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Canon Gavin Donald White

27 January 2017

Canon Dan O’Connor writes:

CONGREGATIONS will miss the wry, dry wit with which Canon Gavin White, who died on Christ­mas Eve, aged 89, made his firmly Catholic sermons sparkle; and read­ers of his writings in church history will miss it, too.

Gavin White was born in Mon­treal, son of a Canadian army brigadier — though he enjoyed look­ing further back, to his Scottish forebears and their service in India. After boarding school in Ontario, and a degree from Toronto, he spent two years on weather stations in the Arctic, and then went to pre­pare for ordination at St Stephen’s House, Oxford — chillier, he alleged, than the weather stations.

After ordination in Quebec, he held a series of short-term appoint­ments between 1953 and 1959, as an assistant curate in Quebec, and as chaplain to construction teams back in the Arctic, in a mining town in Labrador, and in Ottawa.

Enrolling with the Unviersities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA), Gavin went, “again, a curate”, to Kideleko, Zanzibar, for two years, finding UMCA an uncomfortable experience as a Canadian: he spoke of his British colleagues afflicted with “colonial cringe”.

This was followed by four years at St Paul’s United Theological College at Limuru, Kenya, and marriage, in 1963, to Robin Ross, a nurse. He also made good friends among his African colleagues and students, including a lifelong friendship
with John Ramadhani, subsequently Arch­bishop and Primate of Tan­zania. Gavin and Robin continued thereafter to support churches and students in Tanzania.

Leave in New York from 1966 turned into another curacy, while
he wrote a dissertation at General Theological Seminary for an S.T.M. on “The Idea of the Missionary Bishop in Nineteenth-Century Angli­can­ism”, highly valued, although never published. Then, in London, while assistant priest at Rosslyn Hill for two years, he earned a Ph.D. at the School of Oriental and African Studies for his work on the Kikuyu controversy.

With these fine qualifications, Gavin moved back to ancestral Scot­land, as a Lecturer in Church His­­tory in Glasgow University, with a licence to officiate in the diocese. He was there from 1971 to retire­ment in 1992. There, he gained a reputa­tion for knowing things that no one else knew, earned, he claimed by chomping through the University Library “like a weevil in a cornfield”, and, along with numer­ous learned articles, he published two books with the SCM Press, cogent and incisive, and with typically Gavin­esque titles: How the Churches Got To Be the Way They Are and The Mother Church Your Mother Never Told You Of.

Retirement was to St Andrews, from where Gavin’s forebears had hailed, to full involvement in the local Catholic community of All Saints’ Church, and to Robin’s and his warm hospitality, to friends and students, in their flat above the Cross Keys in Market Street. Gavin con­tinued, until his health failed, to attend and contribute to gatherings on ecclesias­tical history, Episcopal church history, and Scottish church history, and to write reviews. In 1998, he wrote the eminently read­able and entertaining The Scottish Episcopal Church: A new history, published by Cornerstone Bookshop.

Gavin is survived by Robin, and three gifted children — Rehema, a teacher at St Andrews, Peter, in the software industry in Edinburgh, and Stephen, in the European Commis­sion in Belgium — and six grand­children.

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