When I first met Father John Challenor in 1966, he was just 43 years old. He had by then been ordained twenty-one years and was a member of the Birmingham Oratory, the community founded by John Henry Cardinal Newman, and was employed by them in the next door St Philip’s Grammar School for Catholic boys. I was a student for the priesthood (until the events of 1968 opened my eyes) and Eamon Duffy was just one of John’s appreciative pupils at that time (see Duffy’s Faith of our Fathers, Continuum 2004, p4 – the other 'exceptionally gifted man' was Hamish Swanston, later professor of theology at the University of Kent who died last year). We were friends and collaborators in ministry through CRM/CCC from then until his death during the Easter Octave this year, some forty eight years.
In a review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion (RENEW 145, March 2008, p14) John said that after reading that book, ‘I am left as religious, as atheistic, as agnostic, as pantheistic as before.’ He had already explained in an autobiographical article (RENEW 134, June 2005, p2) how he answered the question ‘Am I a Catholic now?’ by saying ‘I am perhaps a former Catholic and a lapsed Anglican. I would describe myself as a Jesus Seminar/Sea of Faith type of Christian, concerned to stand in the prophetic and wisdom traditions.’ And so he did. Given his dislike of labels, it is hard to describe him.
John Challenor was my mentor – and I acknowledged this in CCC’s collection of liturgies Take, Bless, Break, Share which I edited and which Canterbury Press published in 1998. He guided my reading for those two years that I was an Oratorian philosophy student; he had worked for the difficult London BD as an external student, his first degree from Oxford being in History, and was extremely well-read in scripture studies and modern theology. It was he who inspired me to become the sort of person I am (except for my failings of course!) and whose humble but uncompromising witness to the Gospels has kept me on the rails through thick and thin ever since.
He was a priest, although he ceased to exercise a sacramental ministry soon after he left the Oratory in 1972; he was a founder member of the Catholic Renewal Movement later CCC; he was a teacher and later a faithful husband to Sara Clethero, the opera singer and teacher as well as father to a daughter Zoë (born 1976) as talented a singer as her mother. A portrait of Zoë, now a mother herself, can be seen behind John in the photograph. John and Sara honoured me by asking me to be ‘best man’ at their own wedding. Although sometimes exhibiting a gruff exterior, he was a gentle, compassionate and humble man. But he could be impatient with fools and with the incompetent and would express his anger forcefully when driven to it. Sara faithfully cared for him at home as he became more and more frail.
Above all he was a man of uncompromising principle, of commitment to the Gospel. This is the reason he left the Birmingham Oratorians and the ranks of the clergy in the aftermath of Humanae Vitae, which he did not hesitate to witness publicly against. It was the reason he abandoned the Church of England, which had been his spiritual home for thirty years since then, when in June 2003 it made the homosexual Dr Jeffrey John forgo the bishopric of Reading for the deanery of St Albans. He did not leave the Church – the Church left him, and for shameful reasons too, many would agree.
John was 17 when the Second World War broke out and 22 when it ended. His experiences as a soldier, about which I never heard him speak, led to his becoming a Catholic and ultimately being ordained after studies at Saint Sulpice. He had been an extra-mural lecturer for Michael Goulder at Birmingham University (1967-74) and was a much appreciated and respected teacher at St Philip’s Grammar School in Birmingham (Head of RE 1955-67). After two years lecturing at the City of Birmingham College of Education (1972-74), he became Head of RE in a large inner city comprehensive school also in Birmingham (1974-82). He was active in CCC on the executive for fifteen years and served as Chair for a time, as well as editor of RENEW. In recent years was unable to travel to London for executive meetings.
Some Catholics – perhaps most of his former Oratorian brethren, all now dead – would consider him a sceptic and an apostate. But those of us who knew him saw only the reflection of Jesus. Like Pete Lumsden, whom he knew, (see RENEW 143, September 2007, p9) he was uncompromising in his commitment to the Gospel, tolerant of error and alienated by bigotry. As he claimed, he stood in the tradition of the prophets and wisdom writers and was prepared to pay the price. He challenged and continues to challenge us. May he rest in peace and may we be faithful to the principles which inspired him and to which he remained uncompromisingly committed throughout his ninety-one years.