Ruth Etchells, 1931-2012

September 13, 2012

Ruth Etchells was born in London on April 1931 and adopted, at the age of 2, by a Congregationalist minister and his wife, who took her to live in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. She was educated at Merchant Taylors' School for Girls in Liverpool and then studied English to postgraduate level at the University of Liverpool.

After a period as a schoolteacher, in 1963 Dr Etchells was appointed lecturer in English at what is now the University of Chester, and moved in 1968 to Durham University for the rest of her career. An authority on modern drama, she became a senior lecturer in English in 1973, while also serving as tutor and then vice-principal at the newly established Trevelyan College.

The move to Durham coincided with a significant deepening of Dr Etchells' faith. She pioneered a master's course in literature and theology and wrote a highly influential book, Unafraid to be: A Christian Study of Contemporary English Writing (1969), followed by studies of the poets Robert Browning and George Herbert and several collections of prayers.

She went on to play a significant role in the Church of England's General Synod and the Crown Appointments Commission, and was awarded a Lambeth degree of doctor of divinity by the Archbishop of Canterbury, then George Carey, in 1992.

More challenging, however, was Dr Etchells' position as principal of St John's College, Durham from 1979 to 1988. She faced a good deal of hostility as a lay woman running an institution responsible for ordaining Anglican clergy that had begun admitting female undergraduates less than 10 years earlier.

Sir Derman Christopherson, who was outgoing vice-chancellor when she started in the role, also candidly admitted to her that the university had concerns about the college's academic standing and finances. She responded by tightening up admissions procedures, pushing through a major refurbishment programme and breaking down barriers between the academy and the Church.

Margaret Masson, vice-principal and senior tutor at St Chad's College, Durham, remembered Dr Etchells as "a brilliant, charismatic teacher" who was "courageous and prophetic - interested in literature that others did not yet take seriously". With this came "a capacity to see the potential in people. She read people as she read books - with uncanny discernment and affection - and helped them make sense to themselves. It was very important to her in St John's that the welfare of staff at all grades was taken seriously, and she challenged any whiff of an upstairs-downstairs culture."

Ruth Etchells died, after a long struggle with Crohn's disease and cancer, on 8 August 2012.

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