Douglas Crichton was appointed to the faculty of Queen’s Theological College and the Department of Religion in 1968, when the full-time faculty was comprised entirely of ordained ministers of the United Church of Canada. The following year there was major policy shift in response to two decisions—that of the United Church to provide its education of candidates for ministry in an ecumenical environment, and that of Queen’s University to expand its Department of Religion. These together mandated a faculty that was ecumenical and diverse in training and background. Doug was the last surviving member of the faculty from that earlier period. His death on September 28, 2013 represents the passing of an era.
In his first few years at Queen’s, Doug taught the introductory course in New Testament and courses in Religion and Literature. However, with the untimely death in 1972 of Donald Mathers, Principal of the Theological College and Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy of Religion, Doug, whose doctorate from Drew University was in Theology, was asked to take responsibility for this area.
Doug was a highly esteemed teacher, especially with theological students who on a number of occasions nominated him for the University’s teaching award. What was the secret of his popularity? Four things stand out: (1) His commitment to his students’ learning: When not actually in classes or meetings, he was in his office from early morning to late afternoon, five days a week, working on his lectures. Such thoroughness meant that he was well in command of his materials and presented his ideas with great clarity. (2) His own theological commitment: Doug clearly saw the theological task as a detailed intellectual exploration of the implications of the Christian gospel, so the tone of his lectures was not unlike that of a sermon. For some theological students, their introduction to the critical study of the Bible and to the history of the church raised many questions, and this could be disturbing. Doug offered something of a counter-pole to this unsettling aspect, in that he attempted to present as cogently as he could the grandeur and challenge of the Christian theological vision. (3) His enthusiasm: Part of what was charming about Doug was that, when he encountered ideas that he really liked, he enthusiastically shared them far and wide. He had particular theological heroes whom he cited frequently--none more so than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Indeed, one could not know Doug and be unaware of his passion for Bonhoeffer! (4) His positive affirmation: Doug was rarely judgmental, always appreciative and encouraging. He was dedicated to an open door policy. For many of us, the open door merely signaled that we were available to students; for Doug it signaled a friendly welcome. While he worked at his desk, Doug sat facing the open door, and offered greetings, by name, to passers-by.
Doug had an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. He could cite Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Volume, Part, and page number. I am not sure if this was also important to students, though I am sure it was to him in his understanding of the teaching task. And like many teachers of his day, he did not think of research as primary and teaching as secondary, as is so common these days; rather he saw scholarship primarily as supporting the task of educating students; and, as well, in the case of a theologian, an offering of one’s expertise to the church in its attempt to be faithful to its mission. I witnessed the latter most strikingly in 1978 when a number of faculty members from Queen’s formed the core of a United Church task-force on Christian Initiation, which was involved in guiding the church in a rethinking of its understanding of baptism and confirmation. With his wide knowledge, Doug was at the heart of the theological discussion.
That Doug initially taught courses on religion and literature, is not as surprising as it might at first appear, for he was never narrowly focused on theology. His enthusiasms were wide-ranging, and included “Hockey Night in Canada,” as well as the arts--particularly fiction, drama, poetry and music (he was especially fond of opera). His approach to thinking about religion and literature was one that was not uncommon at the time, and is still in my view, quite valid: he considered major theological questions--of human destiny (suffering, justice, human responsibility, the existence of God) and the nature of human freedom --as these are treated in great works of literature. And the wide range of his reading can be judged from the fact that the textbooks in these courses included works by Aeschylus and Sophocles, Augustine and Pascal, Milton, Goethe, Sartre and T.S. Eliot!
I was intrigued to hear students often refer to Doug as a saint. Although I was at the time inclined to argue for using the term in its New Testament sense, as referring to Christians in general, I accepted that these students were referring to something special about Doug--that they saw him as in some sense an outstanding exemplar of the Christian life.
But the more I have contemplated what was unique about Doug, the more I have been reminded of Jesus’ description of Nathanael in John 1.47: “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.” Yes, this was Doug: guilelessness, a lack of duplicity; genuineness; sincerity; a quality of simple trust, even though he well knew from his wide reading and from experience that life is complicated. And then I found myself reminded of the quality of constancy that was demonstrated so clearly after his retirement, in his continuing attendance for over twenty years at the Theological College’s service of Holy Communion, and his faithful visits week after week, following the Communion service, to the retired United Church minister and College alumnus, Sam Delve, who was confined for so long as an invalid in St Mary’s of the Lake Hospital.This is the Doug whose memory I cherish.