Andrew Burton remembers Fr George Austin
George Austin was one of the most remarkable priests produced by the Church of England in the latter half of the twentieth century, and certainly one of the best known. He was a man who came to be held in high regard by those who took the trouble to know him.
Fr George was thoughtful and kind, offering wise counsel and guidance to those with whom he had to do, especially in his parochial and archidiaconal ministries. This included the encouragement of the young (and especially young vocations), the guidance of those to be married, and the care of the sick and dying. Such things could be considered the ‘bread and butter’ of any priestly ministry, and they are, but George also knew better than many how to stand by the afflicted in times of adversity.
He once recounted a story to me about the time he sat with a couple in their home as their son was hanged in Bedford prison. Mercifully most clergy today, at least in this country, would have no experience of such a harrowing pastoral encounter, but Fr George would never have shirked such a responsibility knowing that he was then, and in every situation, the representative of Christ—the ‘walking sacrament’ of which Austin Farrer wrote. It would have been pointless to George to proclaim Christ as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ without showing how such a thing was possible, even in the darkest hour. This approach to priesthood sustained him through the vagaries of ministry, from his earliest days as a curate and chaplain through the Notting Hill riots, and on to the life and work of an archdeacon during which he characteristically focussed on the pastoral needs of the clergy and parishes, even if the less agreeable duties of the office could not be abandoned altogether.
Fr George was also a man of insight which stemmed both from the firm faith which had grown in him as a young man and from the deep understanding which he had developed from his studies in philosophy and theology and in particular the nature of the Church. It was because of his faith and learning that he foresaw many of the troubles which afflict the Church of England in our day, and he was not afraid to speak out either as a member of the General Synod or in his writing and broadcasting. As such he became a thorn in the flesh to many, some of whom had little need of one. It was said by someone who knew George well that no one was ‘as vital and vocal as George’ and that he ‘ruffled a few feathers.’ What a delightful understatement!
In the 1970s we were encouraged to ‘go to work on an egg.’ On many occasions during those years I did just that, but more importantly I also went to work on the thoughts of George Austin as relayed by the BBC. He was a frequent contributor to ‘Thought for the Day’ and many of us will not only remember him best that way, but will also be grateful for his gentle and courteous, but also challenging, words of wisdom and encouragement in the faith. There was always a charming openness to George which came across in many of his broadcasts and writings, and not least in the biographical books which he wrote. He wrote with an agreeable candour whatever the subject, not because he enjoyed talking about himself (although he sometimes did) but because of his integrity; faith, learning and character were all one. In whatever media you discovered George you got the complete man, not just the part of him he wanted to present at that time.
Canon George Austin, as he is still remembered here, was above all a faithful parish priest. He served as incumbent at Eaton Bray in the 1960s and then here at St Peter’s during the 1970s and most of the 1980s. As one of Fr George’s successors, I am aware that his ministry was sincerely appreciated by the residents of the parish and by those who worshipped here regularly.
The orthodox, catholic wing of the Church of England also owes Fr George Austin a great debt of gratitude for his courage and tenacity in maintaining the faith once delivered to the saints. May we offer our thanks to Almighty God for his life and work and commend him to God’s safekeeping in the hope and confidence which faith supplies. May our brother George the priest rest in peace.
Father Andrew Burton SSC is the vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath, where this homily was preached on 19 February 2019.