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The Very Revd John E. Allen

30 October 2015

Engaged and engaging provost: the Very Revd John Allen

Engaged and engaging provost: the Very Revd John Allen

Canon Daniel O’Connor writes:

ON A Sunday morning, amid glorious choral music, and led by a flurry of acolytes from his stall to the high altar as the celebrant in the colourfully ceremonious solemn eucharist at Wakefield Cathedral, the Very Revd John Allen, who was, by inclination, somewhat more of a “liberal Catholic”, felt, as he sometimes admitted, like a lamb led to the slaughter. His assured and gifted leadership in the Church was not in doubt, but neither was his ability to laugh at himself.

John Edward Allen, who died on 9 September, aged 83, was born at Rusholme, Manchester, on 9 June 1932, where his father was Vicar. After Rugby School and University College, Oxford, he was fortunate enough to have two secular jobs, which brought valuable experience to his subsequent ministry.

In 1957, he joined the Colonial Service in Kenya, and gained insights that he brought later to his position on the executive committee of USPG. After Kenyan independence, he spent some years in commercial sales and marketing, useful, alongside other gifts, in developing a 20th-century cathedral.

After two years at Westcott House, Cambridge, and with a BA in theology from Fitzwilliam College, he was ordained at Canterbury in 1968 to a curacy at St Leonard’s, Deal. From 1971 to 1978, he combined the incumbency of St Paul’s, Bristol, with the Senior Chaplaincy at the University of Bristol. A fellow-chaplain described him as offering to parishioners, staff, and students “an unapologetic, open-minded, questioning, and engaged approach to faith, ‘inclusive’ before the word was invented”.

It was a period when chaplaincy in higher education flourished, so, too, did conservative Evangelicalism, and John’s ministry among the Bristol students was a spirited one, challenging them intellectually and on the social and political context, and seeing a good number of them go on to ordination.

Parish life in a country town can seem tame after the giddy student world, but John made a good job of his move to Chippenham, in Wiltshire, where St Andrew’s is the civic church and in the High Street. There was a growing congregation for intelligent, thoughtful preaching, but there were also opportunities for a full involvement in the life of the town. This was a pointer to his approach when, after only four years, he was appointed Provost of Wakefield Cathedral.

John was at Wakefield for 15 years, from 1982 to 1997, where he accompanied three successive bishops, Colin James, David Hope, and Nigel McCulloch. The culture wars, particularly in the 1980s regarding the ordination of women, were being waged, and there was an exceptionally strong conservative element among the clergy of the diocese and in the cathedral congregation.

With the appointment of a woman chaplain to the cathedral, and a second choir, for girls, John put down markers and gradually won his way. But, in many other less contentious respects also, his was an impressive ministry. Changes to the building were few, but significant: the unusual statue of a cross-legged and very human Madonna and Child of 1986 in the Lady chapel recalls John’s love of art. As importantly to him, it became something of an object of pilgrimage to people with little other connection with the cathedral.

Another significant change was in 1989: the installation of the glass porch and glass doors at the south entrance, opening on to a newly pedestrianised area, and making the cathedral manifestly accessible to, and in touch with, the busy commercial centre of Wakefield.

This points to one of the most striking aspects of his ministry: his determination to open the cathedral to a range of secular and religious events, and to the civic life of Wakefield and West Yorkshire. Alongside this was his concern for the Health Service, as director of the Area Health Authority, chair of the local hospice, and of a medical-ethics forum.

The police, too, were an important object of his ministry, and he was a religious-programmes adviser to Yorkshire Television. The founding of what is now called the Wakefield Cathedral Academy was a source of justifiable pride.

John was elected by the Deans and Provosts as a member of the General Synod, where he was particularly pleased to promote a Measure supportive of those who had served the Church overseas. He was also vice-chair of the Partnership in Mission project, seeking to move the Church of England beyond its traditional colonialist posture, and a lively member of the USPG’s central executive body.

Fifteen years was a long time to be a cathedral provost, but John, supported by his ever lively and enthusiastic wife, Eleanor, lost none of his vigour, or his undemonstrative devotion, and his sermons continued intelligent and arresting. If the English cathedrals gained a new lease of life in our times, John made his own fine and distinctive contribution.

In retirement to a village near Scarborough, John chaired the North East Yorkshire NHS Trust. He and Eleanor took a full part in local church and community life and in the enjoyment of family and friends. She survives him, as do a son and three daughters, and nine grandchildren.

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