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Obituary: The Very Revd John Simpson

31 May 2019

The Revd John Witheridge writes:

THE Very Revd John Simpson, who was Dean of Canterbury for 14 eventful years, died at home, aged 85, on 24 April, just short of the 60th anniversary of his ordination as priest.

He brought to the cathedral a remarkable set of skills and enthusiasms, including a deep appreciation of Canterbury’s historical and international importance, a meticulous and theatrical sense of the liturgy, and an energetic and imaginative drive to improve and enhance that glorious building and its facilities. Among the most challenging services he devised were those for two Lambeth Conferences, the memorial service for those killed when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized at Zeebrugge, and the enthronement of Archbishop Carey. All of these services were marked by dignity, drama and simplicity.

John’s was the inspiration behind the building of an extensive education centre in the precincts, designed by Sir William Whitfield. It was a controversial initiative necessitating the demolition of a canonry and several houses for retired clergy, but John won the day with his gifts of determination, vision, and attention to detail.

John was no stranger to the cathedral when he was appointed Dean in 1986. He had been Archdeacon of Canterbury and a Residentiary Canon for five years, living in what has been described as the Church of England’s most beautiful and historic house. Among his wider responsibilities was to represent the Archbishop at the enthronement of new diocesan bishops.

In the cathedral, he was already exercising his liturgical and artistic flair in helping to create the stunning Altar of the Sword’s Point in the north-west transept where Becket was murdered, and in masterminding the ceremonial for the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1982, which included the Pope and Archbishop kneeling in prayer at this altar.

When the Dean resigned with unexpected haste, Archbishop Runcie was keen to appoint a successor who understood the cathedral, and would be ready to prepare for the Lambeth Conference in just two years’ time. He had also known John for many years and held him in high regard.

John Arthur Simpson was born in 1933, the youngest of three children. His father was a draper, and his mother worked for SPCK. He attended Cathays High School in Cardiff, and for National Service was despatched to Cambridge, to learn Russian, and then to East Berlin as an interpreter. The legacy of this was an enduring love of classical Russian literature.

John went up to Keble College, Oxford, in 1953 to read modern history. The Warden was Harry Carpenter, soon to be appointed Bishop of Oxford. John’s own vocation to the priesthood was already well established, and, on graduation, he went to Clifton Theological College, and was ordained deacon in 1958. Curacies in Chelmsford and Rochester dioceses followed, until John was appointed to teach history and liturgy at Oak Hill Theological College.

It was at Oak Hill that John met Ruth, the sister of one of his students. They were married in 1968. Wherever they lived they were always welcoming and generous hosts. It was also at Oak Hill that John abandoned his earlier Evangelicalism. The teaching of Church history had broadened his understanding, and there is little doubt, too, that he reacted to the theological conservatism of the college. As a tutor, John was provocative; he asked awkward questions, and pushed his students to examine their faith, but always with gentleness and humour.

The story is told of John teaching a student how to ring the Angelus. The student thought he would try it the next time he had to ring the bell for evening prayer. This caused an apoplectic Bursar to burst out of his office in angry protest, and there was John sitting on the floor with tears of laughter running down his cheeks.

After ten years at Oak Hill, Robert Runcie, the new Bishop of St Albans, appointed John vicar of the Hertfordshire village of Ridge. This was soon combined with the posts of director of ordinands and of post-ordination training. John took a broad view of those whose vocations should be nurtured. He was perceptive in assessing motives and encouraging those whose gifts he recognised and valued.

In 1979, John was appointed a Canon Residentiary. The St Albans years were especially happy ones, not least because Runcie was creating a diocese that was vigorous, inclusive, and encouraging of ideas and discussion.

In 1980, Robert Runcie was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury. He was quick to build a team of people he knew and trusted, not least in the cathedral, and John was appointed Archdeacon of Canterbury the next year. He and Robert deepened their friendship and would take long walks together along the Dover cliffs.

John was, for 17 years, a director of the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. He was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Kent, and was awarded the OBE soon after his retirement in 2000. This was the source of particular pride.

Retirement was spent in France and Folkestone, where John helped in the parish of St Mary and St Eanswythe. The Simpsons had long been Francophiles, with a penchant for French wine and cuisine. Travel, theatre, and opera were other recreations, and John continued to lead pilgrimages to various holy places in Europe.

John is survived by his wife and their three children, Rebecca, Damian, and Helen, and four grandchildren.

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