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10 January 2014


"Profound gifts of pastoral care": the late Bishop Peter Hall

"Profound gifts of pastoral care": the late Bishop Peter Hall

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby writes:

THE Rt Revd Peter Hall, a former Bishop of Woolwich, suffered a major cerebral haemorrhage on 27 December, and died in hospital that night, aged 83.

Peter Hall's life as a Christian began at an Evangelical mission conducted by Bryan Green in Cambridge, after National Service. That shaped his convictions about a gospel for all, a passion that never left him, but, on the contrary, expanded in its range and passion, and in the breadth of its sympathies.

That basic direction can be seen in the youth work that he undertook as Assistant Curate of St Martin-in-the-Bull-Ring in Birmingham city centre. It can be seen in the life-changing experience of being parish priest of Avondale, the only Evangelical church in what was then Southern Rhodesia, where he led the opening up of what had been a church for white people to become a church for all.

In all these spheres of work, his evangelistic zeal took on more and more of a pastoral and political aspect, as he perceived the obstacles that unjust systems placed in the way of pastoral work - and, therefore, how integral the pursuit of justice was to the gospel's progress.

The decision to leave Rhodesia, as it was at the time, so as to avoid his twin sons' being called up, was hard; but it led to his return to St Martin-in-the-Bull-Ring as Rector, bringing with him the passions and insights that his African experience had given him. In his 14 years at St Martin's, he adopted strategies to turn the church outwards to the community in which it was set: enlarging his team to include a chaplain to the markets, and opening up a challenging conversation about enabling a club for young gay people to meet in the church hall, are just two examples of a ministry marked by the conviction that the Good News was for all.

In 1984, he became Suffragan (later Area) Bishop of Woolwich, the episcopal area with the largest number of urban-priority-area parishes in Southwark diocese. His passionate commitment to churches struggling to engage with large housing estates expressed itself in practical and creative initiatives to bring often isolated clergy and lay leaders together to share encouragement and good practice.

From that came his increasing national profile in inner-city ministry. He chaired the Evangelical Urban Training Project (now Unlock) from 1981 to 2003, and planned and took part in their walk year on year, seeing that as a way of encouraging Evangelical Christians in urban mission, as well as an indispensable source of funds for EUTP/Unlock.

He was the obvious choice to chair, from 1990 to 1996, the Archbishops' Commission on Urban Priority Areas, ensuring that the inheritance of Faith in the City continued to flourish.

None of this passionate work was done alone. His wife, Jill, and he were always encouragers of each other, and principal collaborators in their different pieces of outreach. In the midst of that, they had to endure the struggle of one of their sons, Stephen, with cancer, and his eventual death. Their collaboration and mutual support continued in retirement, as Peter carried on his work with Unlock, and Jill, with his support, worked for the well-being of the increasing number of destitute asylum-seekers.

For those of us who were privileged to be Peter's colleagues in Southwark diocese, he brought much laughter and often self-deprecating humour to our life together: "A mitre isn't really meant to be worn jauntily on the back of the head," he was told; Peter: "How else can you wear it if your head is as big as mine?" "Peter, it really would help if you got a fax machine." Peter: "But I rely on the 24 hours it takes a letter to reach me."

At the same time, Peter offered profound gifts of pastoral care. Confronted with someone who had got into a jam, he could sometimes weep in open sympathy; but nobody was left in any doubt that, as a bishop, he had a task to do and an authority to exercise - and that he would do what was needed. That authentic combination of vulnerability, strength, humour, and passion meant that with Peter you were never far from the heart of the gospel. Reading the Bible with him, with Brueggemann and Wink always alongside, was an enriching and mind-stretching experience. In one of the Bible-study times for which the Southwark bishops regularly met at a convent in Clapham, he commented: "Suffering only has meaning if it is held in prayer in a place like this."

We are bidding farewell to a large and creative spirit. May he rest in peace, and in God's time enter the joy of the Kingdom, for which, with him, we all long, and about which he taught us so much.

His wife, Jill, and his son, Michael, survive him. His funeral will be held at St John and St Peter's, Ladywood, Birmingham, on Monday 13 January, at 12.30 p.m.

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