Obituary: The Rt Revd Frederick Darwent

21 February 2020


The Rt Revd Frederick Darwent

The Rt Revd Frederick Darwent

The Very Revd Gerald Stranraer-Mull writes:

THE Rt Revd Frederick Charles Darwent, Bishop of Aberdeen & Orkney from 1978 to 1992, died on 15 January, aged 92. He was the last surviving member of a trio of traditionalist bishops who, as they formed more than one third of the House of Bishops in the Scottish General Synod, were able to prevent the ordination of women as priests for some years. Eventually, their retirement meant that the legislation could go ahead, and the first women priests were ordained in 1994.

That said, Bishop Fred, as he was known throughout the docese, was far from a reactionary, and his opposition to ordaining women priests did not extend to making them deaconesses and then, immediately it became possible, deacons. His views about the priesthood came from deep theological reasons, which have consistently been accepted as honourable and able to be held within the Scottish Church.

He was a kind and generous man who loved his diocese and its people deeply. And he was loved in return. He kept on good terms with the women deacons and was, characteristically, both sad and pleased (the more dominant emotion) when they were eventually ordained priest.

His funeral in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, was conducted by the present diocesan Bishop, the Rt Revd Anne Dyer, the first and, so far, only woman bishop in Scotland, who also gave one of three addresses during the service. The others came from the Primus, the Most Revd Mark Strange, and Canon Graham Taylor, Rector of St John’s, Perth, who said that Bishop Fred had baptised and confirmed him when he was 14, and two years later had taken him aside after a Sunday eucharist in his home church, All Saints’, Buckie, and said that he should think about ordination in the years ahead. Both were delighted when Graham, more than 20 years later, became the rector of a church in Aberdeen, which was just round the corner from where Bishop Fred lived.

The Bishop had the ability always to see the best in others, and his smile and good humour were appreciated throughout the diocese as he made his regular round of visits to all the congregations. In the far north of the Shetland Islands, he was pleased to welcome a nun who wished to live a hermit life. Soon, others joined her, and Bishop Fred oversaw the creation of the Society of Our Lady of the Isles, the nun, Sister Agnes, becoming Mother Mary Agnes, an office that, 36 years on, she still fulfils.

That was not the Bishop’s only innovation: there was the creation of Elders. These were lay ministers answerable directly to the Bishop, but who worked with parish priests, and able to perform several duties, including pastoral care, preaching, and what was known as the extended eucharist, by which communion from the sacrament consecrated at an earlier time or elsewhere, could be brought to congregations when a priest could not be present.

The service used was the one that was familiar to the congregation, but with the prayer of consecration replaced by a prayer approved by the Bishop. It was a practice that was soon taken up in other dioceses in Scotland, and the Church’s Liturgy Committee produced a booklet containing the service. The extended eucharist met a real need, and continues to do so today.

There was also the strengthening of historic links with Aberdeen & Orkney’s companion diocese of Connecticut, formed when the first bishop for the United States was consecrated in Aberdeen in 1784. At the Lambeth Conference of 1988, Bishop Fred met and agreed with the Bishop of St John’s in South Africa the creation of an additional link. He travelled regularly to both the United States and South Africa, and became as welcome in each as throughout his own diocese.

Bishop Fred was born in Liverpool in 1927 and, in adulthood, served in the army with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and then worked in banking, before training for ordination at Wells Theological College.

He married his wife, Edna, in 1948, and the couple had twin girls, Helen and Sarah. Sarah was a talented organist who died much too soon, leaving a young family in the care of her husband.

After curacies in Lancashire, Fred travelled to Aberdeen to be interviewed for a parish in the city centre. He was met on the railway platform by the Bishop, Edward Easson, who apologised and said that an appointment to the parish had been made the evening before, but that there was somewhere else that he would like Fred to look at. He drove him north from Aberdeen far into Buchan, the great coastal province described in the first issue of the diocesan magazine in 1895 as requiring the traveller to go “aff the earth and doon tae Buchan”.

The parishes were New Pitsligo and Strichen and, that evening, the future Bishop was interviewed jointly by the two vestries. Fred said that most of the interview consisted of silence, and it was ended when a kindly Strichen farmer said: “Weel, if the Bishop cannae send us onyone ilse, we’ll jist hae to tak Meester Darwent.” And that was that.

It was the beginning of a long love affair with windswept Buchan, its harsh coastline and its wonderful people. He remained Rector of St John’s, New Pitsligo — with the village of Strichen later exchanged, in a reorganisation of the north of the diocese, for the large fishing port of Fraserburgh — until he became Bishop, and he continued links with all three parishes for the rest of his life. He is buried in the churchyard of St John’s with Edna, who died in 1981.

While serving in Buchan, Fred became a Canon of the Cathedral and then Dean of Aberdeen & Orkney for five years, until his election as Bishop.

He was a talented pianist; although he could not read music, he needed only to hear a tune to be able to play or sing it. He was a member of many groups, including Fraserburgh Musical Society, Aberdeen Operatic Society, and the Granite City Barbershop Chorus. He memorably starred as the king in the musical The King and I in sell-out performances in Fraserburgh, a show that he also directed. In retirement, he became one half of Nite Music, who played and sang jazz and Frank Sinatra classics at venues in Aberdeen and around the county. He also made several recordings of piano music, including one dedicated to his second wife, Roma, whom he married in 1984; this was played as background music at the reception after his funeral service.

Bishop Fred is survived by Roma, Helen, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Let the final words come from Canon Taylor’s address at the funeral: “Fred, my dear friend, may you rest in peace and go with the words we would all want to say to you: ‘Well done, mate, thou good and faithful servant.’”

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