Obituary: The Ven. George Austin

by
08 March 2019

Keith Ellis

The Ven. George Austin, in February 1995

The Ven. George Austin, in February 1995

“IF THE Church’s motto at the moment is ‘No small change’, the Church Times’ is ‘No New Thing’. Like its secular namesake which claims political independence yet damns with faint praise in three or four editorials a week everything the Labour Government does, so the Church Times can find nothing good in the mildest radicalism.”

These words, in The Country Churchman of June 1965, are from a writer who praised a more balanced view of the “many new ideas and approaches which are sweeping through the Church of the Sixties”, and whose media profile was growing. He was the future Archdeacon of York and arch-traditionalist George Austin, who died on 30 January.

He had made his journalistic debut in the CT in 1959, with reflections on community relations and youth work when he was a young assistant curate in a “very hot trouble spot”: Notting Dale during the summer after the Notting Hill riots.

In his memoir A Journey to Faith (SPCK, 1992), Austin told how, when the “eccentric figure of the redoubtable editor, Rosamund Essex”, had turned up on his doorstep, he had thought that she wanted to speak to the Vicar. But it was he whom the media took to their hearts. He had also at that time been enlisted by ATV for a panel discussion chaired by Tom Driberg.

For several years, Austin contributed to the Sunday TV Epilogue; and the future Dean Michael Mayne invited him to speak on Radio 4’s Prayer for the Day. He broadcast in the series Reflections, at the invitation of Pauline Webb, and gave Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

Elected to the new General Synod in 1970, he was originally in the short-lived Non-Party Group, before joining the Catholics. In the second Synod, 1975-80, he established a position as one of the more noticed figures.

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For example, in 1978, he moved an important amendment in the debate about the World Council of Churches’ grant to the Rhodesian Patriotic Front (freedom-fighters or terrorists at the time, depending on one’s point of view). In 1979, he resisted the multiplication, in revision committee, of Eucharistic Prayers for the revised version of Series 3, arguing that the committee had created “Series 4”.

For the first ten years or so, he regarded the Synod’s good manners as a model for Christian disagreement. But in 1981, he spoke out against the increasing imputation in the chamber of “hang-ups”, insanity, or hard-heartedness if opponents happened to be against causes such as covenanting for unity or marriage in church after divorce. In A Journey to Faith, he laid the blame at the door of the Open Synod Group. In the days when balance of churchmanship was a watchword in peopling important committees, he took it amiss that members of that group objected to his membership of the Policy Committee after a vacancy arose in the reshuffle that happened after the death of the Crockford Preface-writer Dr Gareth Bennett.

During the anguished 1980s, and in the increasingly tense atmosphere over women’s ordination, he became a go-to figure for the media when they were seeking a traditionalist standpoint. He wrote for The Times. Then, in September 1991, after the leaking of the Osborne report on homosexuality, he preached a sermon in which he coined the term “the liberal agenda”.

In it, he spoke of an attempt in the Church to set up “a substitute faith and morality which can never satisfy us”, and proposed a plan for “containing the damage” by formalising division between liberals and traditionalists. He referred to more advanced moves towards a schism which were already afoot in the United States.

Denunciation was immediate: it ranged from a long lead letter in the Church Times from Professor Rowan Williams at Oxford, pleading respectfully that this over-simplification of the issues be ignored, to a comparison made by the Archbishop of York, John Habgood, of his archdeacon to the Fat Boy in the Pickwick Papers. After that, Austin, who didn’t pretend to be slim, appeared at a summer meeting of the General Synod wearing a T-shirt that bore the words: “Just cuddly”. But he regarded the Synod as far from cuddly; and his words were echoed more widely in the decades that followed.

In 1993, it fell to Archbishop Carey to deliver another gnomic dismissal of the Archdeacon’s comments by accusing him of practising “megaphone theology” in relation to the Prince of Wales and marriage after divorce.

In 1995, Austin lost his seat when his fellow archdeacons in York diocese told him that they would no longer support him as their representative. He complained that they did so after the close of nominations, so that the alternative path of election by the diocesan clergy was closed to him. (The archdeacons’ special constituency has since been abolished.)

Off the Synod, Austin continued to write books: Affairs of State (1995) and But This I Know (1996), and was back at Synod meetings, but in the press room, where he was always affable, whatever he said or wrote critically of the CT.

George Bernard Austin was born on 16 July 1931 in Bury, in Lancashire. His father, Oswald, was a shopkeeper. His religious beliefs were strongly influenced by his mother, Evelyn, originally a Baptist, but confirmed just before her death. She had asked him when he said that he thought he had a vocation to the priesthood, “Are you quite sure that Anglicans believe in the bodily resurrection?”

He attended St Chad’s Primary School in the parish of St Peter’s, Bury, and weekday school services, and asked his parents for permission to attend church on Sundays, although he also attended Methodist and Unitarian chapels before finding himself attracted to the Anglo-Catholic St Paul’s, Bury, and being confirmed.

After an initial ambition to be a pilot, influenced by the High School’s Air Training Corps, he was rejected for the RAF because of evidence that he had had TB. Failing to fulfil the conditions for a place at Durham University, he went to study at St David’s College, Lampeter, where he learnt that he was regarded as a High Churchman; his discovery of Catholicism led him to choose Chichester, under John Moorman, for theological training. There, his reading of Gustav Aulén convinced him of justification by faith, to add to his existing belief in the Real Presence.

His spiritual director, Leslie Pickett, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Bury, told him that it was God’s will that, of the parishes he might choose, he go to the one he found least attractive; so he was ordained for St Peter’s, Chorley — but only after the rectification of the fact, which he realised only after he had been accepted, that, born into a Baptist family, he was, despite his confirmation and communions, still unbaptised.

He could not extricate himself from Chorley soon enough, and, in the process lost trust in his Bishop. Through the offices of Fr Pickett again, he moved to Notting Dale, in London, “in the lean days of the 1950s”. He shared, to an extent, in the poverty; and learnt the distinction between the “Concerned Classes, [for whom] the cause is more important than individuals” and those who genuinely tried to help, among whom he particularly valued the musicians and entertainers. He later recalled standing in a darkened shop doorway with the writer Nicholas Mosley to be given a running commentary on one of Sir Oswald’s street-corner meetings. (These two Mosleys were politically opposed.)

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There followed an ill-fated spell in university chaplaincy in London, and then a happy time on the staff of Dunstable Priory. The Revd Colin Hudspith, recalls: “I was one of the teenage choristers there who benefited from the wisdom of George’s vocational guidance, which led on to ordination. George’s ministry was ideally placed to enable the congregation to see the significance of the gospel in the context of the cultural and social upheaval of the 1960s. His preaching had an incisive and radical perspective which was as challenging as it was deeply appreciated.

“He made a major contribution to the standard of music at Dunstable by persuading Christopher Scarf to come as organist and choirmaster from Ely Cathedral to develop what became surely one of the finest of parish-church choirs.

“On an entirely different subject, but one which typified George’s generosity, I was one of a good number of football fans from the Priory who got to see a Wembley FA Cup Final, George’s father being a director of a prominent northern Football League club, and the source of much sought-after tickets.”

Austin’s opposition to the death penalty was intensified by reading the 1662 burial office with a couple as their son was being hanged.

While at Dunstable, he married Bobbie, a teacher and later his secretary, who shared his traditionalist views. She died in 2016. They are survived by their son, Jeremy, a journalist.

In 1964, they moved to Eaton Bray, where, he said, “an unhappy parish became happy” and a “black cloud” of spiritual evil was lifted; it was not merely the absence of good. In 1972, the Austins moved to St Peter’s, Bushey Heath, where he increased lay participation, introduced house groups and PCC subcommittees, and tardily, as he reflected later, restored the eight-o’clock Prayer Book celebration, which brought people back to church. His involvement with the Synod brought the parish a wider perspective and distinguished preachers, even though he was often absent on synodical and Church Commissioners’ business. If relations with dignitaries and clergy of a more liberal stripe were not always smooth, he enjoyed the loyal support of robust churchwardens.

In 1988, he was on the verge of taking up a new appointment in Flamstead when he was invited to be Archdeacon of York by Archbishop Habgood, whom he had recently criticised sharply in public over his comments during the Crockford affair. Although rumours went about that it was an attempt to silence him, Austin did not regard it is as such, and felt great respect for the Archbishop. As an archdeacon, his concern for the needs and welfare of the parishes under him was noted, as was the fact that the public stands that he took were never merely reactionary, and he could always defend them on scriptural, theological, or historical grounds.

He retired in 1999, and he latterly returned to Bushey Heath and St Peter’s, where his funeral was held.

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