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A priestly life: human, well-lived

14 October 2016

THE Revd John Lee, who died on 27 September, was best known in the Church as the Clergy Appointments Adviser, a post he held from 1998 to 2015. He advised hundreds of the clergy, not only in finding the right posts, but in understanding more deeply where their true vocation lay.

I came across John in the 1980s, when he was completing training as a psychotherapist. He helped me through the most desolate years of my life. Early in the morning, twice a week, I drove to the Institute of Group Analysts in Hampstead, and would sit on a couch in a basement room; John sat on a low chair.

I cannot really say what passed between us, except that I eventually emerged from a tunnel of pain to a place of hope. John was not a blank-wall therapist, although we spent a great deal of time in silence. Gradu­ally, however, he revealed his wider world.

He had been adopted. He knew that he was Irish, and that his real name was Michael Murphy. He never knew his birth mother. When I started therapy with him, he was Priest-in Charge and later Rector, of St Mary’s, Chiddingstone, Kent. He was married with three children. He worked with groups and indi­viduals, and had a particular min­istry to gay men. He had been an oceanographer before ordina­tion, and had worked in Australia. He loved the outdoors. He ran in marathons.

John was unlike anyone I had ever met before. He could be bloody-minded, sweary, and chal­leng­­ing. He did not care much about the things that most interested me (pre­cise liturgy, Church history). He was liberal where I was conservative in theology; rigorous where I preferred to be reticent in therapy. He thought the Church was often pathetic, dishonest, and hypo­critical; but he still wanted to be in it. After my years of therapy ended, we became friends. I preached for him at Chid­ding­stone, and later became part of his advisory group.

The church was packed at his funeral in Chiddingstone last Fri­day. There were four bishops, many priests, and a few former colleagues from Lambeth Palace and Church House. But there were also many people who loved the way that he cared for his flock, and his com­mitment to village life. How he managed to be so many different things to so many different people, I do not know.

I do know, however, that I am only one of many who owe him a profound debt of gratitude. He showed that a priestly life should not focus on ambition or success, but should essentially be a human life well lived. This is what he tried to convey in his last appointment — a kind of ministry which, in these reforming days, the Church could be in danger of forgetting.

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