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11 October 2013

Canon Charles Kenny writes:
THE Revd George Mervyn Kingston, who died on 2 August, aged 66, was born in East Belfast. In those difficult post-war years, he and his twin sister, Jill, attended Nettlefield School and Willowfield Parish Church. Both institutions were to influence, even determine, the course of his life.

The school prepared him for Grosvenor High School, on the other side of the city; and he thrived in the life of the big and busy parish church on My Lady's Road. For the Church of Ireland of the time, it gave unusual prominence and opportunity to lay people in worship and parochial organisations. Many good parishioners participated hands-on in the daily running of the parish.

These experiences nurtured in Mervyn a vocation to the sacred ministry. I knew Mervyn in the first decade and a half of his life, but not well; but I remember the pleasure of my parents, telling me the news in a blue aerogramme: young Mervyn Kingston had been accepted for ordination. He would be going down to Dublin in September. He had overcome a bad stammer, and was finding fulfilment in his work in social services; but the call had come.

He was ordained for the curacy of Comber parish, under Hammy Leckie. Then back in East Belfast, he served in St Donard's, where he appreciated Pat Synnott as mentor, followed by Down Cathedral, with particular concern for Ardglass. Later, in the mid-1980s, he crossed the river to Connor and the housing estate at the top of the Shankill Road; then to a spur of Armagh diocese, and a cure that included Carlingford and Crossmaglen.

These locations are diverse, but in all Mervyn was a consistent cleric and pastor. He began during the most murderous years of the Troubles, and that affected his perception of what he believed God was asking of his people.

Mervyn never lost the mindset, the aspirations, and the vocabulary of Evangelical churchmanship. He rejected friends and colleagues' view that the Evangelical tradition was a discredited and spent force. But he was cetain that faith must be evidenced in practice.

Mervyn was by nature conciliatory, and seeing the best in everyone. He was aware of reasons for and explanations of bad attitudes and deeds; he understood the power of history and environment; and he tried to explain and educate, willing people to see something differently, to read the words of our Lord with openness and insight, and try to separate gospel imperatives from local cultural assumptions.

But he always laid it on the line when he was seeking a new post. If you chose him, you were getting an ecumenical Church of Ireland rector who would work with those of other traditions, and with and for those on the margins.

About 35 years ago, quite a few young people frequented St Donard's and its youth club. Recently, Mervyn mentioned with pleasure to me that, though sometimes they vigorously challenged or rejected some advice of their curate, the verdict of one of them was: "You made us think!"

In the mid-1980s, Mervyn's institution in St Andrew's at the top of the Shankill Road was attended by Fr Joseph Campbell in his robes. Some months later, his parishioners were enchanted by a sermon from a nun in their pulpit. This was the pattern throughout his incumbencies, encouraging the Church of Ireland faithful to be open to "the other side". Mervyn practised this no more fervently than in his last incumbency at Creggan and Ballymascanlon.

Here was a conspicuous opportunity to live out that old Anglican adage about rectors' being there for the benefit of all of the people physically in their cure. The Rector of Creggan ministered to the small Protestant minority, who felt under pressure, and also to all who lived there; he met, was in liaison with, negotiated, and socialised with the local people, and their political representatives. This caused surprise at first, but went down well when it became apparent that things got done; attitudes mellowed, to the benefit of the whole community.

Back in 1969, it had been a revelatory experience for a young school leaver to work for four years out of a Supplementary Benefit office in west Belfast. He and his office became known for his understanding, non-judgmental approach, general humanity and sympathy. This was instinctive to Mervyn. His office nickname was Santa Clause.

For many years Mervyn had been drawn to quiet involvement in mixed marriages. He helped with, encouraged, and sometimes offered private blessings for, mixed couples, or divorced couples not welcome in their own Church who still wanted a benediction on their union.

After much prayerful thought and study, Mervyn came to a similar openness towards same-sex couples. Christians who were gay were beginning to emerge from the shadows in the 1980s, and Mervyn was among them.

But there was a change of gear, a new burst of energy, with the setting up of Changing Attitude Ireland in 2007. Here, for the first time, was concerted public involvement by church men and women, gay and straight, within the Church of Ireland, and other Irish Churches, pointing out the injustice and cruelty of conventional Christian dismissal of gay Christians' unhappiness and anxiety. The founders and inspiration behind it were Mervyn and Richard O'Leary. Future generations of our Church, if not the present one, will recognise this enterprise and thank God for it.

In 2002, Mervyn was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and the following year was incapable of full-time ministry. The diocese recognised this, and made him a minor canon of Armagh Cathedral with the title of Vicar Choral (music, ecclesiastical and other, singing was always a joy to Mervyn). This obtained until 2007, when he retired. Since then, Mervyn has been increasingly looked after and sustained by Richard. He has continued faithfully to fight the good fight to the very end.

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