By Frederick Quinn
Frank Turner was a major historian of modern Britain and a significant commentator on the struggle of the Anglican Communion to find its identity. His unexpected death at age 66, a few months after he had been appointed to a five-year term as librarian of Yale University, is a deep loss to the wider church and to his wife, the Rev. Ellen Louise Tillotson, rector of a vibrant, diverse parish, Trinity Episcopal Church in Torrington, Conn.
Turner served for seven years as director of the Beinicke Rare Book and Manuscript library, and as university provost from 1988 to 1992 during a tumultuous time in Yale’s history. At heart he was a teacher, which the university recognized in awarding him its Undergraduate Teaching Award in 1971. He held the John Hay Whitney Professor of History chair, taught European and English history, was the author of several path-breaking books and a steady stream of major articles and conference presentations. John Henry Newman, the Challenge to Evangelical Religion (2002) is a riveting page-turner on Newman and British intellectual and social history of the nineteenth century, and the cornerstone biography of Newman in our time..
From 2007 until last month Frank and I exchanged sometimes-lengthy email observations about the Anglican Communion, principally about lumpy emergence of the Anglican Covenant and the rhetorical glitter around the ascendency of John Henry Newman toward Roman Catholic sainthood. Turner’s writing was characterized by personal modesty, steady focus, and an amazingly approachable prose style marked by clarity and anchoring his subjects in their broader place in English or European history. All this was laced with a riotous sense of humor, sometimes in one-line comments, sometimes in passing on a howler quote from the good and the great that had come his way. He had a vivid collection of stories about encounters along the researcher’s way, such as when, after an intense day in the archives, its respectful custodians offered to lead Frank in to the vast, carefully-preserved office of Edward B. Pusey at sunset, where a deeply polished wooden box was opened to disclose the death mask of that Oxford Movement figure.
In both his commentaries on the Covenant and in his books on Newman, Frank carefully chronicled the distortions of those who systematically rewrote religious history to fit polemical purposes. Newman outlived most of his opponents and wrote and rewrote his Apologia to favor his current views, and his historical probings into early heresies and their impact on later Christianity were mostly lucidly contrived fantasy pieces. Frank combed the archives in patient detail and established the document trail of Newman’s special pleadings. “Frank, you would have made a great detective if the dice had rolled that way,” I once observed over lunch in what Frank called a “Connecticut Italian” restaurant. As might be expected, his work on Newman took heavy hits from a gaggle of loyalist writers who tried to keep an unmovable protective veil over their vision of Newman. But Frank remained firm; he was generous in his sympathy for his subject, but clear in documenting his skilled manipulations.
Frank also saw the proposed Anglican Covenant representing careful distortions of Anglican history purposefully crafted to support ideological stances. His essay on “The Imagined Community of the Anglican Communion,” first published in Episcopal Café on September 9, 2009, attracted one of the largest numbers of thoughtful respondents of any such Internet publication. Three quotations suggest the clarity of his vision and breath of historical perspective:
“At its worst, it has come to represent an imagined community several of whose Episcopal spokespeople now seek to persecute and degrade or relegate into a second track churches who have opened themselves, their process of ordination, and their episcopate to gay and lesbian people. In this respect, this ecclesiastical imagined community replicates in its drive to exclude the persecution that ethnic minorities have experienced at the hands of dominant nationalist groups from the early nineteenth century to the present day.”
"What most notably demonstrates that the so-called Anglican Communion is merely a still-emerging imagined community is the fact that only in the past few years (really in the past few months) have some of its leaders decided that they must construct a covenant determining what beliefs and practices actually constitute its theological and ideological basis. This is to say, the Anglican Communion presumably having existed for its present proponents since the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 must now figure out what holds it together theologically and ecclesiastically. What the effort to establish a covenant demonstrates is that the so-called Anglican Communion does not really exist but must be forcibly drawn into existence. Radical innovation rather than tradition hence drives the process.”
“The Episcopal Church through its long established institutions of ecclesiastical governance combating lay and clerical voices in equal measure, has chosen to tread the path of Christian liberty. Over the past decades the Episcopal Church has concluded that the perpetuation of unity with an imagined Anglican Communion being increasingly drawn into a reality for the purpose of persecuting and repressing gay and lesbian people is not acceptable and is not Christian. The Episcopal Church has decided to reassert not only that Jesus Christ has redeemed us, but that he has made us free. In accord with St. Paul’s injunction to the Galatians the Episcopal Church has chosen to stand fast ‘in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free’ and not to be “entangles again with the yoke of bondage.”Rest Eternal Grant Unto Him
Grief is both communal and personal. The wide community of university administrators, library staff, historians, students, and friends mourn the passing of a well-respected colleague and friend; for his wife, Ellen, the loss is inconsolable. When I saw the headline bearing news of his death, at first I thought it was a mistake. A day earlier I had mentally composed a paragraph I hoped to send to Frank that weekend. Instead, I sat in silence in the late autumnal light, reading and rereading prayers from the Burial Office, seeking hope amidst the awful reality of death. For me, the process of grief is inextricably linked with music and on that night and the next, I found solace in listening to Alfred Brendel playing Schubert’s B Flat Major Piano Sonata, and dedicated the experience to Frank. Brendel chose the late Schubert work to end his farewell recital in 2008. Its elegiac flow combines hope, depth, and gentleness and resonates with the memory of Frank Turner.
Frederick Quinn is an Episcopal priest and author of books and articles on history, law, and religion. He is former chaplain to the Anglican diplomatic communities in Prague and Warsaw.