Obituary: The Rt Revd John Kirkham

by
08 November 2019

keith ellis

The Rt Revd John Kirkham, at the time of his commissioning as Bishop to the Forces in 1992

The Rt Revd John Kirkham, at the time of his commissioning as Bishop to the Forces in 1992

A correspondent writes:

THE Rt Revd John Kirkham, who died on 10 October, aged 84, was formerly Bishop of Sherborne, in Salisbury diocese.

John Dudley Galtrey Kirkham was born in Lambeth into a clerical family. His father moved to be Vicar of Mottisfont in Winchester diocese, but used to bring candidates to Salisbury Cathedral for confirmation, thus beginning his son’s long association with the cathedral and diocese of Salisbury, since, as a boy, he would be brought along to sit in an aisle near a big stove. The parsonage house at Mottisfont was a gracious one with a tennis court, but the incumbent’s stipend was not similarly gracious enough to cover its upkeep, or racquets and balls.

John was sent to Lancing College, the first of the schools founded by Nathaniel Woodard, creator of the Corporation that bears his name and of which John was Provost (Western Region) and an Honorary Fellow.

On leaving school, he did his National Service and was commissioned in the Royal Hampshire Regiment, which was already committed in Malaya; so, with a rather romantic image of Lawrence of Arabia and desert sands in mind, he was seconded to the King’s African Rifles, with whom he saw active service during the Mau Mau uprising in what turned out to be a lush and green Kenya.

After National Service, John read Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, before training for ordination at Westcott House. A naturally gifted athlete, he was unable to fulfil his full potential on the university running track because he could not afford the running shoes. He served his title at St Mary le Tower, Ipswich, before becoming Chaplain to Bishop Lancelot Fleming in Norwich.

John spent a year in Papua New Guinea as Chaplain to the Bishop of New Guinea before returning to England to serve as an assistant priest at St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Margaret’s, Westminster. From there, he moved to Lambeth Palace as Domestic Chaplain first to Archbishop Michael Ramsey, and then to his successor, Archbishop Donald Coggan.

On the eve of an overseas trip with Ramsey, John was run over while cycling down Piccadilly to a black-tie dinner. When he was coming round in hospital, the staff put it down to concussion when he immediately said that the Archbishop of Canterbury must be told what had happened to him. Eventually, Ramsey was summoned to be told where the tickets and passports were, and what the arrangements for the next day’s departure were to be.

On 30 November 1976, aged only 41, John was consecrated to be Suffragan Bishop of Sherborne, an office that he was to hold for the next 25 years. He loved the people of Dorset and they loved him in return. John’s sister, Anne, was his secretary.

During this time, John was also Bishop to Her Majesty’s Forces from 1992 to 2001; and his past active service gave him instant credibility. He flew in a fast jet with the RAF. Unusually for a “sky pilot” (often regarded as an unlucky Jonah figure by submariners), he was invited to sail in a submarine, having boarded it by jumping on to its sloping deck from a corvette bobbing about in the Atlantic off Gibraltar.

He went on Arctic training with the Royal Marines, sleeping under canvas in –18°C. He drove a tank at Bovington and fired its gun. He was a founding trustee of the National Memorial Arboretum.

John was the Archbishop’s Adviser to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference from 1990 and chaplain to the Guild of Lubricators, who supported much of John’s work with young people in Dorset.

John had a huge network of friends and contacts. He made everyone with whom he engaged feel as if they had a special relationship with him. He took a close interest in people, and would turn any conversation towards the person with whom he was talking, without talking about himself. For that reason, although many knew John and enjoyed his company, they were surprised to find that they did not know him that closely.

It took a rose from Texas to break through that outer shell. In 1985, the town of Raleigh in North Carolina — named after Sir Walter Raleigh of Sherborne Castle, who had dropped off near by those who established the first English settlement in America — was celebrating the 400th anniversary of that first settlement. John was part of a visiting delegation from Sherborne being entertained by Hester Lockett Gregory, one of the organisers of the celebration. They were married the next year by Archbishop Robert Runcie in the chapel at Lambeth Palace. Hester was a widow with three daughters and a son who, between them, have produced 14 grandchildren. “Papa John” suddenly had a large family in whom he delighted and by whom he was adored.

John was a man of contrasts: strong and yet gentle, strict on discipline and yet with compassion, unassuming and yet with presence, simple in personal lifestyle and yet generous to others, quiet and yet excellent company. He smiled a broad dimpled smile. In retirement, he continued to work in Salisbury diocese as an assistant bishop, but, more particularly, as a more or less daily volunteer in the Spinal Unit at Salisbury District Hospital, where, he said, he learned afresh what it meant to be a deacon. Anyone who met John could sense at once that he was a man of deep prayer.

After suffering from cancer for a year, he died at home, where he was cared for with great love and devotion by Hester. On the reverse of his pectoral cross are engraved in Latin words from 1 Corinthians 9.16: “Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel!” John preached the gospel in the way he lived his life, and as a true servant of Christ.

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