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Recollection: Canon John Townroe

28 September 2018

Canon Michael Long writes:

AS A student at St Boniface College, Warminster, from 1955 to 1956, I would like to add a personal tribute to the excellent obituary of Canon John Townroe from the Rt Revd George Hacker (Gazette, 3 August).

At King’s College, London, the three years in the Strand with a concentrated academic programme were very profitable but demanding, and the compulsory living in the hostel at Vincent Square for the last of those years was quite an intense experience. Then came the year at Warminster, the inspired idea of Eric Abbott. Here, with examinations behind us, there was a time of pastoral and practical learning, with its background of spiritual devotion. This was under the guidance of the clerical staff.

It so happened that I was there, and was college president, at the time of the move around, as the Dean, Abbott, left to become Warden of Keble College, Oxford, the Warden, Sydney Evans, became Dean, and, John, the chaplain, was appointed Warden. All very in-house; it worked well for most of us.

John had the responsibility of our formation, leading up to ordination. As has been said, he had the gift of knowing us, “warts and all”. He had those piercing penetrating eyes, and that could be a little uncomfortable at times. If he saw you privately, he would offer sensible advice and, if needed, a gentle rebuke. He had an appreciation of modern psychiatry in its earlier days, using this on occasions to help his students in their personal lives. You knew, also, that he had your well-being at heart, and that he prayed for you.

His addresses at Friday compline were profound and moving. There was a non-negotiable routine: attendance at chapel for morning prayer; attendance at the eucharist was voluntary; compulsory meditation for 25 minutes before lectures or private study; a brief office before lunch; evensong at 5 p.m.; and compline at 10 p.m., after which silence was kept, or that was the intention. Saturday was a free day and a welcome opportunity for personal leisure and enjoyment until compline. On Sunday, the College attended the 8 a.m. eucharist at the Minster, and then we were let loose on the parishes in and around Warminster to inflict our preaching skills on the congregations. The Warden kept his ears open to comments from the incumbents. All this gave a framework of discipline which remains with me.

John was a person of great integrity and courage. One example of this was the decision he made not to move with the college to Canterbury. This was made after listening to all the reasons for the change, weighing it up, and much prayer. He never made a public issue of this. It was the shutting of a door, but it opened another for a wider personal ministry here and abroad.

I saw him on several occasions over the years, and he was a man in whom I had absolute trust. I discussed with him my personal mantra, and he was the only person who knew this: I do not reveal it to anybody (remember what happened to Samson when he told his secret). Last year, when I celebrated my diamond jubilee of ordination to the priesthood, I sent him an order of the service. Back came a postcard of thanks saying “Well done.”

In the Gospels, the apostle John is described as “the beloved disciple”. John Townroe was such: beloved by God, seeing us as beloved, and encouraging us to treat those who crossed our paths as beloved by God.

Warminster as a location will never be quite the same without him. Many of us are grateful for the loving care that he received in recent times, and are glad that he died in the house that had been his home since 1956.

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