Reporter 422, 8 June 1998


Professor Haddon Willmer

Haddon Willmer's thirty-two years of service to the University of Leeds were marked by his commitment to theological and moral engagement. The University was not just his place of work, but one of several arenas in which he worked out what it was to be a responsible citizen and scholar. At his inaugural lecture in 1995 he grappled with the interconnections between political history, the academy, the place of theology within it, and God. To this life-long concern, Haddon brought wit, self-effacement, and rigour. He challenged colleagues and students to view it with equal seriousness.

Haddon entered Cambridge in 1958 after completing National Service in the Royal Air Force. As a committed Baptist student he turned from the study of history to theology, winning the Hulsean Prize for his outstanding essay on 'Evangelicalism 1785-1835'. He worked for a PhD in Patristics, and then as a Research Fellow at Emmanuel College.

Most of Haddon's working life was spent in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds where he served as Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, then Professor of Theology. At one time or another he held every position of administrative responsibility in the Department before being appointed Chair and Head of Department in 1994. In that capacity, he will be remembered by his colleagues for his ready availability, democratic spirit, and creative energy. In the wider University, Haddon's roles included Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Chair of Appointing Committees, and member of Council and Senate.

As a teacher, Haddon's interest was in stimulating intellectual enquiry and vision at all levels, particularly in MA courses on 'Theology and Politics in the 20th Century', 'Local Church and Social Responsibility', and 'Mission and Missions' on which he often taught with other colleagues. He believed strongly that conversation and partnership were the most productive means by which students and staff could improve their skills in argument and analysis. The research groups he formed with others sought to extend this opportunity still further.

Invigorating periods of study leave were important for shaping the theological interests with which Haddon became identified. In Tübingen in the early 1970s he developed a fascination for 20th century German religious history, later to be focused in research and teaching on the theologian, Bonhoeffer. He was then appointed to the two-year Maurice Reckitt Fellowship in Christian Social Thought, which was followed by a winter's leave in Bangalore during which he was able to consider Indian Christian perspectives on this subject . Finally, at the Center for Theological Enquiry in Princeton in 1992, he pursued work begun many years earlier on the politics of forgiveness.

Haddon's pursuit of these interests drove him to engage actively in working groups which sought to apply theology to contemporary issues, such as the Council for Christian Approaches on Defence and Disarmament, the Industrial Mission Working Group, the Politics and Forgiveness Study Project, and the Division of Community Affairs of the British Council of Churches. The many papers and articles he wrote reflected similar concerns. He considered human rights, the churches and the poll tax, faith in the city, the theology of European security, church and state, electoral reform as an issue for the churches, and theological responses to poverty.

Although Haddon often looked beyond the world of scholarship for events and issues to stir his theological imagination, he also served on the committees of the Ecclesiastical History Society and the Society for the Study of Theology, and as a founder member and Chair of the British and Irish Association for Mission Studies. His wide interests led him to participate at various times in the University's Centres of Business Ethics and European Studies, and to pursue links with other departments and schools. At the time of his retirement he was involved in establishing a new joint programme with the School of Healthcare Studies.

The most important partnership, however, was with his wife Hilary, whose own work in community and neighbourhood action, and then as Director of Leeds Church Institute dovetailed with Haddon's own interests. Their three children and grandson, and a love of painting beckon Haddon in retirement, but his commitment to a socially and politically engaged Christian theology will remain.

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