The Rt Revd Dr David Stancliffe writes:
FOR the wider Church, Michael Perham’s name is — and will continue to be — synonymous with liturgy. Liturgy Pastoral and Parochial is the title of a valued book of 1984, and Michael never lost sight of the goal of making worship in the enormous diversity of the C of E better.
Michael died on 17 April, aged 69. He was ordained deacon in 1976, after studies at Keble College, Oxford, and Cuddesdon, and served a five-year curacy in Addington. Becoming secretary to the Doctrine Commission, he learnt the importance of recording complex theological decisions meticulously, and its chairman, Bishop John Taylor, recognised his gifts of clear-headed, strategic thinking and appointed Michael as his chaplain in 1981.
Travelling around the diocese of Winchester in the early 1980s, he was able to observe worship of all kinds, and see just where the clergy needed most help. This was to be the seedbed of that fertile stream of books, designed to help clergy and lay people understand and put into practice worship that was theologically coherent and dignified, yet unfussy.
Michael had a facility for writing accessibly, and was one of those members of the Liturgical Commission, on which he served for more than 15 years, who could craft texts. He was much more than a fluent wordsmith — although Lent, Holy Week and Easter, Enriching the Christian Year, and collects, patterns of intercession and Eucharistic Prayers show his skills in that. In the Commission’s meetings he was a skilled broker, able to interpret the deeply held theological differences of members, and knowing instinctively how to respond to the gut reactions that emerged on the floor of the General Synod and discern a way forward.
As parish priest in Oakdale, the largest parish in the diocese of Salisbury, and then as Canon Precentor at Norwich and subsequently Provost of Derby, while he would have recognised himself as a pastoral liturgist,
he became an “oiler of wheels” in decision-making processes, a clear and strategic thinker, and an efficient chairman of meetings. Cathedrals are collegiate settings, and Michael developed those skills of leadership that involve persuading by teaching and example rather than coercion.
All the while, his family was growing up. His wife, Alison, a specialist in palliative medicine, continued her work in Staffordshire for part of the week, and their four daughters — remembered from Norwich days for their splendid hats in church — were forging independent lives.
Michael was not a bragging father, but his family was his great joy. He was justifiably proud of his four daughters and full of admiration for the women they had become. He was delighted that they had each found someone to share her life with.
When he arrived at Gloucester, Michael was well prepared for the office of a bishop. He was at home in his cathedral, going to evensong whenever he could, but never, as a former dean, interfering in its running. He was an effortless administrator, and the reforms he instituted felt commonsensical, so were readily accepted. He led study days for the clergy — or persuaded others to do so — and turned his mind to matters other than liturgy, like reconciliation.
Michael would not have labelled himself primarily a pastor, but he discovered that he was enormously respected and valued; the building-up of the chrism eucharist had a profound effect on the diocese’s clergy, who enjoyed coming together across the divides of tradition to gather around their bishop. With individuals, he had the ability to unearth and enjoy the positive attributes of a person, and never succumbed to the cynicism that besets institutions; he said that being a bishop included more pastoral work than any of his previous posts — and he enjoyed it.
But there was life beyond the local church. He was Pro-Chancellor and Vice-Chair of the Council of the University of Gloucestershire, and patron of numerous charities in the diocese; he maintained posts in the national Church, chairing the governing body of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and providing oversight to the Society of St Francis as their Bishop Protector. At the heart of his ministry was a rich and disciplined life of prayer.
At Gloucester, he was able to relinquish a good deal of the Synodical activity that had consumed much of his attention earlier and where his clarity of expression and fair-mindedness made him a sought-after chair for difficult assignments. Being a bishop came naturally, and it was a great pity that one of the events that overshadowed his final years blighted the end of his time there.
The first was an accusation of impropriety, stemming from his years as a curate. Within a few weeks, the police had decided that there was no case to answer. But the Church of England needed to follow its own procedures, and after these was pleased to welcome Michael back fully into ministry. So, in June 2015, more than 1000 people joined him as he celebrated a final eucharist in Gloucester Cathedral, to give thanks for his ministry as Bishop of Gloucester.
The second was the diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour. To both of these blows, Michael responded with characteristic serenity. While his family and friends felt the unfairness sharply, Michael busied himself with his prayers; wrote another book; chaired the Board of Governors at Plymouth Marjon University, appointing a new Vice Chancellor; officiated at the Candlemas marriage of his daughter; and signed up to teach a Lent course for the diocese of Salisbury.
In the event, he died on Easter Monday, having journeyed with his family though Holy Week. His funeral in Gloucester Cathedral will be a fitting celebration of the triumph of the Easter faith, which was the heart of his life and witness.