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Father Ian Ker: Newman’s brilliant interpreter

Priest and scholar who spurred a new wave of interest in English saint was a fascinating convert in his own right

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Fr Ian Ker, who passed away on 5 November, was a brilliant writer, biographer and convert in the tradition of fellow English Catholics whom he admired such as St John Henry Newman and GK Chesterton. Fr Ker’s biographies of both, such as his work on Chesterton, are considered superb.

We first met Fr Ian Ker (Ker pronounced “car”) in Australia in the early 1990s.  It was in a slightly comical but telling circumstance which had all the makings of the quirky anecdote of which he was so fond.

At the time, Fr Ker had already emerged in the publishing world (in an era of great church biographies) as the definitive biographer of Cardinal John Henry Newman.  For that reason he was the keynote speaker and guest at a prestigious event to honour the centenary of the death of that great and later canonised English Cardinal.

Fr Ker had begun his scholarly life in Greats and English literature at Oxford and Cambridge, but with his conversion and priestly ordination, he had been drawn to apologetics, university teaching and Cardinal Newman’s life and person- no mean feat as it required a mastery of Newman’s 20,000 letters, over 1,000 sermons as well as the vast body of his published works.

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At the Melbourne event Fr Ker revealed his academic and apologetic vim in smartly refuting and balancing some of the polarised opinions about Newman, his personal attachments, his sensitivity and his theology of conscience.

At the time, some young Catholic friends and I had been struck by this literary star’s insightful lecture.  We appreciated that by describing Newman as “a radical conservative” Fr Ker had upset some hefty applecarts.

Ker wrote in a 1987 sermon which was part of process in Newman’s elevation to sainthood:

“We may surely take Newman himself, both in his life and writings, as a prophetic guide for our own post-conciliar age. Deeply and profoundly conservative in his adherence to revealed truth and in his fidelity to authority and to tradition, Newman was at the same time keenly alive to the importance and inevitability of adaptation and development.”

He would some years later argue that Newman was prophetic of “all the important documents” of the Second Vatican Council and of Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity.”

On that night, we found Ian Ker wandering about Newman College alone with a bag of his washing, in a distracted and slightly child-like disconsolance.  He asked the way to a laundry.  It being Saturday night and we being resourceful young things, he and his laundry were duly nabbed to friend tutor’s room for an evening of pizza, red wine and riveting and funny conversation.

It became clear that night, that for all his careful textual, theological and historical scholarship and his somewhat spikey eye for the inefficient and absurd, Fr Ian Turnbull Ker, who died on November 5th in a Gloucester hospital at the age of 80, wore his great learning lightly and his faith deeply.  It was clear that he had a strong relish for human friendship and company.  His spoken language was like his written style, keenly accurate, rapid-fire, always accessible and often delivered from beneath a wryly amused brow.

We learned on that jovial night of his birth and upbringing in the dying days of colonial India, his professional and personal interest in G.K. Chesterton, his memories of bleak rationed post-war England and his mother’s familial connection with another famous English Catholic convert writer/scholar/priest, Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1888-1957)

A younger Newman scholar and friend, Edward Short has recently written a superb tribute which captures the complexity and the importance of Ian Ker as a priest, as a scholarly mentor and as an outstanding man of letters: “Fr. Ker had always a certain imperiousness, but also a delicious sense of humor, the absurdities of misrule, whether in the ecclesiastical, political or academic sphere, always appealing to his sense of the ridiculous.”

Fr Ker like Newman, was always humbly aware of the nearness of providence, the sparks of grace through language and the way friendship shapes both the personal path to Faith and contours of the Church.

This is a theme which runs through his definitive, now 700- page life of Cardinal Newman, and in his 20 other Newman books and the prodigious number of essays, critical editions and conference papers related to these.  It was key to Ian Ker’s own theology and his dedication to preaching and writing about Catholicism.

Inspired in his early life by C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity based on four BBC talks (1941-44), Ian Ker wrote Mere Catholicism (2006) in which he argues and outlines the Catholic faith writing “mere Catholicism is in fact, mere Christianity… drawn to its logical conclusion.”  It is said that this book has been instrumental in the conversion of many – including Walter Hooper – the literary advisor to the Estate of Lewis.

In some later trips to Australia, when Campion College, the Caroline Chisholm Library and the John Paul II Institute and others hosted talks by Ian Ker, Australians had the chance to learn more about his love of English language and literature and the key theological themes of theological development, interpersonal charism, paradox and humour.

Fr Ker always enjoyed speaking to the diverse Catholic public- and he deeply cared for their souls. He said “I always saw my teaching role, like Newman had seen his, as a pastoral as well as an educational role. One reason why I became a priest was because I thought I would like to teach people about Catholicism as opposed to English literature.”

His popular talks on Newman via EWTN in America and in other countries were instrumental in the two people who received miraculous healings associated with the canonisation process discovering and becoming devoted to the saintly Cardinal.

His love of literature never abated and on top of his Newman works he wrote two major books tangential to his Newman studies: The Catholic Revival in English Literature 1845-1961 (2003)and G.K. Chesterton: A Biography (2011).

Fr Ian had retired from his beloved pastoral role as parish priest at Burford but was, despite a debilitating condition, still writing and giving talks.  Another Newman scholar and friend of Fr Ker’s writes:

His vivacity was much in evidence at the dinner to mark his 80th birthday in London at the end of August; at the gathering he was presented with a festschrift, Lead, Kindly Light: Essays in Honour of Ian Ker, which included pieces by three well-known cardinals, former students, and other distinguished friends and admirers.”

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