Roger T. Beckwith (1929-2023)
Updated: Nov 8
Roger Beckwith’s many decades of theological industry on behalf of the evangelical cause in the Church of England are interwoven with the story of Latimer House, the forerunner of Latimer Trust.
Latimer House – No. 131 Banbury Road in Oxford – was launched in 1960 as an Anglican evangelical research centre. Cambridge boasted Tyndale House, a global leader in evangelical biblical research. Latimer House was designed along similar lines to promote the study of evangelical doctrine, liturgy, history and ecclesiology. It was born at a moment of urgent crisis in the Church of England. The biblical foundations of the national church were being constantly eroded by liberalism and anglo-catholicism which dominated its synods, cathedrals, training colleges, and the episcopal bench. Anglican evangelicals were severely under pressure, out-numbered, beleaguered, disorganized, and ill-equipped to meet the theological challenges which lay ahead. One crucial way to strengthen evangelical witness was a programme of strategic scholarship, research and writing. ‘The bottle-neck hindering a revival of Evangelical influence’, wrote John Wenham in 1960, was ‘the poverty of Evangelical thought’.
In another strategy paper, Wenham explained:
"For fully half a century Evangelicals in the Church of England have felt a growing sense of frustration at the way in which Reformation principles are being slowly but surely driven from the Church. Liberalism and Anglo-Catholicism have permeated almost every segment of the Church’s life, and our best efforts of evangelism and instruction seem unable to stem the resistless tide. Now the progress of Canon Law revision and the promise of the revision of Prayer Book and Articles threaten irrevocably to fasten unscriptural principles upon the official standards of the Church. To some of us it is clear that the root trouble in this predicament is the total failure of conservative Evangelicals to build and to sustain a top-level team of well-informed, forward-looking theologians."
Latimer House was created to stimulate this resurgence of evangelical scholarship and thinking. It was dedicated in September 1960 by John Stott who expounded the Greek text of Ephesians 4:15, ‘Speaking the truth in love’.
Latimer House’s warden from 1962 was an up-and-coming evangelical theologian, James I. Packer. His deputy from 1963 as Latimer House librarian was Roger Beckwith, a young church historian and liturgist. An Oxford graduate, Beckwith had served his first curacy at St Peter’s, Harold Wood, in east London, a parish with a long evangelical history, followed by four years as tutor at Tyndale Hall, Bristol, an evangelical theological college founded by the Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society. Together, Packer and Beckwith made an impressive team, helping to put Latimer House on the map with an energetic programme of theological activity, speaking, advising, consulting, writing, and rallying the evangelical troops.
Beckwith produced a steady output, especially tracts and essays, for the Latimer House imprint and for journals such as The Churchman (now renamed The Global Anglican). He contributed to numerous evangelical working parties and symposia, and published clarion calls on the hot issues of the day, such as Time for Secession? (1964), which urged evangelicals to stay in the Church of England and not abandon ship for nonconformity. His first major book – and the first ‘Latimer monograph’ from Marcham Manor Press – was Priesthood and Sacraments (1964), critiquing the theological confusion at the heart of the proposals for an ecumenical merger between the Church of England and the Methodist Church. Beckwith was much in demand as a speaker at Diocesan Evangelical Fellowships and served on the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) as one of its key theologians. At the invitation of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, he was also a Church of England representative on the Anglican–Orthodox ecumenical dialogue from 1968. His greatest love, however, was liturgy and he invested considerable energies in promoting the Book of Common Prayer as one of the theological treasures of Anglicanism, then in danger of being eclipsed by a flood of anaemic ‘alternative’ services. When a new principal was appointed at Oxford’s Wycliffe Hall in 1970, with a mandate to restore the college’s evangelical heritage after some bleak years of liberal decline, Beckwith was soon recruited as a part-time liturgy lecturer.
In 1973, Beckwith was promoted to the role of Latimer House warden, directing its ministry for the next two decades, until his retirement in 1994. A succession of librarians formed the other half of the team, normally early-career scholars who later rose to prominence, including Peter Toon (1974-6), Nigel Biggar (1985-91) and Martin Davie (1992-3). Beckwith continued to publish tracts such as Confessing the Faith in the Church of England Today (1981), Thomas Cranmer after 500 Years (1989), and The Church of England: What It Is, and What It Stands For (1992). He also had a flair for patristic scholarship and his magnum opus was published as The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (1985). It was the fruit of 25 years of research and at 530 pages was by far his longest production, a standard reference text. In 1992 Beckwith was awarded a Lambeth DD by Archbishop George Carey in recognition of his theological contribution to the life of the Church of England. He was also elected as a vice-president of the Church Society and the Prayer Book Society.
In retirement, Beckwith published one of his most important and enduring books – Elders in Every City: The Origin and Role of the Ordained Ministry (2003) – dedicated to J. I. Packer, his ‘friend and mentor’. It is a slim and highly accessible study, based on a series of addresses to the clergy of Blackburn diocese, showing how the ministry of bishops and presbyters evolved in the early church. Although now out of print, Latimer Trust hopes soon to republish it for a new generation of readers. In that volume, Beckwith exclaims: ‘if the writer seems to be devoted to the Book of Common Prayer and its Ordinal, to the Thirty-Nine Articles and the writings of Cranmer and Hooker, that is because he is. He sees them as the finest expressions of Anglicanism – of historic Christianity as reformed by the word of God.’ This brief mission statement encapsulated his priorities for the theological renewal of Anglicanism in the twenty-first century.
Roger Beckwith died on 21 October 2023, aged 94, and is survived by his wife Janette and their children.
Andrew Atherstone is a research fellow with the Latimer Trust, and is a lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.
Views expressed in blogs published by the Latimer Trust are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Latimer Trust.