Obituary: CANON DONALD ARNOLD JOHNSON

by
21 March 2014

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A correspondent writes:
THE Revd Donald Johnson, who died on 25 February, aged 85, was a clergyman of many parts: a skilled artist, working primarily in water colours; a horticulturalist who specialised in saving old and rare apples; a keeper of sheep and bees. Above all he was a country parson who defined himself as following in a great English tradition which runs from George Herbert, via 18th-century squarsons and Victorian clerics in their book-lined studies, to the clergy of our own age who endeavour to keep the faith alive in scattered rural communities.

Donald came from a Buckinghamshire family strongly committed to the Church, and learned his love of liturgy and music from their example. After National Service, he went up to Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1948, and then to Cuddesdon for ministerial training. He found the demands of the sacred tongues challenging, but his time in Oxford left him with a life-long engagement with systematic theology, reflected in a formidable library. He became assistant curate at Henfield, Sussex, in 1953, and spent two happy years there, culminating in his marriage to Aileen.

A second curacy followed, in Horsham, and then, in 1959, he was instituted as Vicar of Oving, West Sussex. He held the parish in conjunction with domestic chaplaincy to Roger Wilson, Bishop of Chichester. The combined duties were onerous, especially as these were years of bringing up his three sons, Christopher, Michael, and Edward. There were compensations, however, in the close friendships made in the palace, and the opportunity to extend the range of clerical stories that could be told in and out of the pulpit. Donald was a born raconteur.

With his move to the parish of Hellingly, East Sussex, in 1968, Donald identified himself explicitly as a country priest, and confirmed this position even more strongly when he moved to Funtington, West Sussex, in 1978. He retired in 1998.

It was in these later parishes that his love of painting and of the country was given full rein. His water colours were exhibited at many shows, and he became well-known in local artistic circles for his landscapes and downland scenes.

At Funtington, he kept sheep on the glebe, giving them the adjunct role of churchyard lawn-mowers. Animal husbandry, in his view, needed as much study as any major life-interest: the bookshelves were full of relevant texts, and Donald became an enthusiastic member of the Southdown Sheep Society. Apples were not merely for eating: he became a skilled grafter, and developed a reputation as one who could identify rare varieties. He rejoiced in rescuing old apples that had been almost lost, and lamented those that had vanished without trace.

Donald's varied interests, however, were never allowed to distract him from his priestly role. He was a faithful servant to all his congregations, and faithful also to the form of worship in which he had been raised. He was a traditionalist: often at odds with developments in the Church, but intensely loyal to the Book of Common Prayer. In his later years he affirmed this latter commitment through his chairmanship of the Chichester diocesan branch of the Prayer Book Society.

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