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Gazette >

THE VEN. FRANCIS HARRY HOUSE


Edwin Robertson writes:

FRANCIS HOUSE, who died on 1 September, aged 96, had been cared for in the College of St Barnabas, Lingfield, in his closing years. He was active into his 90s, and eager until his end to have visitors and phone calls that kept him in touch with the outside world. His life spanned the history of the ecumenical movement of recent times, which found visible form in the World Council of Churches (WCC), in 1948, in Amsterdam. He was involved at every level. As a student at Cuddesdon, he was Student Christian Movement Secretary.

In 1938, he married Margaret Neave, who joined him in his work as travelling Secretary of the World Student Christian Federation in Geneva. He freely admitted the strength of their co-operation. They had two lively daughters, Rachel and Cecilia. It was a strong family unit.

Returning to England in the war years, he was first a curate at Leeds Parish Church for two years, which he counted valuable for his own development. The BBC found him for the first time in 1942, when for two years he served as Overseas Assistant to the Religious Broadcasting Department, where he came under the influence of James Welsh. For a further two years, he and Margaret represented World Student Relief in Greece. It was this work that earned him the honour of Officer of the Royal Order of the Phoenix in 1947. He was appointed Youth Secretary of the WCC, and as such organised the very significant Youth Conference in Oslo in 1947. The WCC was "in process of formation", and that conference in Oslo was part of the process.

In 1947, his broadcasting skills and organising experience were recognised, and he was appointed Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC. The eight years he spent at the BBC were of profound importance, for both parties. Asa Briggs described that period as the Golden Age of Broadcasting. Francis House formed a department that was ecumenical and united. He encouraged discussion among his staff, he supported imaginative ideas, and he allowed a member of staff, once accepted, a free hand. New forms of radio emerged, and the department was prepared for television when it came.

He was a tolerant Head, a good critic, and always ready to listen to those he disagreed with. In his time, the Light Programme teemed with new forms, and the Third Programme had a considerable input from the religious-broadcasting department. When television came, he encouraged each of his staff to experiment. Few heads of that department since have equalled his competence.

He left the BBC in 1955, and went once again with his family to Geneva, where he had been appointed Associate General Secretary of the WCC, with special responsibility for "Ecumenical Relations". He was an important figure in building confidence in the young WCC. He had been at the first two Assemblies in Amsterdam and Evanston. Now, as Associate General Secretary, he attended the third in New Delhi (1961). It was at that Assembly that the Orthodox Churches came in considerable numbers to the WCC. Francis had already known the Orthodox Churches of Greece, and he developed a special interest in the Russian Orthodox after New Delhi.

He left Geneva in 1962, but retained his links with the Russian Church. These led him to visit Russia for the millennium celebrations of the coming of Christianity to Russia. The result of that visit was a rare publication for him, The Russian Phoenix (1988).

Back in England, he returned to parish work as Vicar of St Giles’s, Pontefract, for five years. He then moved across the Pennines to Chester diocese to be Rector of Gawsworth and Archdeacon of Macclesfield for nine years. He was a member of the General Synod of the Church of England from 1970 until 1978. During that period he served on several commissions.

His main interests remained publications, broadcasting and mission. There was a consistent theme throughout his life: a passion for clear communication of the Christian message, and that it might be a unifying word that came from all the Churches. His wife died some years before him, but two daughters survive him. He had a wide circle of close friends in many countries. To them he will be a rich memory, and his death will be a great loss.

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