The Revd John Lee

by
21 October 2016

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The Rt Revd Tim Stevens writes:

THE Revd John Lee, who died on 27 September, aged 68, was born Michael Murphy, the son of Bridget Murphy, in the west of Ireland. He was subsequently adopted, and brought up in Orpington in a conservative Evangelical family. This lay at the root of his own search for his true identity, and was part of his motivation in seeking to set others free to be themselves. It led to a deep impatience with any authority that was blind to the frailty and vulnerability of human nature.

John took a degree in oceanography at the University of Swansea in 1970, and served as a marine scientist in the Royal Australian Navy, before taking his M.Sc. in 1973. His love of the sea stayed with him all his life, and was an essential part of his frequent visits to the west coast of Ireland where he became deeply committed to the community in Gougane Barra. He identified with the Celtic saints, frequently making hazardous visits to Skellig Michael, to sit dangerously atop the highest point.

John trained for ordination at Ripon Hall, and was ordained deacon in 1975, serving his title in St Peter’s, Swansea. In 1979, he became assistant priest and counsellor at St Botolph’s, Aldgate, during the Revd Malcolm Johnson’s incumbency. His exceptional gifts as a pastor and counsellor began to flourish, especially in his work among gay clergy, whose ministries were often precarious at the time.

In 1984, Bishop David Say invited John to become Priest-in-Charge of Chiddingstone and Chiddingstone Causeway, in Rochester diocese. His pastoral instincts led to a wide network of trusting relationships with the congregation and many others in the church school, the pub, and people’s homes. John had a reputation for routinely “going the extra mile” for those who needed him. The rectory became a place of hospitality, shared with his wife, Sue, and three children, as well as much loved cats, dogs, chickens, and healthy crops of carefully tended vegetables.

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During this time, John trained as a psychotherapist and group analyst with the Institute of Group Analysis, convening a group of clergy who met there for many years. He was also a teaching fellow at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, working in the Department of Psychological Medicine.

In 1998, he was appointed Clergy Appointments Adviser to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, giving him a national task of offering advice to clergy and bishops. He saw this as an opportunity to combine his skills as counsellor and listener with his deeply held convictions about the privilege and responsibility inherent in the call to ordination. He was assiduous in travelling the country, and writing careful, detailed, and honest accounts of his interviews with the clergy. These came to be highly valued by bishops, who felt that they summarised accurately and incisively the strengths and weaknesses of the clergy.

In 2007, he chaired a working group about the final ten years of licensed ministry, whose report was From Frustration to Fulfilment. It contained many practical suggestions for ensuring that the final years of stipendiary ministry remain fulfilling and rewarding for its clergy, and in consequence for lay people as well.

John was also at the centre of an informal and invisible network of relationships with many people, for whom he was friend, adviser, and support. He was consistently committed to truthfulness in these conversations, about which he spoke powerfully in his sermon at the funeral of Eric James in 2011. He passionately believed in the significance of vocation at the heart of the Church’s ministry, becoming increasingly sceptical about some of the processes currently employed in the choice and development of senior leaders. He was saddened in retirement to learn of the decision to discontinue the post he had held for 16 years.

John was reluctant to accept any form of preferment, choosing to keep his feet rooted in the soil on which most of the clergy stood. He was, however, delighted to have been appointed Chaplain to the Queen in 2011, reflecting his affection for the Established Church under the Crown.

Until his final illness made it impossible, John continued his regular pattern of cross-country running (he had completed eight London marathons), and tending his much loved one-acre plot in Brede, in Sussex. Determined (as a runner) not to stop until the finishing line, he was present at his daughter Sophie’s wedding, and died two days later, on 27 September. He is survived by Sue, his wife of 36 years; his children, Joe, Becca, and Sophie; and grandchildren, Dylan and Luc. They were all, in different ways, his pride and joy.

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