On October 4, 2009 we received the painful news of the death of my colleague and dear friend, Fred Kaan. He was frequently referred to as “the English-speaking Christian world’s poet laureate.” Our hearts continue to ache because of this loss.
Fred Kaan was born in a terraced house in Voorhelmstraat, a treeless street in the North Holland city of Haarlem on 27 July 1929. The years of early adolescence coincided with the Nazi occupation of Holland. His father was a member of the Dutch Resistance, and for two years the Kaans sheltered a Jewish woman in their home, and later gave refuge to an escaped political prisoner.
In 1952, having offered himself for the Congregational ministry, he left Holland and entered the Western College, Bristol, graduating at Bristol University in 1954. After a postgraduate year which included sociology and pastoral studies, Fred was called to be minister of Windsor Road Congregational Church in Barry, South Wales and ordained in 1955.
Moving to Pilgrim Church in Plymouth in 1963, Fred began work on a homemade hymn supplement entitled Pilgrim Praise. Fred’s hymn writing was born of necessity, out of the frustration of not finding what he wanted in the established hymnbook for next Sunday’s worship, and out of eagerness to put into words those things which were close to his heart and conscience.
Fred received the call to office of the Minister-Secretary of the International Congregational Council in Geneva in 1968, a post he held until 1970 when he became an executive secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. His period in Geneva involved many other roles including staff member of the World Council of Churches working on Cantate Domino - the international and ecumenical hymnal.
A decade of work based in Switzerland ended in 1978 when Fred was appointed as Moderator of the West Midlands Province of the United Reformed Church. Characteristically refusing to renew this appointment in 1985, as a gesture against ‘hierarchical thinking’ within the Church, he subsequently became team minister of the Central (Ecumenical) Church, Swindon, and minister of Penhill United Reformed Church.
From 1993 to 1997, Fred combined his busy life of travel and public speaking with the role of Secretary of the Churches’ Human Rights Forum. The internationalism that has been so central to Dr Kaan’s ministry over the years has also characterised his family life. His first wife, Elly Steller (1928-93), was born in Indonesia of German and Dutch missionary parents. His elder son is married to a Swede; his younger son to a Hungarian; and his daughter to an Englishman.
Fred and his wife Anthea Cooke, retired to the Lake District. ’ The view from the lounge and study is stunning, with mountains all around’, writes Fred on his faithful typewriter. Prior to her retirement, Anthea was a physician, her first appointment being at a Church of South India hospital in Madras. Between them the Kaans have a command of nine different languages (not counting Latin, Greek and Hebrew).