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22 July 2009

The Archdeacon of Charing Cross writes:

THE Revd Gordon Taylor, who died on 27 June, aged 93, was, when he retired at the end of 1999, one of the longest-serving priests in the diocese of London, having been ordained in 1938 by Arthur Foley Winnington- Ingram. He served under eight Bishops of London. Only one ever invited him to a social occasion.

In 1948, Bishop Wand offered him, as an experienced naval chap­lain, then teaching Latin at Eton, aged 33, the massively war-damaged parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields, where ladies in the congregation still remembered with affection their former GP, Dr Crippen. The churchyard was fenced off with chicken wire, the interior of the church had not been redecorated for more than 50 years, the roof had been badly damaged by a bomb, the windows were boarded up, and the vestry house was full of rubble.

When he and his fiancée looked over the flat in the parish school, the rectory having been lost in the war, the bed remained as it was when his predecessor’s body had been removed from it six months before, and the housekeeper had absconded with the PCC funds. Not even a cup of tea was offered to the sparse congregation after his collation on a cold January Sunday afternoon.

His wartime experience as a young and energetic Royal Naval chaplain had equipped him with confidence to deal with challenging situations. Within days of his collation, he refused to sign a deed to surrender the historic mission church in Seven Dials, which had once been John Wesley’s head­quarters, and successfully fought through the courts the heirs of a former trustee who had claimed it. He raised the funds to restore and beautify the church, which John Betjeman described as one of the best post-war restorations in London.

He rebuilt the congregation, developed good relations with Holborn Borough Council, estab­lishing St Giles’s as the civic church, and made friends in the many small-to-medium-sized busi­ness houses in the parish, including Phillips Elec­tric, who gave the floodlighting for the church.

He successfully established a parish rate, paid by businesses for the maintenance of the church. He instituted a fresh expression of church: a Thursday-lunchtime ser­vice soon had a regular attend­ance

of more than 100. He welcomed West Indian arrivals into the congregation, took on a “self-supporting” colleague before non-stipendiary ministry had been thought of, and encouraged the idea of ministry at work. He used the proceeds of the sale of the church school, when it was closed, to fund an annual “Bible School” at which distinguished scholars lectured to large audiences.

He refurbished St Giles’s Alms­houses, and reinvigorated the ancient parochial charities. Mrs Taylor organised retired prostitutes and flower-sellers from Covent Garden into a women’s group. The Sunday school and choir flourished and overseas missions were sup­ported. He was appointed Rural Dean of Finsbury and Holborn, and preferment was confidently expected for him.

He welcomed the liturgical changes of the mid ’60s, noting in the parish Newsletter that “a church that doesn’t change will die,” but experimental usage of “new services” and the westward position was not welcomed by the PCC. Holborn was absorbed into Camden, which did not want civic services; long-standing local businesses were taken over; what was left of the High Street after wartime bombing was demolished to build Centre Point, which stood empty for ten years; a new one-way traffic system isolated the church; and surrounding streets of Georgian houses, many of which were brothels, were demolished to make way for blocks of flats.

Gordon worked successfully with Austen Williams of St Martin-in-the-Fields to defeat the redevelop­ment of Covent Garden, and a major road planned to run through the parish, involving the demolition of the Almshouses, and gave evidence himself before the public inquiry.

His parish had changed around him, however, and his rural deanery disappeared in pastoral reorganisa­tion. Even the diocesan office moved out of the parish. He felt abandoned, but reinvented himself as a defender of what he saw as the traditional Church of England and the Book of Common Prayer, against bishops whom he believed had betrayed all that he had worked to achieve.

He gave more time to historical research, publishing the definitive history of naval chaplaincy, The Sea Chaplains. He wrote about the history of St Giles’s and its people, and contributed to its history by ensuring that his monthly Newsletter was deposited in the British Library. He kept a diary of day-to-day events in the life of St Giles’s, and wrote his autobiography.

When he might have considered retirement, Audrey, his wife, died. He was devastated, and never really recovered from the loss. He laboured on, as a dedicated pastor with a gift for words, and became a much-loved figure for new generations, who valued his dignified liturgy, his robust pastoral care, his forthright views, which included support for the ordination of women — he had not been trained by Dr Major at Ripon Hall for nothing — and his sermons, vividly illustrated by anecdotes of his wartime experience, and occasion­ally spiced by denunciations of bishops and the London Borough of Camden.

Having celebrated his 50th anniversary at St Giles’s, he felt sufficiently confident that the new Bishop of London, who had been born soon after his arrival at St Giles’s, would honour the tradition of St Giles’s to retire to Emsworth.

His legacy, as a man of simple faith, committed to bringing the grace and truth of Christ to generations of the people of St Giles’s, will be known in the hearts of many.

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