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The Rt Revd Keith Norman Sutton

31 March 2017


Being for God’s people: the Rt Revd Keith Sutton

Being for God’s people: the Rt Revd Keith Sutton

The Ven. George Frost and the Rt Revd Michael Bourke write:

THE Rt Revd Keith Sutton, who died on 24 March, aged 82, was a well-loved Bishop of Lichfield. Wherever he went to the wide-flung parishes of that diocese — and he visited all of them — Keith con­nected instantly with those con­gregations. Often, he would just stand in the aisle and talk to his people, usually without notes, always directly and coherently, telling stor­ies to make his points. At the end of services would often come the un­­usual request: why didn’t he go on longer? Communicating with people was always Keith’s strength.

Born in Balham, south London, Keith read English at Cambridge, and later trained for the ministry there at Ridley Hall, being ordained in Exeter Cathedral in 1959. He re­­turned to Cambridge to be Chaplain at St John’s College. Five years later, he travelled to Uganda, to be Chap­lain for six years at the Bishop Tucker College there, now part of the Mukono University, the Uganda Christian University.

Keith experienced the realities of Ugandan life in many ways, but par­ticularly when Jean, his wife, lost much blood during a pregnancy. In England, that would have been no problem; but where they were there was no blood bank, and the baby, Mary, died while Jean was airlifted to another facility that saved her life. Keith quickly learned that 25 fam­ilies he knew had lost children sim­ilarly. Keith and Jean’s decision to stay, and be supported within the community in Uganda of which they were part, led to their still being cherished with a very warm and real affection in Uganda.

Jean was a nurse, and undertook medical work and midwifery there, to the immense benefit of the local community. Later, a memorial was erected for Jean, which still stands today in the grounds of the college.

Mary’s loss was especially poign­ant for Keith because, as he was later to recount, his own parents lost three children, owing to a blood-group incompatibility. One after­noon, when his little brother, Fran­cis, had died, he could remember coming home and hearing the rec­tor speaking to his parents. The memory of seeing how he helped them with their bereavement con­tributed to his decision to become a priest. Despite the tragedy of losing the three siblings, Keith also had a brother, Geoff, who survives him. He has had a celebrated career as an artist and art lecturer, and shares Keith’s love of classical music and literature.

In Uganda, the fact that Keith’s family lived there with him, and with them, and shared their way of life, its risks as well as its joys, made a profound impression. Both Keith and Jean loved Uganda so much that Keith learnt Luganda (the local language), and was immersed in the Kiganda culture. He also met many of his future friends there, including Terry Waite.

Cambridge called again. Another theological college asked him back to England, to be Principal of Ridley Hall, where he had trained. It had languished rather, and Keith needed to build it up again, as he did, ever grateful for the support and encouragement of Professor C. F. D. Moule.

One of his warmly welcomed students there was a refugee from Uganda’s Idi Amin regime: one John Sentamu, whose sharp criti­cism of Idi Amin had put him at great risk. Today’s Archbishop of York had been able to get to England through Keith’s negotia­tions in finding him a place at Selwyn College, and later at Ridley.

In 1978, the ebullient Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, as different in churchmanship from Keith as could be, astutely called him to be the Bishop of Kingston. Six years later, he moved to Lich­field, the fourth largest diocese in England, with a population of two million, to become its 97th Bishop.

But the call of Africa would never leave him, and not long after his going to Lichfield, the Archbishop of Canterbury sent Keith as his special envoy to South Africa, dur­ing the apartheid period. He went to support and encourage Bishop Desmond Tutu, at a time when the South African police had arrested 441 people without charge, after a state of emergency had been imposed. Detainees had included the anti-apartheid United Demo­cratic Front members, clergy, stu­dents, and trade unionists. The hat­red against the police was bitter and sharp, and attendance by mourners at the funerals of those killed by the police in the riots was dangerous in the extreme.

Bishop Keith and Bishop Tutu both walked with the crowds of mourners at those funerals, and spoke to them urging them to be calm: “Love will overcome hate; justice will overcome injustice,” Keith called out, and, at his side, Bishop Tutu urged the crowd “not to use methods that our oppressors will use against us”, and to remain calm. Keith reflected that Tutu was “Gandhi-like” as he calmed very large and very angry crowds.

Back in Lichfield, he was getting to grips with his widespread diocese: so large that it needed three area bishops and four archdeacons. His warm personality and infectious friendship made the team work very well, because he was very obviously first and foremost a truly godly and loving Christian person. His great strength was being for God’s people, and, playing to his strengths, he very sensibly left most of the administra­tion to others. His team worked well.

During the years when his be­­loved wife Jeannie was suffering increasingly from dementia, his love meant there was a spontaneous out­pouring of help from many people to help Jeannie at home. When, after the long weakness from de­­mentia, Jeannie died, her funeral was in the parish church of St Chad near by. There were two surprises. The organ ceased to play as the funeral party arrived at the church, and then, as the family walked in, came the spine-tingling sound of Ugandan drums, being played by John and Margaret Sentamu. They hope to do the same at Keith’s funeral. After the Bible reading. Keith gave the tribute himself, just stepping out from the family pew to stand in the aisle and talk about Jeannie and the faith they had both shared.

His interests were wide and gen­erous. He loved Shakespeare, and would get to Stratford whenever he could, early enough to read through the play to help him benefit the more from the performance. His deep knowledge of, and love for, music made Birmingham’s Sym­phony Hall a great draw, even if he got there only on occasion. He warmly supported the Lichfield Festival, and valued entertaining some of the visiting artists, espe­cially the pianist Alfred Brendel.

Just before arriving in Lichfield, he published People of God: Pictures in a gallery. He had a deep intellect­ual interest in Russian literature, and French and German culture. With one of his bishops, he visited Mecklenburg, a partner of the dio­cese, and his deep engagement with the history and spirituality of our Lutheran partners was very clear, not least in his devotion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose footsteps they followed in the seminary of the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde. In his youth, he had won the 100 metres at a national youth cham­pionship, and in his sixties was still skiing.

Keith’s episcopate coincided with the height of the Thatcher years and their aftermath, when many com­munities in the Black Country and the Potteries suffered de-industrialisation and high unem­ployment. Despite his sympathy for some aspects of government policy, his concern was first and foremost for the people who suffered as a result. He wholeheartedly promoted the approach of Faith in the City, and the many initiatives of practical as well as spiritual mission spon­sored by the Church Urban Fund. His African experience made him sensitive to the challenge of racism, and he was an unswerving friend of immigrant communities of different faiths.

During these years, the diocese began to adopt a more proactive management style, especially in the Decade of Evangelism in the 1990s. Keith’s overriding priority was to encourage evangelisation in what he described as one of the most diffi­­cult mission fields in the world. But his approach was always per­sonal rather than managerial, and the stories of individuals and com­munities took precedence over pro­grammes.

His warmth towards people and his encouragement of people are still well remembered in Lichfield, 14 years after he retired. It is not sur­­prising that, when he retired, a local press headline read: “Farewell to the People’s Bishop”.

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