Thursday, 23 February 2017

In Memoriam: Bob Jeffery, Priest, Mentor, Friend

There are just a few people in our adult lifetimes who have had a direct and profound influence on us. I think of five who, when I was still plausibly a young man, helped form me as a Christian, a priest and a human being. The part they played in shaping my mind, my spirituality and my ministry has been immense. The debt I owe them all is incalculable. Only one of them is still alive.

The four others were all priests. The last of these great souls died just before Christmas, Robert Martin Colquhoun Jeffery.** To us, he was simply "Bob". Our paths crossed quite by chance if there is such a thing. In 1974, I completed my theological training and got married. We moved back to Oxford where I was beginning postgraduate research. Looking for a place to live, we stumbled across a little detached house in Headington not far from the Oxford by-pass. The rent was absurdly low. It belonged to an academic (a theologian as it happened) who lived abroad and was looking for suitable tenants to keep the house warm for her. So Lyndworth Close became our first married home.

The bishop had decided that my getting married and being ordained in the same summer was too much. So we looked for a church to attend. By great good fortune, the incumbent of our parish church in Old Headington was one Bob Jeffery. So we started going there, and never looked back. I was ordained beneath the Norman chancel arch of that church the following year and served as a non-stipendiary curate in the Cowley Deanery of which Bob was the Rural Dean.

I said we never looked back. (Maybe I'd better revert to the first person singular and let my wife speak for herself if she wants to.)  Our time at St Andrew's Headington was a bigger watershed than it may sound. For the previous decade I had been immersed in the conservative evangelicalism of my school and college Christian Union. I owe a great deal to that experience, thanks to which I came to a consciously articulated Christian faith. I trained at an evangelical theological college. I assumed that I would minister for life in that Reformed tradition, never dreaming that I could inhabit any other way of being Christian.

Bob opened up that "other way". He did not set out to influence me or change me. He was a genuine liberal catholic (as he described himself then - we would call him an affirming catholic nowadays), with an outlook that was generous enough to believe in giving people space to develop and grow in their God-given way. The liturgy was very different from what I was used to. St Andrew's had an Anglo-Catholic history so the ceremonial seemed colourful and "advanced" by my austere protestant criteria. But to Bob, the human face of the church service was no less important than the liturgy. He believed that the church should present an intelligent, properly informed Christianity that belonged to the contemporary world. His sermons were always theological but in no way academic: his gospel exemplified an applied, pastoral wisdom. It mattered to him that the church should speak into human life in all its complexity and face outwards in mission and the pursuit of justice in society.  

It did not take long to feel at home there. Bob and Ruth made us welcome in their grand old vicarage. There was never any pretence at formality: Bob famously didn't care much about his appearance, and if he had, his four lively fun-loving young children would soon have pricked any bubble of self-importance. Indeed, I never knew anyone who was less self-important or concerned about looking the part and conforming to expectations. He was comfortable in his own skin. That by itself taught me a great deal.

I had so much to learn about ministry, about life, about myself. Bob and the parish were great tutors. I think he was somewhat bemused by my conservative theology, and we had endless conversations about what it meant to take the Bible seriously. "I'm a radical biblical man" he said to me early on, by which he meant that for him the scriptures were as central as they were to any evangelical, but it all depended on how we read and interpreted the text. Gradually, I became weaned off biblical inerrancy and the conservative theology I'd inhabited for a decade. Bob told me not to worry about ceremonial and eucharistic vestments: they were adiaphora he said, not of ultimate importance. If I preferred not to wear them, that was ok by him. Needless to say, because I did not feel under pressure, it was no time at all before I asked him to show me how to wear the alb, stole and chasuble and how to lay them out in the sacristy.

Without, I think, being aware of it, he taught me about "the beauty of holiness" and the genius of the English Church in exemplifying it. He suggested I might like to have a copy of Percy Dearmer's The Parson's Handbook, the classic manual of liturgical practice as seventeenth century Anglicanism had construed it. When I was ordained priest, he gave me Wagner's Parsifal in a boxed set of five LPs with an image of a beautiful medieval chalice on the front. That chalice crystallised for me the realisation that I had embraced sacramentalism and was becoming catholic in my outlook. Something had shifted inside me, irrevocably.

Books were a frequent topic of conversation. Bob would throw literature at me across his study, enthusing about this or that writer. Thanks to him, I started to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ronald Gregor-Smith and JΓΌrgen Moltmann (though he wasn't sure whether Moltmann would endure). He put me on to the French post-Reformation spiritual writers: Jean Pierre de Caussade was his favourite ("why have so few clergy ever heard of him?" he grumbled, pretending not to know that I was one of them). He told me to meditate on his Self Abandonment to Divine Providence on my retreat before being ordained priest. He insisted that I read Roland Allen's book Missionary Methods - St Paul's or Ours? "You want to know how to preach?" he asked one day (surely a slanted comment on my pulpit performance to date). "Read the sermons of Austin Farrer." I did, and tried to learn how to be profound and concise at the same time.

Stephen Platten, who went on become Bishop of Wakefield, came to Headington as curate during the same year as me. The three of us met each week for a staff meeting and got on famously. There was a lot of laughter. Bob seemed to know, or know about, everyone in the C of E and would regale us with the latest ecclesiastical gossip. "Lots of problems there" he would declare about clergy who, shall we say, had got into difficulty. But soon the meeting turned to theology, ethics, biblical interpretation or whatever else had struck any of us during the preceding week. After about two hours of energetic discussion and the consumption of much coffee, he would rein us in and tell us it was time to turn our minds to  the parish.

And here his thoroughgoing pastoral-theological outlook came to the fore. He took trouble to get to know the parish well - and by "parish" he meant not only or even primarily the worshipping congregation but the entire geography for which, as a C of E incumbent, he had the cure of souls. He taught me that the occasional offices - baptisms, weddings and funerals - were not a distraction from the parish priest's role but lay at the heart of it, how these pastoral encounters were crucially important to people at the key moments of their lives. He taught me to get to know the institutions of the parish such as the schools, hospitals and businesses. He taught me to be conscientious about visiting people in their homes, but always with a clear purpose in mind. He taught me to cultivate what he called "scarcity value" - to be visible without being spending too long in any one place. When I became an incumbent a few years later, and after that a cathedral priest, I realised how much I owed to Bob's way of doing things.

Bob's kindness continued after we left Oxford. He had a gift for friendship that was lifelong. He came to all my own "rites of passage", the celebrations each new phase of my ministry as a parish priest, cathedral canon and then as dean, first in Sheffield and then Durham. He said he would always be on the end of a phone if I needed help or advice, and it was hugely reassuring to know that he was there. He was especially pleased that I was appointed to Durham because he had been ordained in the Cathedral himself and had served as a curate in a densely urban parish in Sunderland. "All the best clergy have served in the North East" he said when we went to Alnwick in 1982. In 2011, he asked if he could celebrate the golden jubilee of his ordination as a priest in Durham Cathedral. Typically, he did not want to take a leading part in the liturgy. He asked Stephen to preside and me to preach. It was a beautiful occasion, full of warmth, friendship and good memories. The only sadness was that Ruth was not there to celebrate with us. She had died suddenly some years earlier, and we all knew what a loss she was to Bob, to their children and to all of us who knew her.

And now, Bob has gone to join her. We saw him last year when I was invited to go back to St Andrew's to preach. He was ill, and he knew that it was serious. But even in his discomfort he was his usual self: warm, wry, lively, intellectually alert, bemused at the latest church goings on, worried about the worsening state of the world and how faith was struggling to speak wisely into it. He talked about what he called the "end game" - his own. He told us he had planned his funeral at Christ Church Oxford where he had been Sub Dean. Later on, there would be a memorial service in Worcester Cathedral where he had been Dean. He wanted me to preach at it. I was moved to be asked. It hasn't taken place yet. I know that this will be one of those sermons that calls for the very best of me. I am wondering how I can do justice to Bob. Perhaps when you owe the kind of debt to someone you loved as I do, the words will come naturally.

One of Bob's lasting legacies is his recently published translation of Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ (the Penguin Classics edition). He had always loved this work and been influenced by it, though in his understated way he never spoke very much about his own spirituality, at least not to me. I guess that what we look for in our mentors and guides are those we can not only admire but imitate. And perhaps the people who have helped us most are those who have practised a lifetime of imitation themselves. I mean of course, the imitation of Christ who is their and our divine Exemplar and - why not put it like this? - our best and truest Mentor. I think Bob's translation of The Imitation tells us what mattered most to him in his long and productive life. 

I write as one of many who are more thankful than we can say to have known him. May he rest in peace.

**You can read a formal obituary here.


  1. "He was glad just to be himself."

    Yes. Exactly right. Thank you.

  2. Your reflections about your friendship with Bob should have appeared in The Telegraph.

  3. Newer met Bob, but the pen portrait from you here and his obit gives a rounded picture of a faithful Priest and Christian leader, who cared more for people and bringing them to ghe good news than for himself. Great to hear personal views, which fill out the rather grey obit - thank you.

  4. I wish I had had a mentor like him. Mine have been good, but limited. I've never had a supporter like that. I had to make my journey from literalism to a more liberal outlook on my own. I was always surrounded by those who viewed the Bible as inerrant. And always heard preaching of that sort. How to deal with Genesis when you have a science degree and believe in evolution? How to deal with the Trinity when you were brought up Unitarian? How to understand the Biblical view of women when you are not the meek and submissive type?! How to understand the atonement when it all seemed to be the 19th century Gothik model: God is so angry he wants to kill someone and he doesn't much care who? I never heard much from the pulpit on any of these. It seems as if many clergy keep their own beliefs secret, and feed something else to their flocks. Or many of them do believe all that stuff. I'd have loved to have heard "the other way". You will miss him. I'm sure your sermon will be a fitting tribute.