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CANON WALTER JOHN TURNER

by
24 August 2012

Prebendary Pippa Thorneycroft writes:
THE Revd John Turner, who died on 8 June, aged 83, was born, educated, and served his entire ministry in Lichfield diocese, except for the years 1947-54, when he was sequentially in the Royal Air Force, at Clifton Theological College, and at Bristol University. During this time, he met his future wife, Heather Pelmear, through singing in the choir that she conducted.

The Turner family were ordinary, hard-working Anglicans. Walter, John's father, was churchwarden and choirmaster at St John's (a daughter church of St Edward the Confessor), Leek, for many years, and weekly communion was the pivot around which the family's life turned. Music was also part of the fabric of their lives. They possessed a treasured piano, which their mother played, and, in due course, both sons, too.

John (and, ten years later, his brother Garth) attended Leek High School, but it was during his RAF years, when he was stationed with GCHQ in Cheltenham, that he sensed a call to the priesthood. Because he continued to say his prayers in his billet, his fellow cadets began talking to him about his beliefs - and his vocation emerged. He also formed a friendship with Kenneth Page, a fellow conscript, who was on the way to a career as a professional violinist, and who enthused John with his passion for Elgar. Those twin motivating forces, faith and music, never waned.

John was ordained deacon in 1954, and served his title in All Saints', West Bromwich, as assistant curate to Prebendary Norman Watson, who had been an impressive and able Vicar of Leek when John was growing up. From there, in 1958, John moved to Oxley Ecclesiastical District, Wolverhampton, where both church and vicarage still had to be built. Seven years later, he was instituted to St Thomas's, Wednesfield, "a large parish with a new church to be built as soon as possible". The dual-purpose church/hall was positioned in the middle of a new council estate, and still serves the people there.

Ten years later, John and his family moved to St Andrew's, Shifnal, with St Chad's, Boningale, his only ministerial foray outside Staffordshire. Although a time of personal heartache, because of the break-up of his marriage, it was also an extremely fruitful period. The church flourished under his leadership, drawing worshippers from outside the parish boundaries and fostering vocations. He formed close working relationships with both the Methodist minister and Roman Catholic priest, and together they set up Churches Together in Shifnal, which continues to prosper 30 years later. Once again, he had to raise serious sums of money, and with four others walked to Land's End to help fill the coffers.

John was Rural Dean for the whole decade of his ministry in Shifnal, and in 1980 was made a prebendary of the cathedral; but his greatest legacy is a long list of devoted parishioners from every part of his ministry. He was caring and considerate. He had a high regard for human nature, and a strong sense of social justice. He was able to teach without preaching, and preach so that people could understand but not leave unchallenged.

John read widely, and, from the days of his training, took seriously the need to keep up with theology, which he did for an hour after lunch every day before beginning his visits. Many a weighty tome was consumed and digested, and to the end of his life, until motor neurone disease robbed him of the ability to communicate verbally, he would always ask "What are you reading?"

Bishop Kenneth Skelton thought highly of John, and had recently produced the Lichfield report on the marriage of divorcees in church, which opened the way for John's next appointment, as he had married Evelyn Peel in 1982. It was a brave move on the Bishop's part to appoint John as Precentor of the cathedral, knowing that the Dean was not in favour of marriage after divorce, and also that John was not a formally trained musician. He backed his hunch, and John became Canon Precentor, holding the post from 1983 until his retirement in 1994. (His brother Garth had been made Precentor of Manchester Cathedral in 1978. Their childhood home in Leek had left its mark on both of them.)

In the event, Dean Lang (Obituary, Gazette, 15 June) was gracious about the Bishop's appointment, though John was conscious of the holes in his CV. He habitually worked hard, and was meticulous in everything that he produced in the way of worship for the cathedral. Before computers were a given, John checked and re-checked everything, and made any amendments by hand. He was totally reliable, and therefore in his time served on many diocesan committees, including the DAC, the Lichfield Festival Committee, and the diocesan branch of the Royal College of Church Music.

In 1980, he had been elected as Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce. When the time came for retirement, he and Evelyn returned to Shropshire, to live in Newport.

John's great love of liturgy, music, and poetry was reflected in his funeral service in Shifnal, which he had choreographed in minute detail. People attended from most of his previous parishes, and from Lichfield.

He leaves Evelyn, two sons, and a daughter, and five grandchildren, all of whom keep up the Turner musical tradition in some way.

 

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