The Revd Dr Malcolm Johnson writes:
PREBENDARY John Bernard Gaskell, who died on 28 October, aged 87, was a pattern priest: if young people today are considering ordination, they would do well to look at John’s priesthood as a pattern for them.
In many ways he resembled one of his famous predecessors at St Alban’s, Holborn. Fr Mackonochie possessed integrity, steadfastness of faith, pastoral diligence, courage, and holiness of life; but they were expressed in a way that made him admirable rather than likeable. John, however, had warmth and gentleness, and was certainly not bloody-minded.
John Betjeman considered him the best preacher in the Church of England, saying: “I have never heard better sermons than his. He has the natural melody of language in his words. He is obviously a poet.” The Archbishop of Canterbury invested him with the Cross of St Augustine, and the Bishop of London gave him a prebendal stall.
When I first saw John in 1965, he looked terrifying: taking evensong at All Saints’, Margaret Street, with those well-drilled choirboys. How wrong I was. He became a very close friend of Robert and me, and I soon realised that he was a new breed of Anglo-Catholic, who, with Rowan Williams, David Hutt, Victor Stock, and Jeffrey John, became a leading light in Affirming Catholicism, supporting the ordination of women to the priesthood, and a liberal view on homosexual relationships.
I claim some credit in getting him to St Alban’s, Holborn, because I went to see Canon Douglas Webster, the patron, and told him that John had all the necessary gifts. And so it turned out, because he visited everyone living on the Bourne estate, took a great interest in the school, opened the Centre, and, with Michael Fleming, extended the musical tradition. He became a trainer of curates, and a wise, incisive, and compassionate confessor and spiritual director.
John went to Haberdasher’s Aske’s School, where his father said he could be confirmed if he read On the Origin of Species. After Jesus College, Oxford, he worked for the Royal Insurance, then went to Chichester Theological College, where the Principal was the acerbic Cheslyn Jones. John began a sermon “In a few days we shall be in Lent,” to which Jones replied: “In a few minutes we shall be asleep.”
The first curacy at St James’s, Elmers End (where the vicar said that he was the best priest in the deanery), was followed by a curacy at All Saints’, Margaret Street, then time at the Grosvenor Chapel, with its dukes and dustmen. The move to Holborn came in 1979.
He loved Wagner. There is a delicious story of a works outing of Desmond Tillyer and John from the Grosvenor Chapel to the Coliseum. They were shown into a box that had no chairs, and when they leaned over to look at the stage, the singers looked horrified. Then the door burst open and the Chorus trooped in to sing.
For seven years, John was chaplain to the nuns of St Saviour’s Priory, and, he said, hugely enjoyed it (mainly because of the meals they gave him). Sister Helen told him that he was “a breath of fresh air, opening the door to so many new ideas, freedom of thought and expression”. “You gave us”, she said, “permission to enter the 20th century — only 75 years late.”
John believed in the person of Jesus as his Lord and Saviour, and accepted his promise that there is another life for those who want it. His last few months were painful and difficult, particularly as he had always till then been a fit man — he always had a personal trainer. He described himself to me as like the Matterhorn: difficult but not impossible. I came to say goodbye, but couldn’t get much sense out of the hospital staff, although one nurse said “Don’t worry; his wife is with him.” An interesting development, I thought.
We must thank the Lord for all the goodness, wisdom, and courage that have passed from the life of John, his servant, into the lives of others. The world is a fairer place because of him. A life’s task has been faithfully discharged, and we are grateful for his compassion, graciousness and generosity.
Leigh Hatts adds: John Gaskell returned St Alban’s, Holborn, to being an authentic parish church, as well as a shrine to refresh those ministering and worshipping far away in less inspiring churches. One who dropped in, and found faith there, was Richard Coles, who recalls the vicar as “a remarkable priest in his 60s — tall, beaky, and quite bald, in a black cassock . . .”.
An unexpected challenge for Fr Gaskell was ministering to victims of AIDS, at a time when the virus was a mystery, giving rise to widespread fear about sharing the chalice at communion. Another was a sudden population change, which brought to the local school Muslim children, who all attended school mass. He was a friend of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who, in retirement, came to preside over the crowning of the school May Queen.
The only time Fr Gaskell appeared slightly apprehensive before a sermon was on Sunday 5 July 1992. He preached about the Early Church agreeing to admit Gentiles. It was, he suggested, the equivalent to accepting that priests might not always be men. The congregation did not seem entirely happy; but only a third signed the petition promoted by opponents.
Fr Gaskell was the first chair of Affirming Catholicism, which was founded at St Alban’s. “‘Are you sound?’ has become as unhealthy a Christian question as ‘Are you saved’,” he said. “If we are going to have women priests in the Church of England, I want them to be Catholic ladies, not liberal Evangelicals.” They needed, he once said, to be accepted as “properly ordained”, and therefore seen to have been anointed.
More than 200 people attended his requiem mass on 27 November at All Saints’, Margaret Street.