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Obituary: THE RT REVD KENNETH EDWARD GILL

by
15 March 2013

by The Rt Revd Donald Frith

THE Rt Revd Kenneth Gill, who died on 16 February, aged 80, was born and brought up in Yorkshire. He worked in Newcastle and retired to Scotland, but his heart was in India.

In the better years of his retirement, he would sit in his favourite chair in the conservatory, pipe in hand; but in his mind he was miles away. You only had to mention India to see him become animated.

He went to South India as a Methodist minister, with his wife, Edna, in 1957, and began his ministry in Bangalore, the capital of what was then the state of Mysore, later known as Karnataka.

He was ordained in the Church of South India (CSI), a United Church comprising Anglican, Methodist, Reformed, and Presbyterian traditions. It was significant that, on arrival, he was made deacon in St Mark's Anglican Cathedral, and ordained presbyter in St Andrew's Church, of a Church of Scotland tradition.

The first task for Kenneth and Edna was to learn the main local language, Kanarese, and this they did; and before too long he could converse with local people and lead services in the language.

After four months, they were then transferred to Hassan, 120 miles west of Bangalore, where he had responsibility not only for the town, but also for a wide, very pleasant rural area bordering the coffee plantations of Coorg.

There they lived in a large but antiquated bungalow, with few modern amenities; bathwater had to be heated over a wood fire outside the house, and then carried inside, and cooking was largely done over a kerosene stove. During their time in Hassan, their children Paul, Kathryn, and Lynda were all born.

In 1965, they were transferred from Hassan to Tumkur, a district-headquarters town some 40 miles north of Bangalore. There, Kenneth assumed responsibility not only for churches, but also for a boys' boarding home, a farm, and a workshop that produced furniture of quality. It also had its own small theological college. I think that for Kenneth this was his ideal life; perhaps much of him would have liked to spend his retirement there.

In 1972, the very large Mysore diocese was split into three. Kenneth was elected to be the Bishop of what was then known as the Karnataka Central diocese, centred on Bangalore. Being convinced that it was important that Indian nationals provide leadership for the Church, he announced that he would serve for a five-year term only; but, at the end of the five years, by popular acclaim, he was asked to stay on for a further two-and-a-half years.

During his time as Bishop, the Church grew, new churches were built, many new social institutions came into being, and the city of Bangalore experienced enormous population growth and rapid expansion, including the building of a massive new cricket stadium across the road from St Mark's Cathedral. I remember sitting there with Kenneth to watch India beat Eng- land, captained by Tony Greig, in 1977.

When Kenneth became bishop, the diocese had not only many churches, but also large schools, hospitals, boarding homes, clinics, and evangelistic and social outreach programmes, and also the United Theological College, the largest of its kind in Asia. Kenneth was the right person to have this responsibility, as he had the practical skills to manage often very complex and difficult situations.

First, he was a fine organiser: he knew the constitution inside out and he knew how to chair a meeting well. He always said that he was reluctant to take votes, but always tried to look for a consensus. His colleagues have said that he administered with a human touch.

Moreover, he encouraged his presbyters, especially the younger ones, and several eventually reached key senior positions in CSI. Emails from Bishop Vasantha Kumar and Bishop P. J. Lawrence and their families spoke of his care and support in their ministry, and the way in which he inspired them to see their ministries in terms of evangelism and social justice.

He pioneered women's ministry in the diocese, often against opposition from traditionalists, and he was proud of those who came forward for ordination. There was one service where a candidate for ordination had been barred because someone had taken out a legal stay order against her. Spotting her in the congregation, he called her forward and gave her a blessing, and then ordained her at a later date.

He worked to make provision for housing and pensions for retired presbyters, who often ended their days impoverished.

He also worked to support many social-outreach programmes to get alongside the poorest of the poor; one good example was the training programme for leaders of crèches in slums. Edna played the leading part here.

Perhaps his greatest contribution was the way in which he held the diocese together, in the face of much potential disharmony.

All Churches have their ecclesiastical politics. India's is often open, aggressive, and very nasty. People rush to litigation over the slightest difference. Kenneth had to deal with fundamental splits between Tamil-speaking and Kanarese-speaking Christians, each wanting power. There were also the subtle differences that are part of the intricate caste system.

He suffered many unpleasant personal attacks. There were threats against him and his family. Once he was prevented from coming back to England with his family for Christmas because of a court case. But somehow he faced all this, and remained impartial. In the end, many enemies became friends.

Over the years in India, he acquired many skills. He learned to plan and design and build new properties. He discovered how to do accounts and make the books balance. He learned a lot about farming and animal husbandry. He could take a car engine to pieces and put it together again - a valuable skill in India, where breakdowns miles away from anywhere were very common. He was once called to a village where a wild panther was causing fear and disruption. With a rather antiquated shotgun, he managed to dispatch it.

He wrote histories of the Tumkur Institution, and also the definitive history of the diocese. Partly because of these and other publications, he was awarded a Lambeth MA degree, and, on his final visit to India, an honorary doctorate of divinity by the University of Serampore. His little autobiography was A Multi-faceted Ministry. India showed some of those facets.

The Rt Revd Dr Alec Graham adds: Kenneth Gill began his ministry as full-time Assistant Bishop of Newcastle only a few weeks before the announcement that the diocesan bishop was to be translated to Southwark. Kenneth had never ministered in the Church of England.

He quickly adapted to Anglican ways, and I, as the new Bishop, counted myself fortunate to have inherited so experienced and capable a colleague. The diocese had already come to know and trust him. His very presence with us prevented a diocese, traditional in outlook, and by its location a bit isolated, from ever supposing the Church of England to be the only Church in England, or, for that matter, in the wider world.

He was well organised and efficient, a shrewd judge of both people and situations. No diocesan bishop could have had a colleague more loyal and supportive, discreet and reliable. I thank God for every remembrance of him and of Edna, his widow, on whose quiet support he relied.

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