The Rt Revd Michael Langrish writes:
FOR eight years, the Rt Revd John Garton, who died on 21 July, aged 74, was a much loved and greatly respected Suffragan Bishop of Plymouth.
To be Bishop of Plymouth is no easy task. The city of Plymouth has an ambivalent relationship with both the county and the diocese (and so with its diocesan bishop). Historic rivalries with the see city of Exeter can make Plymouth feel that it really ought to have a bishop and Anglican cathedral in its own right. No Bishop of Exeter can be much of a Bishop for Plymouth, except through a special colleague with whom he can share a relationship of mutual trust.
Bishop John Garton was exactly that. He was very much a bishop for Plymouth, immersing himself in a wide cross-section of the civic, economic, military, and charitable aspects of its life, and was particularly good at developing partnerships, not least with the RC Bishop, and other local church leaders, for the good of Church and community alike.
Of these, perhaps the most innovative and effective was the Bishop’s Advisory Group for Plymouth. This involved the diocese, Plymouth City Council, businesses, builders and developers, and many community groups and organisations in working together to see how the challenge of dealing with many decaying or unsuitable urban church buildings might enhance the Church’s ministry and mission, and enrich and empower community life. If ever there was an example of Faith in the City in action, this was it.
A dozen sites were redeveloped to provide suitable centres of worship, much-needed social housing, and a mixture of community facilities, ranging from a nursery school to a public library, a drop-in centre for the homeless, a debt counselling service, and a healthy-eating café. To BAGP, as it was known, John brought so many of the fruits of his earlier life — the strategic sense of the military officer, the theological questioning of the ministerial educator, and the practical experience of being an inner-city parish priest — all of which made him a valued member of the Church of England’s Urban Bishops Panel, too.
As a colleague in the Bishop’s staff team, John was a sheer joy. He brought great wisdom to the counsels of the diocese, and, in particular, the Council for Church and Society, which he chaired. His ability to perceive the true nature of problems, to identify the crucial and distinguish it from the incidental, and to give firm leadership by holding on to the heart of the gospel were special gifts, always used with a deftness of touch.
Although very able, he was truly humble and self-effacing. It was a delight to watch him at work in a meeting, especially where the discussion was generating more heat than light, or in danger of getting lost. He did not like to be rushed: he needed time to think things through, and reflect on them, before he would commit himself to a view.
He often wore an air of bemusement, masking a very clear grasp of situations and a very clear idea of what he thought needed to be done. He was rarely, if ever, heard to voice open dissent to an idea or a proposal, but had a lovely way of discreet condemnation through expressing caution. He would listen for a long time and then gently lob into the discussion a courteously worded question, at first sight innocuous but actually a theological grenade, which made people begin to face the real underlying issues.
Even in the heat and burden of the day, he seemed to have his eye on God and the eternal verities, and could bring a group of people in a church meeting, a public gathering, or round a dinner table, easily and graciously to think of them.
As Bishop of Plymouth, John Garton had devolved responsibility not just for that city, but for a whole swath of the diocese from the Teign to the Taw: not just urban Devonport, but rural Dartmoor, and tourist Devon, too.
Right across the parishes in his care, it was very clear how much he was known, and loved, as a transparent man of prayer, and as a delightful and warm human being, whose humanity seemed able to bring out the best in others. Clergy and congregations knew him as perceptive and compassionate, but also unhesitating in speaking the truth in love. At heart, he was a true pastor — a ministry shared fully with his wife, Pauline. She was a true soul companion and helpmeet, who quietly but effectively served as Bishop’s wife, secretary, cook, and housekeeper, and, frequently, driver, too. Their home was a place of unfailing hospitality, welcome, and care.
When John was a schoolboy, ordination had not been on the horizon. It was sport that engaged his energies and in which he excelled. It was a natural step to go to RMA Sandhurst, where, apparently for the first time, his intellectual abilities began to come to the fore.
Thus, having commissioned him into the Royal Tank Regiment, the Army sent him to Worcester College, Oxford, to read for a degree in Psychology, Philosophy, and Physiology. Not only did he academically begin to excel, he also felt the first stirrings of a call to ordination. Delicate negotiations between Church and Army, both of which wanted him, allowed him to undertake his theological education but then return immediately to the military to serve out his commission as an army chaplain in Northern Ireland.
From there, he joined a gifted group of colleagues on the staff of Lincoln Theological College, where he taught ethics, doctrine, and philosophical theology. Then, in a move that would be frowned on in today’s more managerial Church, this priest, who had never been a parish curate, was appointed Rector of a large team ministry, serving urban parishes in Coventry East, where he had particular responsibility himself for St Peter’s, Hillfields.
His achievements there, combined with his theological abilities, and the contribution he made to fostering racial harmony and interfaith understanding, led him to wider responsibilities in Coventry diocese, serving on the Bishop’s councils for ministry and social responsibility, preparing the diocesan submission to the Archbishops’ Commission on Urban Priority Areas, and being made an Hon. Canon of Coventry Cathedral.
His expertise in ministerial formation was already well recognised. He had already been appointed an Inspector of Theological Colleges in 1980, and, in 1986, moved to become Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, where his achievements included setting up the pioneering Sheffield Project, which fostered theological formation in a hands-on urban-priority-area setting. In Cuddesdon itself, he and Pauline created and cared for a happy and vibrant community.
Former students tell of how their Principal would frequently tell them to “get lost”. It was a constant theme of his address to leavers and in seminars — as he emphasised again and again that, unless they were prepared to lose everything, then God simply could not use them in the way that he would.
Such self-emptying was very much a hallmark of John Garton’s own life and ministry, as it was of Pauline’s too. Sadly, his episcopal ministry came to a premature end when a fall while walking in the Himalayas led to his being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The one compensation for his retirement was to be more time at last for John and Pauline for themselves. But when in hospital for a routine operation, Pauline was infected with the virus that caused her early death.
John’s own post-retirement ministry was curtailed as the degenerative disease increasingly took hold, and his last years were spent in care in Oxford, close to his two sons.
Rowan Williams once spoke of Anglicanism at its bestas having tried to evince the Benedictine values of courtesy, hospitality, generosity, and a reflective, practical faith. This vision, he said, formed a pearl of great price. Such a vision John and Pauline Garton enabled many to see.