I have told this story before but not, that I recall, in the pages of this journal.
In the winter of 1960-61 I managed to get stuck in my parking place on a downtown street in Middletown, Connecticut. My car was a Studebaker Lark, with rear-wheel drive, and could get no traction on the thawing ice.
It was a frustrating situation, but neither dangerous nor unusual. Then I noticed a man on the sidewalk who seemed to be interested in my predicament. I rolled down the window to hear what he had to say.
His appearance fitted the stereotype of a British clergyman in a comedy of manners-- tousled gray hair, unfashionable glasses, his clerical collar too big for his thin neck. He was more than old enough to be my father. When he began to speak, his impeccable English accent was as stereotypical as his clothes and glasses.
He gave me some standard advice on what to do with my car—advice I was already applying though it wasn't working. In the meantime he had been joined by a vividly made-up woman in a fur coat who, in the same pleasant, precise accent, joined in the neighborly advice.
By this time I was embarrassed. I was a twenty-four-year old American male perfectly capable, though I did not appear to be, of unsticking a passenger car on an American street in broad daylight! But I courteously accepted their advice and spun my wheels for them. Then I saw in the rear-view mirror that the man had put his shoulder to the right rear fender.
That was too much for me. I got out of the car, analyzed the problem from the outside, thanked them for their help, and assured them that I could handle it now. They walked on, and I handled it. The man and woman—I assumed correctly it was his wife—had taken up separate errands because the man was walking alone. As I drove past him I waved to show that I was now mobile, and he waved back.
It wasn't until I turned the next corner that I realized who my Good Samaritan was. I had seen his picture in the Middletown paper. He was not an anonymous Anglican priest, perhaps vicar of a village parish somewhere in rural England; his name was Austin Farrer, Warden of Keble College at Oxford University, in Connecticut to deliver the Taylor Lectures at Yale and to serve as a resident scholar at Wesleyan University in Middletown. He was a world-class theologian, professor, and preacher.
Later, I learned from a book about C. S. Lewis that the fur coat Mrs. Farrer was wearing that day was almost certainly the one bequeathed to her by Joy Davidman, Lewis's wife, the heroine of Shadowlands.
I went to the Taylor Lectures. The book based on them, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, is still one of my favorites. During the lectures I got to know Farrer as a devout Christian, a profound thinker, a great preacher, and a clear writer who didn't ignore complexity but also didn't show off by making an idea more complex than it was.
I never was formally introduced to Farrer, but I have encountered him constantly in his books.When I returned to North Park Theological Seminary the next fall to complete my studies, I wrote my thesis on The Theology of Austin Farrer. If you are ever in the library at North Park University, you can look it up!
Thirty years later the Episcopal priest in the city where we lived at the time knew of my appreciation for Farrer and presented me with a copy of Farrer's Essential Sermons—the best sermon collection from a single author that I have come across.
Dipping into it this week led to this tribute.