John’s death at the all too early age of 69 deprives his family and the Church at large of a loving pastor and theologian. His extensive scholarship and gift of languages, together with his ecumenical concerns, his liturgical and aesthetic sensibilities and his love of life were all dedicated to the service of God’s people in the priesthood, and it is as a priest in every sense that he will be remembered, not least by those who were prepared by him for ordination at St Stephen’s House and at Chichester.
John’s life was marked by hardship and loss — a son in infancy, a beloved daughter more recently — and yet, far from diminishing his stature as a priest, the negative events of his life seemed to bring out the depth of his love and priestly commitment to his family and the Church; and in his life, as in his teaching, these two mysteries were as one.
He arrived at Chichester as Principal at a critical time for the theological college. The staff he inherited, including indeed the one he later appointed as Vice-Principal, had been persuaded that the College had no independent future and that it should merge with the College of the Resurrection at Mirfield. John would have none of this and he set about putting the College on the sound academic and liturgical footing which enabled it to flourish for another nineteen years (until the latest Suppression of the Colleges in 1994).
The cost to John personally was considerable. He was not a natural administrator, manager or ecclesiastical politician. He did not find it easy to delegate, while he himself must have been under tremendous outside pressure. The result was an attack of meningitis, which put him in hospital in the summer of 1977 and affected him on and off for a while. It was, however, another five years before he could lay down the burden and rejoice in the life of a parish priest at St Margaret’s-on-Thames.
When the Halliburtons arrived at Chichester in 1975, they brought with them, besides their children, a couple of dalmatian dogs, of which they were registered breeders. The theological significance of the dogs was rather lost on some of the ordinands, who were reminded in one of the Principal’s addresses that any expansion of our heart or extension of our relationships, with a wife or children, with a friend — or with an animal — is an extension of love and therefore of openness to pain and loss. And so the seemingly unpriestly activity of breeding dogs (even black and white dogs) was to be not only compatible with priestly life but an occasion for reflexion on its true meaning.
Another address which revealed his pastoral heart, and gave his colleagues in particular food for thought, spoke of the need for patience in pastoral work, especially with seemingly dull or unresponsive souls; of the importance of looking for the potential for goodness and holiness in others, not expecting them to conform immediately to particular ideals of one’s own. Thus John showed himself to be as patient with others as he was hard and exacting on himself — a discipline forged in a long curacy in the East End of London.
His time as a residentiary canon of St Paul’s might have been a relaxed fulfilment of his years in stipendiary ministry, but, of course, he had to face, with all of us, the ecclesiological and ecumenical disaster of the ordination of women as priests in the Church of England, and then the actual appointment of a woman as a minor canon of the Cathedral. He evidently handled the situation with cheerful courtesy, pastoral concern and absolute integrity where his own position, and that of fellow traditionalists, was concerned.
His appearance in the notorious TV documentary, A Year in the Life of St Paul’s, has been described as a ‘caricature’ and a ‘set-up’. Certainly those who knew and loved him felt deeply for the agony of his position.
At the same time they will have been grateful both for his firm stand and for his admirably Jesuitical way (he was a lover of St Ignatius) of seeking to ease the consciences of the laity, who do not have the same freedom as the clergy in avoiding all occasions of doubt in relation to the sacraments.
His book, The Authority of a Bishop (SPCK 1987), is far from being a polemical treatise, but it demonstrates, in relation both to the events of the 1990s and to the current debate about women in the episcopate, the absolute need for the ecumenical authority of which its title speaks. John was no doubt deeply engaged with that debate, in thought and prayer, in pastoral guidance and ecumenical encounter, in the last year of his life in Paul, where he was priest-in-charge of the Anglican church.
It is sad to think that he had so little time to savour the delights of that region’s history, religion — and wine — but sadder still that he has gone from us. His love and witness and wisdom, however, live on in the Spirit of the risen Christ. May he rest in peace, and come to rejoice for ever in the vision of the mysteries of which he was so faithful a minister here on earth.
Martin Williams was Vice Principal of Chichester Theological College 1975—77