The recently appointed Bishop of Twyford, The Rt Revd Andrew Armitage-Shanks, has died tragically as a result of a flying accident in his episcopal area at the age of 49.
Andrew William Cameron Armitage-Shanks was born Andrew Carson Shanks, the son of a Presbyterian plumber in the northern suburbs of Belfast. He distinguished himself academically from an early age, winning a scholarship from his school, Elm Road to the Queen’s University, from which he graduated with a second class in Mechanical Engineering. He was later admitted as a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Surveyors.
The young Shanks looked set for the modestly successful career in construction engineering which had been his father’s ambition for him when, in 1970 he met and married Robyn Cecily Frances Alexander, daughter of the Bishop of Galway, Ballinsloe, Limerick, Kilarney, Cork, Kilkenny, Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow and Dungarvon, and great granddaughter of William Alexander, Archbishop of Armagh. This alliance brought with it a decaying eighteenth century property on the Dingle peninsula, access to the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, a bank account with Coutts, and conversion to the Anglican faith.
It was quickly decided that his ecclesiastical connections rendered a career in the Church advisable, and Shanks entered Westcott House, Cambridge where he did not especially distinguish himself. Though rather gloomy and dour of appearance in later life, the young Andrew bore a striking resemblance to Rupert Brooke, in consequence of which, whilst still a student, he attracted the attention of a former Vicar of Great St Mary’s, Bishop Mervyn Stockwood. He was rapidly ordained deacon and priest (in the bishop’s private chapel), placed in a curacy in East Dulwich and assigned an industrial chaplaincy at Peake Frean’s, the biscuit manufacturers. For the first two years of his ministry, says Michael De-la-Noye in his biography of Stockwood, Shanks (though not Bobby, his wife) was a regular visitor to 38, Tooting Bec Gardens, where he shared with Michael Mayne the task of ironing the episcopal pyjamas.
This was to be Shank’s only experience of parochial life. In a career ably planned by his wife, he served, in an administrative capacity, some of the great figures of late twentieth-century Anglicanism – David Jenkins, Robert Runcie and George Carey. Never distinguished as a preacher – his sermons were pedestrian, shapeless, anecdotal and inexcusably protracted – Shanks found his vocation as the author (or co-author) of most of the reports which were such a feature of the Church of England in the seventies and eighties. ‘People and Places’ ,1976 dealt with parochial reorganisation and the sale of oversized parsonages, a subject to which he returned in 1978 (‘Housing the Clergy for a new Age’); 1980 (‘Pastoral Housing’); and 1985 (‘Funding the Future’)
He became an acknowledged expert on pastoral reorganisation and mission, an expertise which he shared with the wider church in Reports like ‘Growing Forward’ (1979); ‘Contracting to Expand’ (1983); ‘The Great Leap Forward’ (1987. Though none of these reports was actually implemented, their underlying rationale (which Shanks himself described as ‘drifting diminution’) had a profound impact on the way the Church of England perceives itself today.
Shank’s appointment, in 1981 as Archdeacon-at-Lambeth, a newly-created post which suited his peculiar talents, gave him scope. His mission to release a group of Anglican school teachers held hostage as victims of Saddam Hussein’s campaign to end multi-faith teaching in Cof E schools made him something of media hero. When he himself was taken hostage (and accidentally shot in the foot) he returned to public acclaim and was awarded a formal de-briefing at RAF Brize Norton.
Shank’s tenure at Lambeth began with the launch of the Church Suburban Fund – a bold attempt to improve the educational prospects of children brought up on housing estates with a high proportion of bay windows and subscriptions to the Reader’s Digest. The no-punches-pulled report ‘By-passing the By-pass’ which led to the establishment of the fund was condemned as ‘creeping Marxism’ by several cabinet ministers, which secured the Archdeacon’s place as an after-lunch speaker on the Rotary Club circuit, and his election to the Council of the Modern Churchperson’s Union.
Shanks was a major influence in the strategy and planning of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s overseas agenda. Indeed it was he who first saw the usefulness of sending the Archbishop to foreign parts for six months of the twelve. Among Shank’s triumphs were the colourful trip to the upper Amazon, climaxing in the inauguration of the new autonomous Anglican Province of Amazonia (four bishops, six archdeacons and 763 communicants); and the Archbishop’s dramatic mercy-dash to the UN to offer his services in East Timor. If the Archbishop has come to be seen as a world spiritual leader of towering stature, then that is in large measure due to the wise guidance of Andrew Armitage-Shanks.
In more recent years, however, Shanks had begun to feel the strain of demanding work in the crucible of the People’s Church. It was no secret among the religious affairs correspondents that he viewed the appointment of Dr. William Beavers as Communication Officer an unwarranted intrusion into a sphere of responsibility which had long been his own. The war of words between them became one of the more entertaining aspects of life on Great Smith Street.
Nor was the Lambeth Conference of 1998 a happy experience for Shanks. Accusations that he had been involved in a Lambeth Palace plot to bribe the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church to be polite to the Archbishop of Canterbury proved embarrassing. Friends noted his subdued manner on campus and the amount of time he spent at the clerical outfitting displays in the Resources Tent. There were those, Shanks had came to believe (including his wife and her brother, the recently appointed Bishops of Sligo, Londonderry, Coleraine Ballymena Carrickfergus, Portadown and Downpatrick) who thought him a failure. Many of his Westcott contemporaries were now bishops. All that seemed to lie ahead for him was some clerical dead-end, like the Deanery of St. Paul’s. Then the news was leaked that he had been passed over for a nominated place on the Archbishops’ Council. It was during this period of depression that he confessed to a close friend that he was almost prepared to cast caution to the winds and admit that he had always had doubts about women’s ordination.
Fortunately his appointment as bishop of Twyford was announced in time to prevent such desperate measures, and Shanks, whose previous experience of country life had been restricted to occasional wet weekends in Dingle, was soon to be seen in Simpson’s of Piccadilly buying brogues, tweeds and barbours for the new part. Though his was only to be a suffragan see, he would at last be able to hold his own at the dinner table (overlooked by indifferent portraits of Church of Ireland prelates) at his in-laws interminable Christmases in County Laios.
Shanks entered enthusiastically on his episcopal duties (too enthusiastically, as some concluded, for the rural backwater to which he had been called). It was whilst descending in a hot-air balloon for a visitation of the United Benefice of Much Hadam with Birston, Pulbury, Capstick, Carston and the Drippings that he fell to his unfortunate death. He leaves a wife, Robyn (‘Bobby’) and two daughters, both actively involved in the of the Church, Mrs Rowena Stock and the Revd Dr Josephine Armitage-Shanks, chaplain of Dives College, Cambridge.