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Stuart Barton Babbage Memorial Service

Posted: 08/02/13

The Revd Dr Brian Rosner, delivered this sermon at the Memorial Service for the Revd Canon Stuart Barton Babbage, former Dean of Melbourne and Principal of Ridley College, at St Paul’s Cathedral on 31 January 2013.

Readings: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Corinthians 4:1-17

About 12 months ago, soon after my appointment as Principal of Ridley Melbourne was announced, I received an invitation to have a cup of tea with Stuart Barton Babbage in his home in the eastern suburbs of Sydney.

Meeting Babbage was a memorable experience.  At 96, he cut an impressive figure.  Books lined the shelves of most rooms of his house, along with photographs of some key moments in his life alongside figures including a young Queen Elizabeth II.  Upright, steady and remarkably lucid, he spoke engagingly of memories of his time in Melbourne 50 years ago and just as clearly about what he expected of me in my new role.  Highlights included tales of walks with C.S. Lewis and conversations with Dorothy Sayers.  He was, as someone put it, in his “anecdotage”.

For a New Testament scholar interested in the study of Jesus and the gospels, the certainty and detail of his recollections struck me as an example of the reliability of oral tradition when it is transmitted by eye-witnesses, even 50 years after the events!

A twinkle in his eye remained, and one could still see the aptness of the epithet “loose canon”, the title of his autobiography.

After moving to Melbourne last year, I had the privilege of regular correspondence with him and genuinely appreciated his support and encouragement. I believe Andreas Loewe had similar contact with Babbage when he became Dean of the Cathedral.

Having been summoned for and looking forward to another meeting this year, I was saddened to hear of his death. Our sincere condolences go to his children Veronica, Malcolm, Christopher and Timothy and their families.  And warm greetings at this memorial service in particular go to his colleagues and friends.

By any measure, the Revd Dr Canon Stuart Barton Babbage was a remarkable individual. Rather than reaching a pinnacle, his career was more like a mountain range of multiple peaks:

  • BA and MA at 20 years of age;
  • PhD at the University of London, with a thesis on the Puritans (which, incidentally, was quoted in a recent work published by Cambridge University Press);
  • RAF Chaplain;
  • Dean of St Andrews Cathedral in Sydney at the age of 30;
  • Principal of Ridley Melbourne at the age of 37; and also Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne (the only person to have been Dean of both Sydney and Melbourne);
  • President of Conwell Seminary and then first Vice President and Academic Dean at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston;
  • Master of New College at the University of New South Wales;
  • Registrar of the Australian College of Theology.

Most of these posts he held for a decade or more.

Our first reading from Deuteronomy included these words: “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.”  With only a little overstatement, this is not too bad a summary of Stuart Barton Babbage.

Today we give thanks to God for his servant.

Babbage’s time in Melbourne at Ridley and the Cathedral was marked by prodigious energy, entrepreneurial flair and admirable scholarship. Babbage had a panache not normally seen of evangelicals. He spearheaded the extraordinarily fruitful 1959 Billy Graham Crusade, promoted the gospel at every opportunity, commented publicly on contemporary social, political and ethical issues and succeeded in making this Cathedral central to the cultural life of the city.  His work in Melbourne remains an inspiration to many of us today, especially those at Ridley and St Paul’s.

How ought we assess Babbage’s life and work? A service like this raises the question, how are we to assess any person’s ministry?  How will God assess it?  How do we assess our own?

Assessing a person’s contribution to the work of the gospel is of course a difficult task. Our second reading from 1 Corinthians mentions that it is only God who can expose the motives of our hearts, which is a big part of any true assessment.

And we should take seriously Paul’s advice. The Corinthian Christians were fond of forming strong opinions about their leaders, including Paul. To them, Paul says: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.

Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.”

Are we then to leave all evaluation of ministry to the last day when all of us will appear before the Judgment seat of Christ?  Paul, in fact, does not leave us without any sense of what constitutes service that pleases God. He states that as “servants of Christ we are those entrusted with the mysteries God, the gospel message”.  And most significantly, he states: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”

So while premature judgments are to be avoided, both of ourselves and others, we do know what is on the final examination. We will each be asked, as those who have been given a trust, have you been faithful?

At one level, this is comforting.  We won’t be asked, “Were you successful, measured numerically or otherwise?”  We won’t be asked, “How do you measure up against your peers?”  We won’t be asked, “How many distinguished posts did you occupy?”

The Corinthians were assessing their leaders on the criteria of eloquence and impressive personal presence and comparing Paul with Apollos and Cephas, or should I say against Apollos and Cephas. They were judging in superficial and worldly terms. Paul is consistent. He says servants of God must be found faithful and when describing Timothy in verse 17, he is Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord.

What is faithfulness?  Someone or something is “faithful” if you can trust them to do something. In the Pastoral Epistles, the “faithful” sayings are those “we can trust” (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:15 – “Here is a trustworthy [faithful] saying that deserves full acceptance”).

In calling his servant to be faithful, God expects no less than he Himself delivers, for, as Paul reminded the Corinthians in 1:9, “God is faithful,” a thought repeated in 10:13.  Indeed, a basic attribute of God is his dependability. Whereas we may be tempted to judge ministers on their success or initiative or giftedness in terms of interpersonal relations or speaking, the sole requirement Paul counsels us to keep in mind is faithfulness to God.

But in which connection does God insist on our faithfulness?  For what is he relying on us?  “Faithfulness” can be attached to a broad range of activities.  Faithful to do what exactly?

In the context of Paul’s own example in 1 Corinthians 1-4, it is faithfulness in preaching the word of the cross and in conforming his own conduct to the message of a crucified Messiah. The faithful servant of God can be trusted to present the gospel appropriately, not “with wise and persuasive words but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (2:4), and as 1 Corinthians 4:8-13 goes on to demonstrate, not as shining success, but as “the scum of the earth,” a status in keeping with their crucified Lord.  The benchmark for Christians on the day of Christ will be will be the extent to which our conduct and message conform to the message of the cross.

Stuart Barton Babbage knew this well himself. In his Mark of Cain, he wrote: “Man’s mind, as well as his heart, needs to be subjected to the judgment of the cross.”

What does this look like in lived experience?  In Paul’s experience, it meant going hungry and thirsty, being in rags, being brutally treated, even being homeless. It meant working with his hands. It meant that when he was cursed, he blessed; when persecuted, he endured; when slandered, he answered kindly.

Does this remind you of anyone?  Many of the details in 1 Corinthians 4:9-13 recall the sufferings of Christ. The example of Jesus is behind Paul’s description of his hardships in service of the gospel.  Jesus was himself brutally treated, homeless, refused to retaliate, persecuted, and on the cross he returned blessings for curse.  As one commentary puts it, “the shame of the cross colours Paul’s description” of his own experience.

To depict his hardships, Paul uses the disturbing metaphor of a gladiatorial show. In a public event with a cosmic audience, before the eyes of the whole universe, angels as well as human beings, God has put the apostles on display as a spectacle. The Corinthians have the privileged position of spectators in the stands. Unfortunately, Paul and the other apostles are in the ring at the end of the procession. The last and climactic event on the program, the criminals facing capital punishment must appear and fight to the death.  The apostles are condemned to die in the arena; Paul uses a word used for those thrown to the lions.

According to Paul, the apostles’ lives are marked by struggle, disgrace and failure, not unlike their Lord who was literally executed as a criminal. This is what Paul calls faithfulness. It’s what God requires of his servants: to preach the gospel of the cross and to be willing to suffer for it as the Lord Jesus himself did. That is the criterion of judgment that our labours will be measured against.

Today we celebrate Stuart Barton Babbage’s life and work, and give thanks to God for his extraordinary gifts and influence.  We may understandably feel also a sense of inferiority next to Babbage’s achievements. If his work was “Himalayan” ministry, ours may seem like “foothill” ministry.

On the one hand, to aspire to the ministry achievements of a Stuart Barton Babbage is a daunting goal. However, to aspire to a life and ministry that is faithful to the values of the cross is in fact much more daunting.

“Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”

May the Lord help us all to be faithful servants in whatever setting he places us.

This article was first published on the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne website (6/2/13)

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