Academic who modernised the study of theology at Trinity


The Rev Prof Frederick Ercolo Vokes, who died on April 8th, aged 89, made a distinguished contribution to the development of the University of Dublin.

Son of William Arthur and Emma Maud (nee Whitfield) Vokes, he was born near Southampton on August 12th, 1910. ee Whitfield). His father was a railwayman, which may explain the son's precise use of railway time-tables and his preference for boat and rail rather than air travel.

He attended King Edward VI School, Southampton, and went to St John's College, Cambridge, in 1930, where he took a double first in classics and theology, winning for good measure the Carus Greek Prize and the Junior Scholefield Prize in 1933, and the Geo Williams Prize for Liturgy and the Jeremie Hellenistic Prize in 1934.

After a year's training at Westcott House, one of the Church of England's most academically distinguished theological colleges, he was ordained deacon in 1934 for a curacy in the Isle of Wight. A succession of school posts followed - Cranford School, Stamford School, King Edward VI School, Retford - before he took his first living in the diocese of Peterborough, and then the parish of Forncett St Mary with St Peter in the diocese of Norwich (1947-55).

During this period he worked for his Cambridge Bachelor of Divinity (1953) - in the ancient universities not a primary degree, but a senior theological qualification ranking above masters' degrees. He delighted in the fact that one of his predecessors at Forncett had been Bishop Colenso, a man notable both for his biblical critical powers, famously displayed in his work on the Pentateuch, and his stubbornness of character, which resulted in Anglican schism in South Africa.

His first academic post (195557) was at St David's College, Lampeter, as Professor of Theology and Hebrew.

In 1957 he moved to Trinity College as Archbishop King's Professor of Divinity, following R.R. Hartford, who had succeeded J.E.L. Oulton as Regius Professor. Prof Vokes entered a Divinity School still glorying in the memory of scholars like George Salmon, John Gwynn, and John Henry Bernard. The general structures of the school, its syllabus and examinations, had remained virtually unchanged since the 19th century. Much of the teaching was done by local clergy on a part-time basis. He found this frustrating, and set about change.

Prof Vokes was undoubtedly the right man for this situation, and was not afraid of making others uncomfortable in his determination to improve standards. From his lectures ordinands learned that what they had been taught of the Bible in Sunday School was not necessarily so, and part-time teachers began to feel the pressure for greater professionalism. One student year threatened to report him to the General Synod on a charge of heresy; he cheerfully urged them to do so, and no more was heard of it. Years later, his students recognised the value of his teaching, and invited him back for a memorable dinner.

In the mid-sixties, part-time teaching was reduced, a new permanent staff member was appointed (a considerable break with tradition), and new Biblical Studies courses in the General Studies Degree were established - later to become honours courses. The culmination of this process was the new School of Hebrew, Biblical and Theological Studies, formed in 1978 out of the biblical studies courses, the Hebrew School, and the Divinity School.

One important result of this new arrangement was a subtle but significant change in the relationship between the Church of Ireland and Trinity College.

With the suspension of the former Divinity School and its two ancient professorships, Church of Ireland clergy were now trained through a new professional degree of Bachelor in Theology, which was not restricted to Anglicans. Its academic content was taught through the new, non-denominational School of Hebrew, Biblical and Theological Studies, headed by a Professor of Theology whose appointment owed nothing to denominational allegiance.

Prof Vokes, supported by Provost Lyons, skilfully masterminded this radical development. He was helped by being appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts (Humanities), itself a tribute from his colleagues to his recognised impartiality and wisdom in university politics. As dean (1976-80), he also had major responsibilities in the association of several colleges of education with Trinity, and in the opening of the new Arts and Social Sciences Building in 1978. He retired in 1980.

As an academic, Prof Vokes preferred teaching and university affairs to research, though he made important contributions to Studia Patristica, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, and other scholarly publications.

He was homo unius libri - a man of one book - and The Riddle of the Didache (1938) remains a highly respected work.

He was a genial companion, who enjoyed attending the theatre, walking his irrepressible dog, and reading whodunnits.

He and his wife Edith (nee Jung) were excellent hosts, entertaining academic visitors, staff and students with superb meals, good wine and cheerful talk. He retired to Lancaster, where he continued to assist the local clergy until his health failed.

Prof Vokes was predeceased by his wife, Edith, in 1991. He is survived by three children, David, Elizabeth and Mary; and a brother, Ronald.

Frederick Ercolo Vokes: born 1910; died April, 2000