Sweet reason and a warm heart

09 October 2008

Bernard Palmer recalls the goodness of a bishop who worked for an equitable distribution of the clergy

Gordon Fallows of Sheffield
John S. Peart-Binns
The Memoir Club £18.50

MANY READERS of the Church Times will have heard of the “Sheffield” scheme for seeking to ensure a fairer distribution of clerical manpower (I suppose one should now say “personpower”) in the Church of England. Not all of them will know that the scheme is named after the chairman of the working group that devised it: Gordon Fallows, Bishop of Sheffield. So Fallows has acquired a kind of vicarious immortality — even though, when his group’s report first saw the light of day in 1974, it was denounced by some critics as striking at the roots of the Church.

John Peart-Binns, described on the dust-cover of his latest book as a “leading episco­po­grapher”, has already written lives of Bishops Blunt of Bradford, Treacy of Wake­field, Leonard of London, Montefiore of Birming­ham, and Harries of Oxford. His new bio­graphy is hailed by his publishers as a “labour of love”, as if its predecessors had been written for purely commercial motives. But he has certainly done his subject proud — and his obvious affection for the man frequently breaks through.

Gordon Fallows’s upward progress in the Church fulfilled an early prophecy that he was likely to “go places”. A native of Barrow-in-Furness, he served successively as a curate in Leamington Spa; Vicar of Styvechale, Coventry, and then of Preston, Lancashire; Arch­deacon of Lancaster; Principal of Ripon Hall, Oxford; and Bishop-Suffragan of Pontefract, before his translation to Sheffield in 1971.

Throughout his ministry, he desired, as a broad churchman, that liberalism should triumph — and that sweet reasonableness would commend the English Church to the English people. His watchword was tolerance, and he came across as a warm-hearted and generous man. His main achievement at Sheffield was to restore peace and unity of purpose to a diocese that had become sadly split during the reign of his predecessor, Francis John Taylor.


Taylor’s tragedy was the cerebral throm­bosis that had struck him down on the eve of his enthronement, and from which he never fully recovered. His overall style had been cold, withdrawn, and remote, partly because of his stroke. He had brooked no deviation from his own policy and views.

Fallows, by contrast, brought to the diocese his own qualities of warmth, geniality, humour, and trust in those around him. He might at times have been tempted to quote the remark of his hero, Mandell Creighton, a great Victorian Bishop of London, who, when asked on one occasion how he was, had replied: “As well as can be expected when every ass in the diocese thinks that he has a right to come and bray in my study.” But Fallows’s own dealings with his clergy were lit up with innumerable acts of friendliness and generosity. Sadly, he developed cancer and Parkinson’s disease, and died in August 1979 while still in office.

Peart-Binns is a shrewd observer, and casts much valuable light on Fallows’s character and motivation. It is a pity, though, that, in a book of fewer than 200 pages, he devotes so much space to over-long quotations from sermons and addresses, and to lengthy analyses of leading clerics with whom Fallows worked. The space would have been better spent on more of his own observations about Fallows himself.

It is also a pity that the book (unlike the author’s others) lacks an index. But it does succeed in getting across to the reader its subject’s essential likeability. Fallows may not have been a great bishop, but, in the author’s words, he was “a good bishop and also a good man”. And what better epitaph could one have than that?

Dr Bernard Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.

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