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The Rt Revd Ronald Gordon

28 August 2015

“A servant’s heart”: the Rt Revd Ronald Gordon

“A servant’s heart”: the Rt Revd Ronald Gordon

The Bishop of Norwich writes:

THE Rt Revd Ronald Gordon, who died on 8 August, aged 88, was Bishop of Portsmouth from 1975 to 1984. He also held several other significant posts in the Church of England, where his influence may have been sometimes hidden, but was none the less considerable.

Archibald Ronald McDonald Gordon came from a distinguished family. His father, Sir Archibald Gordon, was a diplomat, and his mother, Dorothy, was the daughter of the noted Congregationalist minister Charles Silvester Horne, who also became a Liberal MP. (The comedian and broadcaster, Kenneth Horne, was Ronald’s uncle.)

After Rugby School and Balliol College, Oxford, Ronald trained for ordination at Cuddesdon. He served a curacy at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, before returning to Cuddesdon as Chaplain when Edward Knapp-Fisher (later Bishop of Pretoria) was Principal. It was then a college of clear disciplines and fixed routines. Ronald was always able to live within institutions, without being limited by them. Nor was he the prisoner of his relatively privileged background.

He moved from Cuddesdon to be Vicar of St Peter’s, Spring Hill, in Birmingham, then one of the most challenging parishes in the city. Here, he led a scheme for ordinands, who would receive experience of inner-city ministry. A succession of curates also gained a valuable formation, among them John Morrison and John Duncan, later Archdeacons of Oxford and Birmingham respectively.

In 1971, he returned to Oxford as Vicar of St Mary’s, the University Church, in Oxford. But within four years came his consecration as Bishop of Portsmouth.

In Portsmouth, he gathered around him a team that included seasoned pastoral experience, alongside youthful flair and experimentation. He brought Ron Scruby, a legend in Portsmouth diocese, from his archdeaconry on the Isle of Wight, to be Archdeacon of Portsmouth. Ron’s long pastoral experience and intelligence provided stability and a critical eye, while David Stancliffe, Stephen Platten, and Graeme Knowles ushered in a new and purposeful era in the life of the cathedral. Ronald was not covetous of his episcopal ministry, but was genuinely collaborative.

During this time, Ronald was also Chairman of the Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry, although this did not prevent ministerial experiments’ starting in Portsmouth. The most significant among them was a local scheme enabling ordinations to the distinctive diaconate. This got fully under way only after Ronald left, since in 1984 he became Archbishop Robert Runcie’s Chief of Staff and Bishop at Lambeth.

He was only then 57, and a long way from retirement. No move could have been more illustrative of Ronald’s modest willingness to serve both the Church of England and an Archbishop he admired. He had a servant’s heart.

Ronald provided a wealth of good advice to Runcie, and inspired confidence in his fellow bishops, with whom he was in frequent contact. Perhaps his father’s skills as a diplomat ran through his veins more than he himself realised, since the mid-Thatcher years were ones of considerable Church-State controversy. During this period, Ronald also served as Bishop to the Forces. It is perhaps a tribute to him that 30 years later the combined ministries Ronald held at Lambeth have been comprehensively recreated.

Ronald was sometimes described as a reserved man. He was certainly no purveyor of false bonhomie, and was content with his own company. So it was a surprise to see his party piece, which involved his sitting on the floor with his back to a piano, with his hands crossed behind his head, and playing with surprising ease. Only a talented musician (which he was), with a fine sense of the ridiculous, could have done this. It took some time to come to know Ronald well, but, when you did, you had a friend for life.

His servant ministry continued after Lambeth Palace when he became Sub-Dean at Christ Church, Oxford. In more recent years in retirement, first in Abingdon and later in Wantage, he has been a guide and friend to many priests and lay people.

Ronald’s theology and spirituality were Catholic, but, like his personality, unfussy and yet rich. His prayer life was profound. In recent months, when his memory had gone and his hold on life was weakening, he would join in the Lord’s Prayer with firm determination.

A sister, Alison, predeceased him, a loss from which Ronald never quite recovered. His brother, Duncan, who, like Alison and Ronald himself, never married, survives him. One of Ronald’s recreations listed in Who’s Who was “refraining from giving advice”. He did; and yet many people sought it, and were wise to do so.

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