The Rt Revd Graham James writes:
THE Very Revd Michael Yorke, who died on Good Friday, aged 80, had been ill for a long time. Doctors were frequently amazed by his capacity to survive serial cardiac arrests. So poor was his prognosis several years ago that he visited me at Bishop’s House in Norwich to be anointed and to have what we thought was a final conversation.
As it turned out, Michael was able to worship in Norwich Cathedral as recently as Palm Sunday, a few days before his death. By then, he had completed a second book on living with life-limiting illness, co-written with Catherine Proot, a lifelong friend. Their earlier work Life to be Lived (2014) on the same subject was well-received and full of practical wisdom. Michael did live as fully as possible in his final years, despite his frailty.
Born into a clerical family, Michael originally studied law at Magdalene College, Cambridge, but, like many other children of the vicarage, he could not escape recognising a vocation to the priesthood himself. During his time at Cuddesdon, he was introduced to pastoral psychology. This helped shape his future ministry, since it was one of the influences that led him to study group relations at the Tavistock Institute and train as a counsellor.
After a curacy at Croydon Parish Church, he moved to Chelmsford Cathedral, and became deeply involved with the Samaritans. He was so well regarded that he became the National Chair of the Samaritans in the late 1970s. It was but one of many roles that he played in the charitable sector.
He was part of the life of Chelmsford Cathedral for 20 years, eventually serving as Vice-Provost. This was during a transformative period in the cathedral’s life, when Wesley Carr and Peter Marshall, among others, were bringing fresh ideas and thinking to both cathedral and diocese, and latterly when Provost John Moses brought his own style of imaginative leadership.
Michael’s pastoral wisdom did much to create a sense of spiritual stability in Chelmsford at a time of change. He enabled the ministry of others to great effect throughout his life, never jealous of gifts that he did not possess, but rejoicing whenever he found them in clergy and laity alike. His generosity of character was a sure reflection of the generous love of God, which animated all that he was and did.
Michael’s long period at Chelmsford (including four years in the diocese as incumbent of Ashdon and Hadstock) was partly prompted by the need to provide family stability. Michael’s wife, Michal, always known as Micky to avoid confusion, suffered from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hence Michael was schooled in how to live with a life-limiting illness well before his own. Micky died in 1987, leaving Michael with their two children, Pippa and Toby. Micky had a business partner, Frances Archer, herself a widow, also with two children. Michael and Frances married in 1988, and it proved a wonderfully happy and enlivening partnership.
Their marriage was marked by a move to King’s Lynn, where Michael had the experience of a cathedral-scale parish church (St Margaret’s, now King’s Lynn Minster), but without the resources that most cathedrals possess. In addition, St Margaret’s had the largest chapel-of-ease in the country, St Nicholas Chapel, itself of massive proportions. Michael steered through the closure of St Nicholas for public worship (though he and Frances showed their affection for it by being married there — a wise political move, too), and the chapel is now one of the jewels of the Churches Conservation Trust.
Given that experience, and his earlier knowledge of cathedral life, it was no surprise that he spent the last decade of his active ministry in two further cathedrals — as Provost of Portsmouth and then Dean of Lichfield. In both places, his pastoral skills were evident, and his capacity for friendship in city and county was esteemed.
His retirement ministry was more limited than he would have liked, but, on his return to Norfolk with Frances, he had a long association with Tapping House, the hospice serving west and north Norfolk, where he was an informed presence among the trustees. Michael and Frances lived first in Burnham Market and later North Creake, and their home life was marked by capacious friendship and warm hospitality.
Perhaps, though, Michael’s greatest contribution was to demonstrate how to live a priestly life when his own capacity to minister to others became diminished by physical weakness. He showed that he knew how to be ministered to, and to encourage others in ministry. Many retired clergy, and especially those who find it hard to let go, would have learned much from Michael’s example and witness. He lived fully in the light of the Easter hope.