This evening saw Regent's Park College honour Paul Fiddes with two festschrifts. Paul, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford - a title uniquely conferred on him in 2002 - and former Principal of Regent's Park College and current Director of Research, is the pre-eminent Baptist theologian at work in the world today. It was then more than fitting that the contribution he has made to the task of theology, both with academia and the church be recognised.
The evening was a planned surprise of which Paul had no prior knowledge - rarely do you see him stuck for words, but his speech in response was brief, demonstrating how touched he was by the presence of friends and colleagues and the two books. Jürgen Moltmann, who taught Paul for a year back in 1976, started the evening by giving a lecture on behalf of the Centre of Christianity and Culture based at Regent's (celebrating 20 years this year, having been birthed by Paul in the early 1990s). Moltmann named Paul as a 'radical Baptist.' The evening then continued to present Paul with the festschrifts, which included a speech from Rex Mason, former tutor in Old Testament at Regent's. He shared that he knew Paul as a child (Paul's grandparents being in the church where Rex was then minister).
The two festschrifts reflect Paul's contribution to academic theology and to Baptist church life. The first, Within the Love of God: Essays on the Doctrine of God in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes, is edited by Andrew Moore and Anthony Clarke (both former students and now current colleagues of Paul) and draws together an international line-up of theologians including Jürgen Moltmann, John Webster, Keith Ward, Paul Helm, Frances Young, David Burrell, Chris Rowland, John Barton and two other Baptist theologians in John Colwell and Stephen Holmes. The book engages in different ways with the doctrine of God, which has been a central focus of Paul's theology, especially in his first major book The Creative Suffering of God and the later Participating in God.
The second book, For the Sake of the Church: Essays in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes, edited by Anthony Clarke (again!) is a collection of essays by colleagues at Regent's Park - Rob Ellis, Nick Wood, Myra Blyth, Larry Kreizter and Deborah Rooke, Anthony Clarke, Tim Bradshaw - as well as other British Baptists scholars - Ruth Gouldbourne, Stephen Finamore, Nigel Wright, Richard Kidd, Brian Haymes, John Weaver and John Briggs. These essays mostly reflect and interact with Paul's contributions to Baptist theology and life, with regards to ecclesiology, the sacraments and ministry.
Both books are fitting tributes and offer some good critical engagement with Paul's theology. (Other future festschrifts might reflect Paul's contribution both to wider Baptist life and in the area of ecumenical conversations).
Paul has been in Oxford since the 1960s and at Regent's since the 1970s and so you could say it was long overdue to honour him in this way. Paul is the Baptist gift to wider theology - we have produced very few theologians of his stature. As Baptists, I'm not sure we will see another like him (partly because as a Baptist Union in Great Britain we don't invest and encourage people to take up the theological task like Paul has) and as Baptists, I'm not sure we've really fully appreciated and paid enough attention to his voice, but here's hoping these festschrifts will be one way to change that.