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Obituary: Canon John Townroe

03 August 2018

The Rt Revd George Hacker writes:

IT WAS the early 1980s, and I had invited John Townroe to lead a workshop on prayer at a major conference for lay people, which we were holding in Ripon. Soon after, I received a letter from a senior Mothers’ Union member. She said that John’s was the best workshop of its kind that she had ever attended and enclosed a copy of the notes that she had taken. These included seven “Signs of Growth” in the Christian life, which immediately aroused my interest. Later, I asked John about these, hoping that he had a paper on them. But all he said was that he had been sitting quietly one evening at home, and had scribbled the headings on the back of an old envelope and stuck them in the file marked “Ripon”.

That was so typical of John’s self-effacing nature — hiding the depths of his wisdom and experience behind a casual remark. Whenever I have introduced anyone to his “Signs of Growth”, they have always been received with the greatest of interest.

Edward John Townroe was born on 14 January 1920. His father was a well-known London Conservative and Mayor of Hampstead, and John was educated at Westminster School. Then, at the age of 12, he had a quite unexpected experience of the presence of God, while walking down a street in London; it had a lasting impact on his life. With it came the certainty that he must be a priest.

John went up to Oxford in 1938, and read theology at St John’s College. After graduation, he went on to Lincoln Theological College. It was at Lincoln that he came under the influence of Eric Abbott, who was the Warden there. From Lincoln, John moved north to serve his title at the Church of the Good Shepherd, a slum clearance parish situated on a council estate in Sunderland. In March 1947, he received a letter from Abbott offering him the position of Chaplain at St Boniface Missionary College, Warminster. The leasing of the college was the final step in Eric’s project to provide a postgraduate fourth year for ordinands at King’s College, London, where they could prepare for ministry both practically and spiritually, freed from the worry of having exams to pass. John accepted the offer, after spending time on retreat to consider it.

This was a decision which was to determine the whole course of his ministry. From the start, he felt happy with his decision, and he remained in post for 21 years, until the fourth-year students moved to Canterbury in 1969.

John became Warden in 1956. I arrived as Chaplain in 1959, and, over five years, I observed how John lived and worked. I admired much about him, in particular the amount of thought and thoroughness with which he approached everything that he did. He was attractive, too, in his humanness, shown especially in his liking for fast cars, a subject on which he could wax lyrical.

He set a wonderful example to his colleagues, on managing students for whom the move from London had been a shock. He knew instinctively when to be gentle and when to be tough. He was quick, too, to spot the first signs of trouble. The members of staff sat at the back of the chapel, and he taught us the importance of looking out for warning signs. “Men and women unconsciously send up distress signals when they are in trouble. An accumulation of such small signs may, in time, build up into a very fair indication of what is wrong.”

John did not follow the fourth-year students to St Augustine’s, Canterbury. He had as his model, Reginald Somerset Ward, who, after ten years in parish ministry, gave up his work as a parish priest to devote himself to spiritual direction. Somerset Ward until his death in 1962 had been John’s spiritual director, and his example influenced John in determining the form his future ministry should take.

Requests for his ministry were not slow in coming, but the first was something of a surprise. He was asked by the American Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen to go to his diocesan seminary as visiting professor of ascetical theology. He was there for several months and found it a wonderful experience, especially being allowed to enter so deeply into the lives of some 300 young men, some straight back from the Vietnam War. Other requests quickly followed. Within a short time, he had taken part in five university missions, worked with the Armed Forces in retreats and chaplains’ conferences, and had further visits to the United States. So his work continued down the years — teaching and lecturing on prayer and spirituality, and being a spiritual director to a wide variety of individuals and groups.

I last saw John in 2015. By then, he was receiving round-the-clock care, masterminded by Sister Carol from the Community of the Holy Name, whom he had known for many years. But he was as alert mentally as ever. When we got home, I reminded him of an elderly monk whom we both knew from Warminster days, who on one occasion said to me as he struggled to get in and out of my tiny Austin A30: “My engine is OK. All I need is a new chassis.” John’s reply: “Yes. . . I can say the same, except that my engine stutters sometimes.” It was so good to know that, after what we both knew was our last farewell, neither his love of cars nor his sense of humour had deserted him.

The burden of John’s last years was lightened by Sister Carol’s care for him, a role-reversal in their relationship. For many years, she had looked to John for spiritual advice and counsel: now she had provided and organised the physical care for him. He died at one in the morning on 17 July, with Carol and his main carer at his bedside. As she said when giving me the news: “So passes a very rare soul.”

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