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Obituary: The Very Revd John Fitzmaurice Petty

15 September 2017

The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove writes:

THE Very Revd John Petty, who died on 23 August, aged 82, was proud of his distinguished forebears, among them Sir William Petty, a 17th-century founder member of the Royal Society. There is a memorial to him in Romsey Abbey which speaks of, among other things, his “indefatigable industry”. Nothing could be truer of his descendant, who was Provost, then Dean, of Coventry from 1988 to 2000.

No one who was present at John’s installation at Coventry Cathedral will ever forget it. A great crowd of parishioners from St John’s, Hurst, in Ashton-Under-Lyne, where he had been incumbent for more than a decade, had gathered in the ruins of the medieval church of St Michael. Led by their much loved Vicar, they streamed down the steps into the new cathedral, to witness him inaugurate a colourful and energetic ministry there. It seemed that the entire town had turned out for the occasion. This spoke volumes about the admiration and affection in which he had been held in that gritty urban parish.

Deans (and formerly provosts) of English cathedrals have to be many things. But the heart of their function is to be the head of a religious foundation, and, as we say nowadays, a leader in mission. “This is the best job in the Church of England,” announced John from the pulpit.

Maybe he was not the only priest to speak about his vocation in those terms. But there was no doubting the alacrity with which he embraced the task of presiding over the cathedral. With his ancestor’s “indefatigable industry” he threw himself into it.

Coventry Cathedral, ruined by enemy action and rebuilt after the war, is a place with a remarkable story. The juxtaposition of old and new, representing death and resurrection, inspired John at a deep level. He loved the cathedral’s heritage, rich in symbolism and replete with architectural and artistic treasures. He invested heavily in its international ministry of reconciliation, symbolised by the cross of nails, which he always wore. He gave priority to its liturgy, outreach to civic leaders, and strengthened the cathedral’s relationship with its diocese.

He relished grand ceremonial occasions such as the Royal Maundy, and inhabited the public stage with presence and dignity. But, despite a high profile, his leadership style was characterised by a certain modesty. He appreciated the skills and talents of others, and knew how to delegate, and give space for colleagues to flourish. He was proud of his team and lavish in his praise for them.

But perhaps it was the quotidian, parish-priestly part of him that touched people most: his warmth, kindness, and care. He was as interested in ordinary lives as in those of the great and the good. His ministry of prayer and healing, shaped over years in the parish, was of central importance to him. So was his concern for parents whose children had died. He named a pastoral project for them, initiated at the cathedral, Remember Our Child. It showed his capacity to reach out in quiet intimacy to people who were hurting years after experiencing this most awful of bereavements.

John had no taste for armchair theology. Prayer, outreach, pastoral care, and human relationships were, to him, the best evidence of the gospel. He believed that a priest should be visible and have time for people. He walked the cathedral nave several times a day to talk to staff and volunteers. He knew their names, and the names of their families and even their pets.

Similarly, the Provost on his bicycle became a familiar and endearing sight in the city. And, after his evening engagements, the study light in the Provost’s House would remain on late into the small hours, testifying to his appetite for doing his job professionally and thoroughly.

Born in 1935, John attended King’s School, Bruton, in Somerset, before reading engineering at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. After Sandhurst, his army service included three years in the far east with the Royal Engineers, building roads with the Gurkhas. He married Sue Shakerley in 1963, not long before beginning theological training at Cuddesdon.

He was ordained in 1966, and served curacies in Sheffield and south London. He went to Hurst in 1975, and to Coventry in 1988. Among his many recreations was his love of cricket (how he would have relished opening the batting for England, one of his children says), and of skiing and cycling.

After retirement in 2000, he and Sue moved to Shrewsbury, where he became chaplain to Mount House, a care home in the town. Poignantly, as dementia took hold, his last years were spent in residence there. It took courage to face the inevitable, but he was greatly supported by the strong and happy family life that he had enjoyed since marriage and which sustained him to the end.

Tellingly, he chose for his funeral a reading from Morris West’s novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, which typified his practical approach to ministry. “I’d be a country priest with just enough theology to hear confession . . . but with heart enough to know what . . . made [others] cry into their pillows at night. I’d sit in front of my church and read my office and talk about the weather and the crops and learn to be gentle with the poor and humble and unhappy ones.”

In a way, this was the John who touched so many lives, and who is remembered with gratitude and deep affection.

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