Obituary: CANON GEOFFREY NORMAN SHAW

by
23 March 2011

CANON Geoffrey Norman Shaw, who died on 12 February, aged 84, was a former Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and Canon of Christ Church.

Born in the mining village of Great Houghton in Yorkshire, he was educated at Barnsley Grammar School. He was called up in the Second World War to become a Bevin Boy, in the mine his father managed. His experience enabled him to identify with the hardships and dangers of the miners. He and his first wife, Cynthia, who was from the same village, could tell stories of the bad old days of the mining industry, though noting later improvements.

In all his undertakings, Geoffrey manifested the grit, down-to-earth matter-of-factness, and vigorous energy that Yorkshiremen are noted for. He played rugby for his school and college, enjoyed golf with his friends, and took on the young lions at tennis, refusing to admit defeat until the last gasp.

His Christian experience arose out of the conversion of his mother to Evangelical faith, through their vicar’s ministry. Geoffrey’s conversion fol­lowed, with a conviction that he should be ordained. After the war, he went up to Jesus College, Oxford, to read theology. He involved himself in college sporting activities, but gave much time to the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, serving on its committee, and evangelising. Before completing his degree, he entered Wycliffe Hall to prepare for ordination, and, while there, married Cynthia, which the authorities thought a premature step.

He was ordained in 1951, to a title in Rushden, Northamptonshire. His second curacy, in 1954, was at Christ Church, Woking, with responsibility for St Paul’s. Here, his ministry developed, and brought results: the congregation grew, and there were conversions.

As a result, St Paul’s was made a separate parish. Geoffrey became its first Vicar in 1959. He was ably assisted by Sister Paskins of the Church Army, and his assistant curate, Tom Walker. They became a formidable team. They ran holiday house parties for young people every August, in hired girls’ public schools, such as St Felix’s, Southwold. Youth groups from parishes around the country attended, and enjoyed the sports and activities as well as the Bible fare. They continued for 17 years.

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In 1962, Geoffrey became Rector of St Leonards-on-Sea, and its newly built church (the old one had been destroyed in the war). Its previous Rector, Canon Cuthbert Griffiths, who oversaw the rebuilding, had gathered a good congregation; so that Geoffrey entered into a good heritage. Again assisted by Tom Walker, he began a vigorous evangelism that drew many young people from across the town and beyond. Missions on Hastings Pier included one fronted by a young woman evangelist in Teddy-boy attire.

Ashburnham Place conference centre was just being established. Youth-group members spent week­ends helping to clear the grounds and redecorate the vast house. The number of young people grew to more than 100, and many entered Christian work, some even now still active. All this was supported by the large eclectic congregation, including many holidaymakers.

Geoffrey and Cynthia’s first child, Jonathan, was born in Oxford, Rosemary in Woking, and Caroline, their third and last, in St Leonards. Jonathan later became an Anglican minister, trained by his father in his Wycliffe Hall days.

Personal and parish pressures led Geoffrey and Cynthia to give up parish work, after many years, to recoup their physical and spiritual resources. Geoffrey did not take up parish work again before retirement. They moved to Sheffield; and he enjoyed teaching in comprehensive schools there. It was a sign that his gifts were not only in evangelism, but, perhaps pre-eminently, in theological educa­tion, too.

In 1972, he was appointed Vice-Principal of Oak Hill Theological College. During a sabbatical, he led a six-week Bible mission for all the churches in Litchfield, Connecticut. His career was finally crowned by his appointment, in 1978, as Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford; his training there had been under the Revd Julian Thornton-Duesbery, who had sug­gested that he join the staff.

During his nine years in office, Wycliffe attracted a growing number of students. His speciality was Old Testament studies, especially Hebrew. He recruited qualified and en­thusiastic staff, and was also helped by retired eminent clergy such as Bishop Stephen Neill.

The Charismatic movement was in full flood, and Geoffrey, although not of that persuasion, realised the attraction to young clergy, faced with the challenges of their first parishes, of tongues, prophecy, healing, spon­taneity, and what has become the ubiquitous music group: “gifts” that would attract the young and the not-so-young looking for a revitalised faith.

Another issue, more profound, was the ordination of women to the priesthood. Geoffrey was very happy to welcome women students, and to prepare them for ordination. He was also happy to appoint them to the staff.

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Geoffrey’s contribution to the Church and the University were recog­nised by his appointment as Hon. Canon of Christ Church in 1986. He was particularly gratified when, under his successor, Wycliffe Hall became a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford.

Retirement, in 1988, took Geoffrey and Cynthia first to Norfolk, then to Kingham, where they had had a small house during their Oxford days. Geoffrey became heavily involved in the life of the parish, and of two other churches in the benefice. Kingham Hill School, of the same patronage as Oak Hill College, was near, and he involved himself in its work. It educated children of deprived or limited circumstances.

His former pupils invited him to visit their parishes and conduct missions, and he and Cynthia were asked to New England to minister.

He had little love for committees, chapters, and synods. He enjoyed caravanning, gardening, holidays on Jersey, and family contacts.

Sadly, in the mid-1990s, Cynthia succumbed to cancer; Geoffrey nursed her at home in her last weeks. Subsequently, he met Margaret Thurlow, a Senior Nursing Sister from the John Radcliffe Hospital, and a member of the congregation of St Ebbe’s, Oxford. They shared a com­mon grief and faith, as Margaret had recently lost her father. They married in the following year, and began the same active ministry as in Geoffrey and Cynthia’s day, running a weekly house group of 20 members for Bible study. Margaret made her unique contribution when Geoffrey became seriously ill but finally rallied, not least because of her devoted at­tention. Both loved music. Geoffrey was a gifted pianist, and Margaret a clarinettist; he also took up the cello, and she the flute. Over the years, they travelled all over the world.

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