaries had been written, two by Derek himself, and a wide range of books and major articles in learned journals. And typical of the man, his concluding report to the Council included an expression of his particular thanks “if so personal a note may be allowed, to Mary my wife who has accepted this work as a vocation and has done much to make Tyndale House something of a haven and not just a hive”.

For one with such gifts, pastoral, musical, theological, linguistic and literary, it comes as a surprise to meet the man and to find him to be so self-effacing. His modesty and humility were legendary. Someone of a different tradition described him as having the humility of a Mirfield Father. Those who attended his weekly Bible studies when first he retired to Histon said that they arrived weary from a day’s work and returned home refreshed as if they had been in the presence of Jesus. The world’s admiration meant nothing to him. His head could not be turned. He sought only to please his Master and he was never quite confident that he did. He would instinctively have echoed the words that Jesus taught his disciples to say, “Behold, we are unprofitable servants; we have done only what it was our duty to do”.

But of course our acceptance by God is not dependent on our productivity, still less our gifts and achievements. God’s requirement is a humble and a trusting heart, a turning of our eyes to Him, a reliance on His mercy and a trust in the Saviour He has given for us in His Son, Jesus Christ. That was where Derek’s faith lay, in parallel with Mary’s, whom we cannot fail to remember today alongside him, and in that faith and in the love that bound them together and to Christ we commend them to God and offer our heartfelt thanks for the life of yet another hero of the Old Testament who, like Caleb of old, had but one epitaph, that he “wholly followed the Lord”.

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