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Obituary: Canon John Gunstone

10 August 2018

The Rt Revd Chris Edmondson writes:

AS HIS son Peter expressed it, “On Tuesday 24 July at 11 p.m., on the eve of the feast of St James the Apostle, my father breathed his last and was gathered to his Heavenly Father, after a period of declining health.” John was 91, and had been ordained for a remarkable 66 years. He is survived by his wife, Margaret, who, together with Peter and some close friends, was with John when he died.

I first met John one Sunday in the early 1970s when he was covering an interregnum for the parish church of Blandford Forum in Dorset. I was a young ordinand playing the organ that day. Something about his “attractive holiness” had a deep impact on me, and our paths were to cross many times in succeeding years. These occasions included inspiring weekends on renewal and healing that he led for two parishes where I served as vicar, as well as latterly in the diocese of Manchester.

John was born and grew up in the East Midlands, and his initial sense of being called to the priesthood came while he was a server in his parish church. After reading history at Durham and completing two years of National Service, he then trained for ordination at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield. After ordination in 1952, John served curacies in Walthamstow and Forest Gate, after which he was, for 13 years, Vicar of St Augustine’s, Romford, also in the Diocese of Chelmsford. During this period, John wrote the first of his many books.

It was also in those years, when the charismatic renewal was beginning to make an impact on many clergy and parishes, that John himself came into a fresh experience of the Holy Spirit’s work in his own life. This would shape so much of what was to come in his ministry, and he later wrote about its significance in Greater Things Than These: Personal account of the charismatic movement, which was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 1974 Lent Book.

In 1971, John made a significant move both in geography and context for ministry, becoming founding chaplain of the Barnabas Fellowship at Whatcombe House, Dorset; he also taught at Salisbury and Wells Theological College. At Whatcombe, he together with Reg and Lucia East, who had been neighbours in Essex, established a small community that provided space and hospitality for people to receive teaching and ministry on the gifts and empowering of the Holy Spirit. Many guests would come to testify to life-changing, spiritually renewing and healing experiences, as a result of a visit there.

One person who, you might say, got more than she bargained for when going to Whatcombe as a guest, was Margaret, who, in 1974 became John’s wife. The following year, they moved to Manchester where John served as County Ecumenical Officer until his retirement in 1992. Their son, Peter, was born there in 1977, and is himself training for ordination.

This post proved to be a natural expression of John’s “generous orthodoxy”, and enabled him to build on his earlier and varied experiences in ministry, not least healing and reconciliation. Through his winsome personality, teaching skills, and immense spiritual wisdom, he gained the confidence of church leaders from many different backgrounds and traditions, supporting them in working together for the sake of the gospel.

In retirement, John continued to be in demand as a speaker at conferences, and his presence and ministry was always greatly valued at his and Margaret’s church, St James with Emmanuel, Didsbury. Among several further pieces of writing during this period, two stand out: his immense contribution to the Time to Heal report commissioned by the General Synod in the late 1990s, and, at the age of 82, in 2009, his weighty Lift High The Cross: The high noon of the Anglo-Catholic Movement, 1919-1950.

John was a big man in every sense: physically tall, with a generous heart, a big smile, and a wonderfully dry sense of humour. I believe that, through his writing and speaking, as well as in countless unseen ways, and all undergirded by a deep prayerfulness, he has been an extraordinarily rich gift to many individuals — of whom I am one — as well as to the Church in this nation for decades. His legacy will undoubtedly live on, and our love and prayers are especially with Margaret and Peter at this time.

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