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Canon Robert Edgar Turner

by
10 June 2016

The Revd Brian Stewart writes

CANON Edgar Turner, who died on 2 April, aged 96, was one of the most remarkable and influential priests of the Church of Ireland in the post-war era. During more than 70 years of ministry, Edgar wore many hats — as university chaplain, parish priest, liturgist, cartographer, canon lawyer, linguist, ecumenist, bookbinder, woodworker, and foot­ball fan.

Born in Londonderry, he was educated at Foyle College, Magee College, and Trinity College, Dub­lin. From here, Edgar went to Lincoln Theological College in 1944, where he prepared for ordina­tion under the guidance of Eric Abbott. While at Lincoln, he learnt the skill of bookbinding, and claimed to have bound the first copy of Dom Gregory Dix’s The Shape of Liturgy when he bound Eric Abbott’s pre-publication copy.

Edgar was ordained deacon in Birmingham Cathedral in 1945, for the parish of King’s Heath. In 1951, he was appointed the first full-time Church of Ireland chaplain at Queen’s University, Belfast. When he started, there was no accommo­dation or chaplaincy building. He threw himself into the work, making a significant impact pastor­ally among staff and students. He oversaw the creation of a constitu­tion, and the purchase of a suitable building, incorporating accommo­da­tion for the chaplain and up to six students, together with a library and a chapel. He organised a student broadsheet, pilgrimages, and an annual Theological Lecture, which continues to this day.

In 1958, the Bishop appointed him Rector of St George’s, Belfast, an inner-city parish with a long-established High Church tradition. Edgar had not wanted to leave Queen’s, and, when he questioned the appointment, Bishop Cyril Elliott threatened to withdraw his licence and send him back to England. The future of St George’s was still uncertain, despite its hav­ing survived a determined attempt to close it in 1951. During the speeches after the Institution, the Bishop said publicly that he was sending Edgar to close the church and that he wanted it done within three years. Edgar ignored the Bishop. He retired from the parish 32 years later, after a distinguished incumbency, and St George’s con­tin­ues to this day as a centre of Catholic Anglicanism in the Church of Ireland.

Edgar inherited a parish in good heart, largely owing to the short but dynamic ministry of his immediate predecessor, the colourful and rum­bustious St John Pike, who became Bishop of Gambia in 1958. It was the building itself that was in need of renovation, which Edgar immed­iately set in train. Under the expert direction of the parish organist, a church architect, Edwin Leighton, Edgar oversaw the necessary repairs, and the introduction of a much brighter colour scheme. The imag­in­ative use of colour transformed the drab interior into the light and airy space that St George’s is today.

Edgar also introduced innova­tions, such as Lenten veiling, the Easter vigil, Rogationtide proces­sions, and other liturgical practices then unknown in Irish Anglicanism. In 1962, he married Dr Joan Hew­son, whom he had met when she was a medical student at Queen’s.

After the IRA’s campaign of city-centre bombing began in earnest in 1972, St George’s was badly dam­aged on at least 19 occasions, between then and 1990. Edgar was determined to keep the church open for worship, and so he would be there after every blast, leading the clear-up, boarding up windows, and retrieving the fragments of stained glass for future restoration. Despite the fact that on numerous occasions the church was without power, heat, and light, no Sunday services were ever cancelled because of terrorist action. The Rectory was also badly damaged by a bomb in 1974.

Inevitably, the numbers attending services declined, and the finances were badly affected. Edgar led a dedicated small team of parishion­ers, who carried out many repairs and maintenance tasks themselves, because the parish could not afford to bring in outside contractors for every job; the government compen­sation rarely met the full cost of bomb-damage repairs.

During this time, he also guided revised liturgies through the General Synod, and did much of the legal preparatory work that paved the way for the marriage of div­orcees. His knowledge of canon law and diocesan boundary maps was prodigious, and he was being con­sulted by bishops up to a few weeks before his death about liturgical, legal, and boundary issues. He was a member of the Liturgical Advisory Committee, from its inception in 1962 until he died.

Edgar retired from St George’s in 1990; by then, the parish’s future was secured, largely thanks to his effort and commitment. It is believed that he refused significant preferment repeatedly in the 1970s, because a vacancy in St George’s could have led to its closure or amalgamation with another parish.

From childhood, he was an avid follower of "the beautiful game", a lifelong supporter of Derry City F., and of Northern Ireland. He was in the Faroe Islands last September, aged 95, to see the country play. He fostered at least 16 vocations to the priesthood during his 32 years at St George’s. Joan died in 2012, and he is survived by his daughter, Kate, son, Justin, and daughter in law, Bláithín.

Archbishop Robin Eames sum­marised Edgar’s priesthood by highlighting "his utter faithfulness to his calling, his sincerity and his complete pastoral reliability". In retirement, Edgar worshipped at St John’s, Malone, another High Church parish in Belfast, where he was much loved. It was fitting that his Requiem at St George’s, on 7 April, was conducted by the clergy from St John’s, assisted by the present Rector of St George’s, in the presence of many friends — bishops, clergy, and laity.

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