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Obituary: The Revd Geoffrey Kirk

01 May 2020

Canon Nicholas Turner writes:

THOUGH most will remember Fr Geoffrey Kirk as a national figure in the Church of England, or an international leader of the traditionalist constituency within the Anglican Communion, his ministry is perhaps best summed up as “the most influential parish priest of his generation”. Fill a room with bishops, his would still have been the commanding presence.

It was inevitable that the various groups and organisations that had campaigned for the traditional understanding of the sacred ministry in the Church of England throughout the 1980s would re-arrange themselves in one form or another after the historic vote in General Synod, in November 1992, allowing women to be ordained priests. It was Forward in Faith that was quickly formed, and went on to become the single most important traditionalist organisation, with Fr Kirk appointed as its national secretary.

Geoffrey had been Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham, in Southwark diocese, from 1981, and was to remain there for the rest of his active ministry. A large, challenging, multi-ethnic, inner-city parish, with a large, local congregation and a flourishing church school, it gave him an undeniable authority in his national post or when he was, as so often, called upon for comment by the media.

To those who heard him speak, it was clear he was exceptionally articulate, with a wit and an unhesitating delivery that even trained politicians would envy; but there was always real depth. His set-piece speeches at national gatherings, his succinct summaries on a television news item, or perhaps, most impressively of all, his unscripted reflection on the Gospel reading at a weekday mass were nearly always a masterclass in rhetoric.

Born in 1945, Geoffrey Kirk, who died on 10 April, aged 74, had studied at Keble College, Oxford, when Austin Farrer, one of the Church’s most original theologians of the 20th century, was its Warden. As Geoffrey himself acknowledged, he was much influenced by him. Like him, he read deeply, prayed assiduously, and had a prodigious memory, but, unlike his mentor, was blessed with a strong speaking voice.

How was he so influential? It was a subtle combination of diverse gifts. Unusually for someone who could have been a university professor, he was politically and organisationally astute, and he networked brilliantly when he was a General Synod member. He ensured that Forward in Faith was a membership organisation for the laity, which gave it a power far beyond its rivals.

Though never editor, he was the driving force behind the monthly magazine New Directions, which provided the theological backing to the Anglo-Catholic position. Free to FiF members, it was not widely read; but, cleverly, it was also sent free to all bishops, Synod members, and others among the great and good. Though this group claimed not to read it, they clearly did, which is, above all, how Geoffrey managed to influence the liberal majority in the C o fE.

The seriousness of his analysis, coming though it may have done with biting and witty condemnation, carried conviction. He was especially effective in his dissection of the US Episcopalians’ approach: he understood them better than anyone else in this country. It was this that bolstered a renewed vision of the historical roots of Church of England ecclesiology, even among those who disagreed with him.

Few who met him failed to appreciate his undoubted charm. He was always on good terms with his diocesan and area bishops; he regularly invited his opponents to preach or teach at St Stephen’s; he invited members of WATCH to write for New Directions. People could not help but like him and listen to him. As many remember, he was also a superb cook, and entertained generously.

Above all, Geoffrey never tried to be original: he was fascinating to listen to, precisely because his thinking was so rooted in the shared tradition. Even those who did not have his detailed knowledge (most of his listeners) found new excitement in his exposition of the scriptures or the Fathers. He could have become a bishop or even just a cathedral canon. Instead, he was simply a vicar, and as often as not in jacket and tie rather than clericals.

When Pope Benedict offered a home for traditional Anglicans within the Roman Catholic Church, in what was to become the Ordinariate, it was inevitable that Geoffrey would join. He welcomed it, and yet it also marked his retirement.

On 2 January 2000, for the first Sunday of the new millennium, he invited neighbouring parishes to the mass at St Stephen’s. It was a beautifully sung, immaculately choreographed liturgy — Roman Rite, of course — and completely unfussy, followed by lunch in the church hall, tables overflowing with mostly Caribbean dishes (goat curry among them). Warm, friendly, confident, welcoming: this was a Church of England parish priest celebrating with his people.

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