Leon Morris and the University College
‘Remember your leaders. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith’
by Murray Seiffert
One of Leon Morris’s great visions has not received the attention it deserved: Ridley College would become a university college of the University of Melbourne at the beginning of 1966. The success of this enterprise surely opened the way for female students to be accepted as residents and increased perceptions of the College’s academic standing.
From its earliest days, the college had been a residential home for theological students, as well as the so-called ‘secular’ students. Tradition has it that this diversity was to ensure that the ‘logs’ did not grow too ‘other-worldly’ in a ‘holier-than-thou’ ivory tower. Of course, the extra students made a significant contribution towards the finances of a college that was never well-endowed.
The vision was to ensure that Ridley College took its place in the university as an institution of serious learning in the formation of future leaders. Whilst the university students were undertaking degree studies, few theology students advanced beyond the ThL diploma. For the first time, university students would become an equal part of the central business of the college, rather than ‘extras’ or ‘supernumerary’ boarders. Central to this mission was the commitment to having university students exposed to the life of a Christian college.
It was probably not surprising that such a change would result in a strong reaction from the body of theological students who no longer stood alone as the first-class citizens of the college. In 1966, Dr Morris appointed a pharmacy student, Donald Beaument, as Senior Student of Ridley College; he was a sensitive and outstanding leader by any measure, a good choice.
The Principal embarked upon the change with unswerving vigour and soon the college became a recognized part of the university scene. The general tutorial program was integrated into that of the other colleges, improving the quality significantly. The Ridley hockey team held its own in intercollegiate games, the football team won a few matches and there were many other points of integration. The university recognized Dr Morris’s scholarship and efforts with an honorary MSc.
Both Dr Morris and Vice Principal Dr Keith Cole carried the college through these changes with equity, warmth and good humour, in spite of having to occasionally deal with intense reactions against the change. They also appointed a set of Christian men, and occasionally women, as tutors. Whilst student discipline was the responsibility of the student body, the tutors were important ballast to steady the student ship. By 1970, the College seemed to be well settled into its new life, although a much higher proportion of the university students now came from Christian backgrounds, and the presence of increasing numbers of women eventually eradicated the ‘boys-own’ elements of College life.
Dr Morris’s own journey had not taken him into a residential theological hall. His first undergraduate studies were in science, preparing to become a school teacher. This may be why he was so much at home, in an intellectual sense, with the non-theological students. He seemed to understand what it meant to move a long distance from home to study in the centre of a huge city. In contrast, most theology students came from the city and, at that time, few of them had taken undergraduate studies in any other discipline.
My first contact was an unannounced visit on a very hot day in mid-January 1966 as a country lad in desperate need of accommodation. Accompanied by my girlfriend Marjorie, we were sincerely welcomed and encouraged by Dr Morris.
It is hard to imagine a better environment for a young Christian. Four years of digesting the sermons of Leon Morris, Keith Cole, David Williams and others is one of the greatest gifts that God has given me. The task of the sermon was invariably to explore with faith and rigour, what was God’s message for us and what might be our response. It was to sort out the chaff from the wheat, casting aside doubtful interpretations, regardless of how popular they might be. Who could forget the stage of many of Dr Morris’s sermons when he had demolished a set of contending explanations, arriving at a couple of inseparable conclusions: ‘Well, you pay your money and take your pick!’ Over the years, I have come to see this as important methodology – do not import certainty when the text is ambiguous!
The downside of hearing such a set of sermons was to create a certain frustration at being exposed to the dry rot which sometimes infests pulpits.
Many young university students were trained for lay leadership in the church as they were guided through leading Sunday evening services. Dr Morris preached on the first night that I acted as precentor. I thought that I hadn’t done a bad job of it, until he prayed at the end. ‘Loving God, please forgive us for the imperfections of our worship.’ In the face of a great God, both of us were hopelessly imperfect! A lesson never to be forgotten.
I completed my BAgrSc at the end of 1968 and expected to begin a masters degree, funded by the Australian Wheat Board. Alas, 1968 was the year of a disastrous drought and no scholarships were awarded. Faced with the almost certain prospect of abandoning advanced study, I sought Dr Morris’s counsel. He encouraged me to continue to follow my leading with an offer I could not have imagined: I would be appointed as a tutor, which covered a large part of my living expenses; in addition he added ‘And pay the balance of your fees when you are able’.
An unforgettable consequence of this was sitting at ‘high table’ for dinner every evening, followed by coffee and mints in the Senior Common Room. This friendly gathering was also a high point of intellectual enquiry and relaxed Christian fellowship; it was a priceless experience for a young postgraduate student. At the time, Dr Morris was working on his IVP commentary on Revelation; we would sometimes discuss aspects of this work, which he described as the most difficult work he had ever tackled.
Many years later I embarked upon a PhD in sociology using qualitative methodology. Near the end of the project I was reflecting on the influences on my approach to analysing text, and realized that the rigor and discipline which I brought to the task had been hugely influenced by my years with Dr Morris, including taking his lectures on the Gospel of Luke.
No less important were Dr Morris’s examples of writing and speaking. Firstly his subject matter was never trite and never diluted. Secondly, he showed how disciplined enquiry could be communicated with clarity to ordinary citizens. Dr William Barclay was similarly skilled. These lessons have influenced my whole approach to writing, particularly my recent books.
Whilst my close contacts with Dr Morris, and other staff, was unusual at the time, the heritage he left was not only a high-calibre tertiary college, it was a generation of university graduates who had been exposed to the message of the Gospel, including many people who were well-prepared to take an active role in God’s plans.
Murray Seiffert, now retired, spent many years in teacher education at the University of Melbourne and Melbourne College of Advanced Education. He then worked as Director of Community Development in the Diocese of Melbourne and as Academic Dean at Nungalinya College. Acorn Press published his two books, ‘Refuge on the Roper: the origins of the Roper River Mission, Ngukurr’ and ‘Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land’.