TRIBUTES have been paid to an academic who was the first female head of an Anglican theological college.

Dr Ruth Etchells, who served as principal of St John’s College, at Durham University, from 1979 until her retirement in 1988, died last Wednesday aged 81.

Born in Liverpool, Dr Etchells arrived in Durham City in 1968 as an English lecturer and a resident tutor at Trevelyan College, where she was later vice-principal for nearly ten years.

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She taught a groundbreaking course on modern drama, encouraging students to study cutting-edge material including Beckett, Osborne and Pinter. Her book Unafraid To Be was highly influential in theology and literature.

Dr Etchell’s appointment to St John’s was seen as risky – she was a lay person leading a college responsible for training clergy, her discipline was English literature rather than theology and she was the first female principal of a Church of England theological college at a time when the church did not have female priests and the college had only started admitting women as students five years before.

However, she launched a refurbishment programme and helped to transform the college.

Dr Etchells served on the Church of England’s Crown Appointments Committee, which recommends future archbishops of Canterbury, becoming a confidante of several bishops and archbishops, as well as many other local and national committees.

In 1992, she was given a Lambeth Degree of Doctor of Divinity – one of the church’s leading awards. In 2010, she was given Durham University Chancellor’s Medal.

She continued to live in Durham City and write, including a number of volumes of prayers.

St John’s principal Reverend Professor David Wilkinson said: “Ruth Etchells was a pioneering leader whose life and thinking nurtured countless people from undergraduates to archbishops.

“Shaped by a Christian faith which was both gentle and passionate, she broke through restrictive barriers in the academic world and the church.

“Most of all, it is in her friendship and care of people from college cleaners through nervous students to world leaders that Ruth Etchells has left her most lasting impression.”

Dr Etchells died at Sherburn Hospital, near Durham City. Her funeral will be held in Durham Cathedral at 2pm on Tuesday. A thanksgiving service will be arranged in the autumn.