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Obituary: CANON PATIENCE PURCHAS

by
20 December 2013

Leading the way on women's ordination: Canon Patience Purchas

Leading the way on women's ordination: Canon Patience Purchas

The Rt Revd Christopher Herbert writes:
WHEN Canon Patience Purchas, who died on 22 November, aged 74, was asked why she felt called to be a priest, among other things she wrote: "I have a desire to nurture, encourage and bring out the best in others . . . and I think that I have the ability to be perceptive about people's motives and anxieties."

It was a statement that was typical of her: honest, clear-eyed, self-aware, robust, and deeply loving, without sentimentality. They were characteristics that she brought to her ministry in the diocese of St Albans, in the General Synod, and in her wise and strong championing of the cause of women's ordination across England. Without being aware of it, she was herself the very reason why so many people came to believe as she did. She embodied the grace and blessings of women's priestly ministry.

Patience was born in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. Educated at St Albans Girls' Grammar School, she went on in 1958 to read English at St Mary's College, Durham, where she was also the President of the Women's Union, and took up acting. Afterwards, she studied librarianship at the North Western Polytechnic, London, and was awarded her ALA. She became a public librarian in Welwyn Garden City, and later in Hatfield, and for the rest of her life her love of reading never left her.

In 1969, she married her beloved husband Tom, then a curate at St Etheldreda's, Hatfield, whom she memorably described as "my greatest encourager". Later, in 1971, they moved to the rural Bedfordshire parishes of Blunham and Tempsford, the latter famous for having been the Second World War airfield from which members of SOE departed for special ops in France. While in those parishes, and now with two young daughters, Patience embarked on the Ministerial Training Scheme, a radically new way of theological training which came into being during Robert Runcie's time as Bishop of St Albans.

In 1980, Patience was made a deaconess, and for one year ran the Diocesan RE Resource Centre in Bedford. But then came a change of parish to Wheathampstead, Herts; and a new and vivacious chapter in Patience's life began, because she became heavily involved in local broadcasting on Chiltern Radio, a pioneer in the field. She spent 15 hours a week doing that, including four years when she presented a weekly Sunday programme. Among her guests were Cliff Richard and Desmond Tutu. Her ease of manner, allied to her ability to ask gently perceptive questions, made the programmes increasingly popular. It was pioneer ministry, long before the phrase was invented.

She continued her broadcasting work with BBC Bedfordshire, and was in regular demand as a spokesperson. She regarded her appearance some years later on the BBC's Question Time, where her fellow panellists were David Steele, Tony Blair, and Virginia Bottomley, as one of the most nerve-racking moments of her life.

People still remember the programme, however, and refer to her calm, confident, and articulate manner. It was not the only national broadcasting that she did; for, at the time of the women's-ordination vote in 1992, she was much in demand, and appeared on the BBC's Woman's Hour; and she was on the commentary team for BBC Bristol in 1994, when the first women were ordained in Bristol Cathedral. All of this represented her desire to proclaim the Christian faith with intelligent and appealing clarity.

Her work in broadcasting prepared her well for her next post, which was to be the Secretary of the Diocesan Board of Ministry. It drew on her diplomatic and communication skills, her humour, and all her perceptiveness, particularly at a time of great turmoil in the Church. Her archdeacon wrote of her that she carried out her task with "efficiency and cheerful competence", a very archidiaconal phrase, whose sub-text is that she had to face some stiff opposition, which she handled with grace and sanctified savoir-faire.

In 1990, she was elected to the General Synod, where her reputation for fair and clear oratory and just dealings stood her in good stead. There, after only four years, she was elected as Vice-Chairman of the House of Clergy in the Province of Canterbury.

Meanwhile, also in 1994, she was among the first cohort of women in the diocese of St Albans to be ordained to the priesthood. She referred to her years as a deacon (since 1987) as being somehow incomplete, and explained that it was from her life as a wife and mother that she had drawn many of the insights that, she believed, would help to fashion her life as a priest. She spoke perceptively of the ministry of the priest as having a number of similarities with the life of a rabbi: "the person who guards, represents and teaches . . .", and explained that men and women working together as priests would present "a model of partnership and wholeness to our broken world".

In 1995, her work in the Synod developed further, when she became one of the panel of chairmen, and was elected to the Standing Committee. Here again, her fairness, her common sense, and stalwart defence of the part played by women in the Church engaged the respect of many, although inevitably she had some strong opponents, with whom she engaged robustly and shrewdly.

She was the Bishop's Officer for Women's Ministry in the diocese, a member of the Bishop's staff, and then became Assistant DDO, a post she described as "the best job in the Church of England". In this latter part of her ministry, she encouraged and developed very many vocations, and brought to the task her deep humanity, faith, and loving wisdom: as one of her young colleagues said, "She was kind, funny, a bit outspoken, and an inspiration."

There can be no question but that Patience was one of the great pioneers of women's ministry in the Church of England. Supported by the devotion of her husband and family, and living in a large-hearted way, never taking herself too seriously, her gracious bearing, salty sense of humour, faithfulness to her calling, and humility before God meant that she was an inspiration to many. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

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