Ann Loades obituary

Other lives: Theologian based at Durham University who was a pioneer in Christian feminism and in theology and the arts

My colleague Ann Loades, who has died aged 84, was an outstanding theologian. A pioneer in Christian feminism and in theology and the arts, she was the first female president of the Society for the Study of Theology (SST).

She spent most of her academic career at Durham University, where she fought to enlarge theological perspectives in what was still largely a conservative and male-dominated world; in 1995 she became the first woman to be awarded a personal chair at the university.

In her view, the traditional practice of theology spent too much time focusing on internal disputes; she examined how religious ideas might be expressed in relation to the arts long before this became a fashionable topic. Mostly this was pursued through discussion of novels and poetry, but ballet also secured a significant mention. An expert on the Cecchetti method, she taught ballet in Newcastle.

Another key area was feminist theology, indicated by her Scott Holland lectures (given annually by an Anglican scholar of religion and society) of 1987, Searching for Lost Coins: Explorations in Christianity and Feminism, and her book Feminist Theology: Voices from the Past (1990), in which she demonstrated how the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, Josephine Butler and Dorothy L Sayers might impinge on present attitudes. A linked concern was perceptions of the Virgin Mary. What particularly roused her ire was male stress on the “virtue” of Mary’s humility when nothing comparable was demanded of men.

Such reflections found expression in her time as editor of the journal Theology (1991-97) and during the seven years she served on the doctrine commission of the Church of England (1995-2002). When in 2005 she became president of SST she warned colleagues of the need for an innovative response to the steady decline in university applications. Little was done.

In some ways her significance was better recognised by those outside the field. During the 80s she co-presented, with Robert Kee, Channel 4’s 7 Days (1982-88), which examined the ethical issues raised by the news. In 2001 she became the first female member of the chapter (governing body) of Durham Cathedral. The same year she was appointed CBE for services to theology.

She was born Ann Glover in Stockport to an already failing marriage. Her father, a photographer, soon abandoned mother and child. Her mother then worked as a full-time nurse, while Ann was boarded out. The situation improved dramatically when Ann won a scholarship to Hulme grammar school for girls in Oldham, where she became head girl and was encouraged to read theology at Durham University.

Graduate teaching and research at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario (1963-65), opened her mind to alternative approaches to the subject and on returning to Durham she effectively campaigned for a widening of horizons.

Although she kept his name, Ann’s marriage in 1965 to the Tudor historian David Loades ended in divorce in 1981. Five years after retiring from Durham in 2003, she moved to St Andrews, where she played an active role in the university’s Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, in supervising research students and in frequent invitations to her home for discussion and meals.

David Brown

The GuardianTramp

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