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Fenn, (John) Eric (1899–1995), Presbyterian minister and broadcaster, was born at 2 Kilmore Road, Forest Hill, London, on 3 June 1899, the fourth son of (Joseph) Louis Herbert Fenn (1855/6–1935), secretary to the National Temperance League, and his wife, Jessie Mary, née Maxted (1861/2–1936). Louis Fenn, who later became a bishop of the Free Church of England, was an itinerant evangelist and temperance worker. Soon after Eric's birth the family moved to New Brighton and then Birkenhead where they attached to a Presbyterian congregation. Eric attended Wallasey grammar school and as well as inheriting his parents' evangelical faith became, like one of his brothers, a staunch pacifist.

On leaving school in 1917 Fenn declared himself a conscientious objector and was committed to prison in Wormwood Scrubs, followed by hard labour at Knutsford and Dartmoor. Released after the armistice in 1918 he found himself spiritually devastated by these experiences and by the war scene as a whole, and moreover nearly died in the great post-war flu epidemic. His simple evangelical faith shattered, he looked to science as a potential source of truth and certainty, and from 1919 to 1923 studied physics and chemistry at Imperial College, London. He graduated with first-class honours and even made a tentative start on research, but found his spiritual and intellectual quest still unsatisfied. He had however begun to realize that dogmatic evangelicalism was not the only Christian option, and found helpful insights in, for example, the preaching of the liberal Congregationalist W. E. Orchard. With the encouragement of sympathetic friends, in 1923 he entered Westminster College, Cambridge, where his brother Reg had trained for the Presbyterian ministry and missionary field in China. Eric too followed the ordination course although was not actually licensed as a minister until 1943.

Cambridge proved decisive in Fenn's theological maturation. It was above all the Westminster College principal John Oman whose lectures on apologetics addressed exactly the questions Fenn himself was asking: can the nature of our environment, and the proper response to it, be understood in purely material terms? ‘He set the frame for all my subsequent thinking’, wrote Fenn 70 years later (unpublished memoir). That ‘God himself is not a theory—He is’, became Fenn's lifelong motif, guiding him through the debates about religion, science, and technology that never ceased to preoccupy him. But equally significant for him was the Student Christian Movement (SCM), then at the peak of its influence in Cambridge. Through the SCM he was drawn into a wider circle of students, from high Anglican to Free Church, and into debates on theology, Christian unity, and the bearing of Christianity on social problems, and he became secretary of the Cambridge branch.

On completing his Westminster course in 1926 Fenn joined the full-time staff of the SCM at its headquarters, Annandale House in London, as assistant general secretary alongside Tissington Tatlow. For the next ten years Fenn was occupied with study programmes, student conferences, and editing the journal Student World. In the process he acquired an immense amount of ecumenical experience including encounters with the Orthodox churches, and foreign travel to Germany, Bulgaria, and the USA, and other countries. Among the other SCM staff he also found his life partner, Kathleen Margaret (Kay) Harrison (1899–1999), daughter of William Arthur Harrison, farmer, of Grantham, Lincolnshire. They married at the Wesleyan church, Grantham, on 12 June 1929.

A shy and modest demeanour belied a sharp mind and strong character, and in 1936 Fenn's ecumenical interests and organizational skills came to the notice of J. H. Oldham, the leading lay ecumenist of the time, who recruited Fenn as his assistant in preparing the major ‘Life and work’ conference on ‘Church, Community, and State’ at Oxford in 1937. This event, together with the ‘Faith and Order’ conference following days later in Edinburgh, was a crucial step in the formation of the World Council of Churches. The constitution of the latter was laid down at a special conference in Utrecht in May 1938, at which Fenn served as minutes secretary. That same year Oldham initiated his Moot, a select study group of intellectuals devoted to examination of the bearing of faith on a society facing the threats of totalitarianism from without and moral confusion within. Theologians such as John Baillie and Alec Vidler were members but the majority were lay people like the literati T. S. Eliot and John Middleton Murry, the philosophers H. A. Hodges and Michael Polanyi, the academic administrators Walter Moberly and Hector Hetherington, and, most important of all, the sociologist Karl Mannheim. The Moot met three times a year from 1938 to 1947, and once again Fenn served as minutes secretary. His painstaking accuracy meant that full and verbatim records have been preserved of the exchanges of this extraordinary group.

Fenn's unusually wide knowledge of the church scene, and personal contact with many of its leading figures, was no doubt significant in his being recruited in 1939 to join James Welch, head of religion at the BBC, as assistant director of religious broadcasting. Thus began what was arguably the most creative phase of his career. The outbreak of war in September 1939 saw BBC ‘religion’ being evacuated to Bristol (later to Bedford)—and facing new challenges of content and method in its programming. Among other initiatives Fenn was instrumental in creating the short breakfast-time slot Lift Up Your Hearts and the Sunday evening Think on These Things. He enjoyed working with such leading writers and broadcasters as C. E. M. Joad, C. S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers. Moreover, while he appeared diffident in the pulpit (he struggled with a stammer until middle life) his modest style ideally suited the intimacy of the studio microphone. Once while on a weekend broadcasting visit in the country he was talking with his hosts in their garden when a neighbour called out over the fence ‘Lift up your hearts!’ She did not know him but had instantly recognized his voice.

Fenn left the BBC in 1945 for a spell as assistant editor at SCM Press, though in 1947 he returned to work for a year for the Overseas Service. His next main appointment was as literary editor at the British and Foreign Bible Society from 1947 to 1956. This was interesting if not, apart from a three-month tour of the Middle East, the most exciting work and his talents were probably not unduly stretched. In 1957 this all changed with his appointment as professor of Christian doctrine at the Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham. Here he was once more in a truly ecumenical setting, a community of colleges preparing men and women for missionary service and for teaching and social service at home, and, increasingly receiving students from overseas. His unabated theological curiosity and sympathy with enquiring doubters together with his gifts in communication made him an ideal tutor for these non-specialist students. In his inaugural lecture ‘Theological thinking in the climate of modern thought’ he explored what underlying theological links there could be between explicit Christian faith and such apparently secular writers as Colin Wilson and J. B. Priestley, together with the radical thoughts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

To his surprise, in 1960 the Presbyterian Church of England elected Fenn as its moderator—the first time any minister had been appointed who had been neither in congregational charge nor a missionary. In his address to the assembly he reiterated the challenge of enlarging Christian understanding to cope with the new dimensions of human knowledge: ‘Are we thinking of God in terms big enough for the universe he has made and for the total life of mankind in all its complexity?’ (unpublished memoir). To meet that need the churches must share all their resources of life and thought and recover their unity.

The 1960s saw increasing diversification of aims and ethos among the Selly Oak Colleges with, some felt, a less explicitly Christian common basis. Fenn's tact was utilized in chairing a number of the working parties set up to discuss their future relationships. He retired in 1967 but continued his involvement in ecumenical life in Birmingham and the west midlands. Naturally, the ecumenist found deep satisfaction in the union of the Presbyterian and Congregational churches to form the United Reformed Church in 1972, and he led the group that prepared the inaugural service in Westminster Abbey. Throughout his long retirement he and his wife kept up their lively interest in world affairs, especially as their son Nicholas followed a distinguished diplomatic career. Their younger son, Barnaby, died in 1968. Fenn died at his home, Broome House, Broome, Kidderminster, Worcestershire, on 21 June 1995, and was survived by his wife.

Keith Clements

Sources  

E. Fenn, unpublished memoirs, priv. coll. · J. Taylor and C. Binfield, eds., Who they were in the reformed churches of England and Wales, 1901–2000 (2007) · K. Clements, ed., The Moot papers: faith, freedom and society, 1938–1947 (2010) · K. M. Wolfe, The churches and the British Broadcasting Corporation, 1922–1956: the politics of broadcast religion (1984) · census returns, 1901, 1911 · personal knowledge (2012) · private information (2012) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

priv. coll.


Likenesses  

photograph, c.1938, Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, WCC archives · obituary photographs