PREBENDARY FRANÇOIS PIACHAUD

by
02 November 2006

A correspondent writes:
PREBENDARY François Piachaud, who has died, aged 93, was born in Ceylon. His mother Lilian had a deep and certain Christian faith, and a love of poetry. His father was a rubber-planter. With his four older brothers and sisters, they lived in a house that his father built in Kandy. It still stands. From the veranda, they looked across a valley to a soaring hill with a carpet of deep-green tea bushes. It was and is a beautiful setting.

They lived in an élite, English-speaking part of the whole society. Frankie, as he was called, attended a mission school, transported there in a bullock cart or rickshaw. In the heat of the midday sun, and into the night, he read whatever he could find - Scott, Dickens, Trollope, Alexandre Dumas, poetry, and history. He won most of the academic prizes at school. He also became a capable tennis player, a card-player who always knew how many trumps had been played, and a keen gardener. He developed a lifelong conviction that humans and snakes should keep far apart.

After graduating in history from Colombo University, he studied at Cambridge, and at King's College, London. At King's, he decided to be ordained, and he met Mary Mitchell. In 1939, he was ordained, and they were married. There followed curacies in Newcastle and Edinburgh; six years as a Vicar in Leeds; 35 years as Vicar of Christ Church, Chelsea; and, on his retirement, 20 years in or near Maidenhead, in his last years at Sandpipers and at Holyport Lodge, where he was looked after with exceptional care, and was greatly loved.

Most of his ministry was spent in Chelsea. He loved all the crooked timber of humanity that was there - and became a familiar figure with his bicycle and his beret, and, usually, a bag full of books. He loved the people: his parishioners; the verger, for whom he had a profound and reciprocated respect; the churchwardens, who generously supported him; and his curates, with whom he loved to discuss, and, occasionally, to offer advice.

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He watched over the choir, the women's fellowship, Christmas plays, and the church school with care, wisdom, and rather old-fashioned courtesy, mostly avoiding too much agitation. He addressed serious issues at meetings after Sunday evensong with speakers such as Trevor Huddleston and his dearest friend, Edward Carpenter.

In his preaching, he undertook a spiritual quest, expounding and elucidating the latest philosophical or theological writing, relating the Christian ethic to current politics, and challenging the thinking of his listeners. He was not always happy, and never clappy, but almost invariably he was enthusiastic, original, and uplifting.

He drew on a remarkable breadth of learning. He often began, "As I am sure you know . . .", and was genuinely surprised when someone did not know some obscure fact. He loved to visit bookshops. Books were presents for all he knew. He more or less filled five floors of Tite Street with them. Few, passing an ordinary garage at Maidenhead, realised it contained a library.

Not all his interests were scholarly. He loved food and wine, in that order, and he liked to share that enjoyment. He loved holidays and travel: around Britain in an ancient car prone to dry rot and boiling over on hills; further afield to France, Switzerland, and Italy.

He is remembered for his humour: he loved to laugh. He was not a long-suffering saint: he could also be irascible and impatient. He found it hard to show charity to some politicians. After Sunday lunch, many visitors were surprised to be ushered, even propelled, out of the door.

But he bore one misfortune without bitterness. He was out in Royal Hospital Road 30 years ago when a bomb exploded. Thereafter, he suffered most of the time from ringing in his ears, but he never complained against those who had planted the bomb.

Central to his life was his family, and central to that was his wife. She was unstintingly supportive. He was devastated by her illness and death five years ago. He often said: "Babylon in all its desolation is a sight not so awful as that of a human mind in ruins." In her last year in hospital, he visited every day. He delighted in children, and especially his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He believed in pursuing the highest ideals, in absolute personal integrity, and in being true to one's conscience. He believed in working for peace and justice in the world. He was always hopeful. But his life was not without periods of feeling doubt and abandonment. He could be surprisingly evasive on questions of belief. He thought it intrusive to probe into or question other people's beliefs - unless they were putting forward what he regarded as perversions of Christianity; and then he could get very angry.

His beliefs could perhaps be encapsulated in the words of one of his theology teachers at Cambridge: "All we can do is to rest in, and commit ourselves to, the continuity of the will of God, which has been shown to us in the face of Jesus Christ. For the rest. we may be confident that if anything is of real value in this present world, it will never pass into nothingness, and that if anything passes into nothingness, it will not be of real value, and need cause no regrets."

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