Dr Leon Morris – Hero of the Faith




Published Date: 14 Jun 2014

Remember your leaders. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith

by Bishop Barbara Darling

This article was originally published in TMA, April 2010

Which Hero of the Faith do I want to talk about? Hildegard von Bingen – educated, theologically astute, interested and gifted in music, gardening and herbs, politics, confidante to princes and bishops? Or Hilda, the Abbess of Whitby Abbey, key player in the Synod of Whitby with its choice of the English church following the Roman customs rather than the Celtic ones? Perhaps John Stott, English theologian and champion evangelical scholar and commentator? All impressive people – but the one I knew personally and had as my college lecturer and Principal when I was both student and then staff, is one many Melbourne clergy still remember and have learnt so much from – Dr Leon Lamb Morris, the “Doc”, with his distinctive voice, crooked half smile, and simple yet profound sermons based on his extensive knowledge of the New Testament Greek and love for his Lord.

Leon Lamb Morris was born in March 1914, in the NSW country town of Lithgow, just over the Blue Mountains. His father was an iron founder, but Leon went on to university and gained his Batchelor of Science before training to be a teacher in the Depression year of 1931. His life was changed when he became a Christian through the ministry of the Anglican minister R.B. Robinson in Leichhardt while undergoing teacher training. The next year he felt a call to the ordained ministry but was committed by his bond to teach for five years. The Archbishop of Sydney recognised his call and his scholarship and paid out his bond so he was able to be ordained for Sydney diocese in 1938. He prepared privately for his Licentiate of Theology while teaching and was the top student that year for this Australian College of Theology qualification. He went on to study while serving as a Bush Church Aid “bush pastor” to a vast area in outback South Australia. Dr Morris would occasionally tell us as students about those days, when his new wife Mildred – known affectionately by generations of College staff and students as “Millie”- would drive their car along the primitive dirt roads while Leon studied his Greek New Testament beside her. Leon went on to gain his Bachelor of Divinity from London University with first class honours, followed by his Masters of Theology in 1946.

Leon Morris accepted the invitation to be the Vice Principal of Ridley College, Melbourne, in 1945. He took time out in 1950-51 to study in Cambridge for his Ph.D. and turned this later into the book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. This was a significant book for Australian evangelicals and focused on the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. In 1951 he was the first Australian elected to the international Society for New Testament Studies. He returned to the UK in 1961 when appointed the Warden of Tyndale House in Cambridge. He enjoyed the writing and Biblical research involved in this position but answered the call in 1964 to be the Principal of Ridley College in a time where it faced considerable challenges. In his fifteen years as Principal he built up the college, was responsible for the building of the new chapel, and supervised Ridley becoming the first residential college from the University to have both women and men residential students. He was made a Canon of St Paul’s cathedral in 1964 and a member of the University Council in 1977.

Dr Morris was a shy man who loved retreating to his “tower” in his residence of Cumnock at Parkville. He was content reading his Greek Scriptures or Biblical commentators or a chapter of Agatha Christie. My first encounter with him was when coming for an interview to be a residential student in the mid 1970s. After arriving late from the overnight train journey from Sydney, I knocked cautiously on the imposing front door of Cumnock. When a diminutive man opened the door I thought it must be the butler – but it was Dr Morris with his lumber jacket on. He took me upstairs to meet Millie and to have a cuppa in their tiny little kitchen and chatted for a while, before welcoming me to come to the college if I would like to – this was only the second year of women theological students living in the college. Memories of student years include the respectful silence in our pastoral care group with “The Doctor”, who would put his hands together and hum a little tune while waiting for some comment. Prayer Book lectures saw Dr Morris coming into the room in his flowing academic gown as was then the custom, with his Prayer Book notes balanced on top of 10 to 15 books that he would dip into during the lecture. New Testament lectures and sermons had us all in awe of his ability to translate any part of the New Testament Greek into English at a moment’s notice. Many a student felt inadequate in their knowledge of Greek, but learnt from his love for it and his ability to say comments like “The word love is mentioned 322 times in the NT” and then say how many times in each book if necessary.

In one of my early years at college several guest preachers failed to turn up and Dr Morris would stand up and preach without specific preparation. Some of these were some of his most memorable sermons – following his typical pattern of 20 minutes long, Biblically based with good application, and a joke exactly half way through. I was on the staff of Ridley College when Dr Morris retired in 1979 (with eleven books still to write!). At his farewell the students gave him a pile of used envelopes to write his notes for his sermons (as was his custom!) and a selection of Readers’ Digests to help provide a source of new jokes. Dr Morris was disciplined, hard working, quiet and self effacing in some ways, but prepared to stand up and debate theological and Biblical issues with clarity and acumen. Dr Peter Adam in his eulogy for Dr Morris comments that his “style was famous for his dry wit, conciseness, simplicity, and attention to the detail of the biblical text applied relevantly.” He was prepared and willing to serve on boards for Christian organizations including nondenominational groups such as Scripture Union, the Bible Society and the Evangelical Alliance, (where as President he established the TEAR fund for Christian aid), as well as the Anglican Church Missionary Society. He also chaired the 1968 Billy Graham Crusade committee – a large and complex task. He was not so prepared to attend various Diocesan meetings, including Synod, preferring instead to be at home working on his next book.

Dr Morris wrote commentaries on most books of the New Testament, as well as many articles for journals and church newspapers. Altogether his bibliography takes up nearly 14 pages and consists of more than 50 books of theology and Biblical commentary, which together have sold some two million copies worldwide. His large volume on John’s gospel was a text book for the New Testament course I studied by correspondence before coming to Melbourne. Its clarity and helpfulness were major reasons for me being attracted to come and study at Ridley. Many others, too, were drawn by his scholarship and his reasoned and evangelical theological framework. His works – books, papers, commentaries, etc – were translated into many different languages and he was known and respected as a visiting scholar and preacher in many overseas countries and colleges. He was a translator for the New International Version of the Bible and was presented a Festschrift in 1974 for his 60th birthday. This had contributions from many eminent Biblical scholars.

When Dr Morris retired he moved to Doncaster and adjusted his house to fit in most of his large collection of books. He continued to write many more books over the years and to lecture on overseas trips and preach regularly, until his health would not allow this. He kept in touch with many of his previous students and lecturing staff, and I was thrilled to get various encouraging letters from time to time. He also continued to assist and positively influence many peoples’ lives by the continuation of the Leon and Mildred Morris Foundation, where the royalties from his many books have been able to help many young theologians and pastors in various ways.

As well as his Biblical commentaries and theological tomes on ministry and the people of God, one book in particularly influenced my life and that of many others. In 1976 he wrote a paper for the Anglican Doctrine Commission on the role of women in the church. This was published with the title A Woman’s Place with the papers of two other theologians, John Gaden and Barbara Thiering, both from a more Catholic perspective. Dr Morris’ paper, entitled simply The Role of Women looked very carefully at key Biblical passages and at ministry in general. He examined the ministry of service, what it means to be deacons and elders, the concepts of submission and equality and the argument from silence and from speaking out. His willingness to take the passages seriously and to examine them carefully in context encouraged me to look with him at the opportunities for women in ministry – and eventually to respond to the call for me to be ordained and to encourage other women in that journey. Here Morris and other staff at Ridley, particularly John Wilson and Charles Sherlock, showed their different understanding of the ministry of women from the theologians and church leaders in Moore College and Sydney. The Ridley staff and college were openly in favour of women lecturing, preaching, being ordained and when possible being appointed to incumbencies.

Dr Morris led by example. When he appointed me on to the staff, he made it clear that I would be expected, as with male staff, to continue fulfilling my role – which included preaching, teaching, and leading both men and women. He encouraged me and other women to preach and lead in prayer, despite some opposition from more conservative students. His firm belief in the calling and equipping of women as well as men to positions of leadership in the church helped us to be prepared and enabled to develop these gifts. His personal support in this area was something we greatly appreciated. His humility shone through to me when he thanked me for my sermon (on John’s gospel, so well known and loved to him!). When I commented that I felt somewhat overawed with him there, he assured me that God spoke through every sermon prepared and preached with an open heart, and that he always prayed for the person preaching and that he (Dr Morris) was always open to hearing God’s word proclaimed through that person.

The Morrises were not able to have their own children but the students of the College became their children in another way. Though not overtly demonstrative, their concern and prayer for their college students continued on over the years. Dr Leon Lamb Morris in his life, his faith, his scholarship, his wisdom, his desire to share the Gospel with others, and his willingness to see things from different perspectives while arguing cogently for his preferred view, is to me a true Hero of the Faith.

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DONATECelebrate the centenary of the birthday of Leon Morris by donating to the Leon Morris Library Building Fund.  The library plays a vital role in the academic and community life of Ridley Melbourne, with excellent collections of print and online resources.  The current library building has served us well for 30 years but has now reached capacity. It is in urgent need of extension and modernization to provide a state of the art learning centre.  The projected cost is $3 million, of which $500,000 has been raised to date.

We respectfully acknowledge the Wurundjeri People, who are the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Ridley College campus is built.
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