On the shoulders of giants: A tribute to Noel Vose

Posted by on May 6, 2016 in Blog | 2 comments

Vose Seminary has had only three principals in its fifty plus year history, Brian Harris since 2004, John Olley from 1991-2003 and its founding principal, after whom the seminary is named, Noel Vose, from 1963-1991. This Monday May 2nd, in the early hours of the morning, Noel slipped into the presence of Jesus – an event he had been looking forward to for more than a little while. He was 94 years of age – and what a 94 years he lived.

The old saying goes that we are dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of giants. If what we do in the present seems impressive it is because of the incredible start given to us by those who have gone before. This is an understatement when it comes to the legacy that Noel has left at Vose for those who have followed him. He was a giant amongst giants, the only Australian to ever serve as President of the Baptist World Alliance (1985-1990), the holder of multiple degrees, including both an earned PhD from the University of Iowa and honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, while in Australia he was recognised by being made a Member of the Order of Australia (1989). A pastor to the pastors of Western Australia, he was also in a real sense a ‘pastor at large’ to the family of Baptist churches around the world, and the seminary has received many expressions of sympathy at his passing.

I met Noel shortly after my appointment as principal at Vose Seminary. He was wonderfully supportive and always encouraging. Still in good health and assisted by his long time secretary Freda Giblett, he worked at the seminary each Tuesday, keeping up with his vast correspondence, reading widely and taking an active and constructive interest in all that took place. It was not called Vose Seminary in those days, and I well remember my discussions with him in late 2007 and early 2008 when we decided that we would like to change the name from The Baptist Theological College of Western Australia to Vose Seminary. He was reluctant to agree – and it was indeed a little unusual to name a seminary after someone while they were still alive. But I put the case to him that (1) now was the time to make the name change, (2) his name was the most suitable choice and (3) we really didn’t want to settle for a second best choice simply because he was living so long! Feeling it would be churlish to decline, he agreed. Initially it was mooted that we would change the name to Noel Vose Seminary, but in the end we opted for Vose Seminary both because its succinctness better suits the time, but also to honour Heather Vose, Noel’s wife who had died so unexpectedly in 1990. Her contribution to the seminary was significant, and by settling for Vose we wanted to indicate our gratitude and appreciation to all the Vose family.

What was special about Noel? So many things can be said…

  • There was his sharp intellect, which never faded
  • He was a deep thinker and a significant theologian
  • He embraced a generous orthodoxy. At his installation as principal of the Baptist Theological College of Western Australia on 16 June 1963 he suggested that theology should have three keynotes – it should be Evangelical, Biblical and Missionary. These sound conventional enough, but in Noel’s thinking they were expansive terms able to include rather than being used as an excuse to exclude; he embraced orthodoxy, but always did so generously.
  • Baptist by strong conviction, he was warmly ecumenical in his dealings with others. The seminary he founded has never been limited to those of a Baptist background. It has also modelled openness to women in ministry. It was little surprise that in his 80’s Noel participated in an ecumenical study group meeting in the Vatican. He always attempted to include others, even while holding to his own convictions.
  • He had a passion for peace and justice, and was instrumental in seeing official conversations between Baptists and Mennonites commence.
  • He was a superb pastor, and on his retirement in 1991 planted the Parkerville Baptist Church. Not many start church planting when they turn 70, but the church birthed from his efforts continues to have a thriving and relevant ministry. His funeral service will be conducted at their recently enlarged facility.
  • Deaf in one ear since childhood, he never let that hinder him. He learnt to lip read, and to pay close attention to others. He did this so well that very few realised that he had a hearing problem.
  • He genuinely loved people. He was warmly outgoing, generous with his time, and he remembered things about people, using his knowledge to help people to feel special (‘he remembered what I said all those years ago’). He took people under his wing, and nurtured them. He was graciously hospitable, and opened his home in the hills to many.
  • He had great spiritual depth, and a remarkable prayer life. He enjoyed times of spiritual retreat at the New Norcia Monastery. It gave weight and authority to his ministry. His integrity was coupled with genuine humility. He was as at home when talking to a Roman Catholic Cardinal, an Anglican Bishop, Billy Graham or a child at a service. He genuinely sensed what God was saying in different situations, and had the courage to say it, always doing so with winsomeness and sensitivity.

What can be said about Noel? He was one of a kind. He made a difference. He impacted so many people (so many, many people). He has left a lasting legacy. And he will be missed. Yes, missed especially by his children Stephen and Valerie, and his grandchildren and great grandchildren… but not just by them… by so very many of us, who will always remember him with affection and gratitude. He will be missed by me. Thank you Lord for the life of Noel Vose… His life was a gift to us all, and we are grateful… Grateful that we dwarfs can stand on the shoulders of giants.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you Brian – you’ve captured so much of Noel’s significance as a leader and as a person. It was precious to have Noel and Freda still coming in until relatively recently – it was a living link to the past.

  2. Moving to Perth last December to plant a campus ministry (Power to Change, formerly Campus Crusade for Christ Australia), I sought out and met with Noel in February, driving off to the remote Hills region for the first time. I’d procrastinated from my own studies on Stan Nickerson (QLD Baptist College Principal 1982-2000) by checking out some of Noel’s own biography, and he sounded so interesting.

    Noel really did not have any clue who I was upon my visit, but he was STILL so warm and generous, despite his cancer, his fading memory (the not too infrequent repeating of a question he’d asked just earlier).

    He opened the Bible with me to Mark 4, shared some keen and learned insights, made me a mean peanut butter sandwich, before refusing to let me leave without sneaking a $50 note into my hand for the purpose of blessing the ministry. It is cliched, but I will NEVER forget either the man or the gesture.

    Only just heard that he had passed away. Not surprising, but still a shock of sadness nonetheless.

    One of the all time greats.

    When we rendezvous again Mr Vose, the peanut butter sandwich is on me!

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