Recollections

by
20 June 2014

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The Revd Robert Prance writes:

FURTHER to your obituary of the Rt Revd Dr John Austin Baker (Gazette, 13 June), more might be said about his warm personality; for his heart had much love within it.

I experienced this at a difficult point in my life, when he and his wife, Jill, invited my 11-year-old son, my dog, and me to a very informal kitchen lunch at their home. He was a tower of strength, and my son thought he and Jill were absolutely wonderful. One of their sadnesses in later life was their inability to have a dog or a cat.

On other occasions, he and Jill were quite superb. In his first year as Bishop, he came to conduct a confirmation at Wimborne St Giles, both of parishioners and of handicapped children from Boveridge House School, where I was chaplain. As always, I had sent a thumbnail sketch of all the candidates, emphasising two children suffering from Neimann Pick's syndrome, who, by the age of nine, had developed chronic dementia. Later in the day, the Bishop and Jill visited the school, and were outstanding at relating to the children and their parents. John then spent more than half an hour with the mother of the two boys, inviting her to lunch at their home, and promising to keep in touch, which he did.

A year or so later, a fire at Chilmark Vicarage killed three of the incumbent's four children. John sent the cathedral Chancellor, Canon Ian Dunlop, to care for the parish, for a period including Holy Week and Easter, while he and Jill brought the parents and the remaining child to live in their home. These are but two examples of their warmth, kindness, and generosity of spirit.

John always thought he was hopeless at talking to teenagers, and once turned to me for advice about the best way to preach at secondary schools. I had little to offer, other than suggest that possibly he needed to get away from his notes more. In fact, although his addresses were never light-hearted, his presence demanded attention, and teenagers relate to the real thing when they see it. On only one of the numerous occasions I heard him preach at schools did he get it slightly wrong, and he was the first to admit it. But at Marlborough College, his old school, he delivered one of the best confirmation addresses I have heard. It was based on T. S. Eliot's poem "The Naming Of Cats".

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To some, John may have appeared rather serious; and he could be. But the humour was very much there, as was joy of heart. At one Clergy Summer School Revue, we based the entertainment on The Wizard of Oz, but renamed it "The Bishop who Was". This bishop was shut away in a tower writing some great theological work, while others tried to seek him out. Towards the end, the bishop emerged with the book complete. Because I was able to imitate Bishop Baker's very distinctive voice, I was chosen to play the bishop, emerging from the tower covered in dust, cobwebs, and ivy. On being asked by another actor at the end: "Well Bishop, have you finished the book?" my first line was "Ah yes, well. . .", followed by an intake of breath. Nine times out of ten, that is how he replied to questions. The line brought the house down.

Whereas the previous diocesan, George Reindorp, would have reacted to this with great glee, we did not know how John was going to take to such leg-pulling humour. But, after the show, he came behind the scenes with tears in his eyes, and gave meand others the biggest of hugs. It was all quite emotional.

The next morning, as he gave his final address, there was a long pause, as he stood at the lectern with a gleam in his eye, before saying "Ah yes, well. . ." The huge cheer of the diocese reflected great respect and affection.

He wrote wonderful letters. He is the only diocesan bishop I have known who would reply, almost always, to letters not only within a week, but usually in his own hand. Our correspondence continued until a few months ago.

At Christmas, he had spotted that I had written a book, and wanted to know why I had not sent him a copy. I had imagined that the book, about the demise of rural railways in the West Country, would be of no interest. Back came a letter rejoicing in the glories of both the Great Western and Southern Railways, and about his favourite train, the Atlantic Coast Express. The warmth and the joy still shone through.

 

The Revd John Chrisman writes:

IN 1984, when I was serving as US Navy captain in Naples, Bishop John Satterthwaite (Gazette, 6 June) confirmed me. Later, the Bishop encouraged my application to train as a priest of the Church of England, and called me to give me the news that I had been selected and ask where I would like to train. He was totally supportive of me and my wife, Donna, while I was training at Westcott House, and invited us to his home in Kensington more than once. He ordained me priest in 1989.

When, in 1991, I transferred, to Newport, Rhode Island, in the United States, to take over a troubled parish there, Bishop John wrote me a most gracious letter, recalling our meeting in Naples, and thanking me for my service to his diocese. He was indeed my "father-in-God", and an inspiration to me for ministry in the Church.

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