Obituary: Canon John Armson

by
22 May 2020

Diocese of Rochester

Dame Mary Tanner writes:

THE Revd Dr John Moss Armson died, aged 80, on Easter morning, as if he had been waiting to point us to the day of resurrection life. John died in Hunter’s Lodge, Old Dalby, in Leicestershire, having returned to the county of his birth, and his funeral was conducted amid its rolling hills by the priest who had ministered to him in his last months. Among the few of us gathered were John’s close schoolfriend and one of his godsons, but we sensed that we were joined in prayer by his many other friends.

John, an only child, excelled at school, where his musical gifts were nurtured, singing daily in the school choir and learning to play the organ. In 1958, he went to Selwyn College, Cambridge, to read natural sciences, and, occasionally, deputised for the organ scholar at Trinity Hall. John’s career seemed set when he moved to St Andrews University for research, gaining a Ph.D. on “The permeability of the sheath and the selective uptake of nicotinic acid in crab axons”.

The direction of John’s life was to change: he entered Mirfield. In his final year, he and John Flack, later Bishop of Huntingdon, were responsible for the college liturgical music, “which had to be as near perfect as possible”. For John, that was the standard that he always set for liturgy, in a cathedral or the tiniest parish church.

After serving his title at St John’s, Notting Hill, in London, John returned to Cambridge, as Chaplain of Downing College. He is remembered in both places for his kindness, pastoral care, and willingness to listen.

A chance meeting in the street led to John’s important contribution to the training of future clergy. Mark Santer, Principal of Westcott House, needed a chaplain, and suggested the post to him.

John brought many gifts to it: he was a discreet and discerning pastor, firm when needed. He brought form and dignity, without fuss, to the conduct of worship and led by example in his commitment to prayer through the daily offices and the eucharist. He developed a strong link with the Sisters of the Love of God, which bore fruit in the life and ministry of many. He brought imagination and a capacity for action to initiatives such as the celebration of the Triduum with the ecumenical community founded by the Sisters of the Assumption at Hengrave Hall in Suffolk.

John’s concern for liturgy included the care of the building in which it was celebrated. One vacation, he persuaded two students to redecorate the college chapel. A photo shows the three of them perched on wobbly tower scaffolding. Wiring was sunk into the plaster, and clutter was banished. The shape and proportions of the chapel now contributed to the liturgy.

But there was something missing. John invited a Russian iconographer to write an icon, Christ with the open book. After he asked the community what text should be on the open book, all agreed, “Ye have not chosen me, But I have chosen you.” Many, like John, came to recognise that this was true of their calling.

John’s appointment to Coates Hall, the Scottish Episcopal Church’s theological college, represented a new start for it and a new challenge for him. He immersed himself in its life, St Mary’s Cathedral, and the Province. College finances were a worry, but he kept numbers viable and upgraded the buildings.

As Principal, he could be opinionated and unpredictable, but he was also enormously kind, taking time to get to know students and working with bishops to make sure that placements were really suitable. John’s seven years at Coates Hall were some of his happiest and most fruitful. There was a tight-knit eucharistic community; he was engaged in ministerial education, which he loved; and he had a pleasant house in which to entertain his ever-widening circle of friends, and a garden that he could organise as he wanted it and tend in the shortest of shorts.

It seemed a natural progression when John moved in 1989 to Rochester Cathedral as a Residentiary Canon. It was a disappointment to him when Dean Arnold moved to Durham. John brought all his theological acumen, literary, liturgical, and musical gifts and sensitivity in pastoral care; took an interest in the library, instigated the Cathedral Embroidery Group, and, on Shakespeare’s birthday, gathered people for readings. He was appreciated by the musicians, and was loved, respected, and, in some cases, a little feared by those subject to his no-nonsense approach to liturgy.

The house built for his arrival John christened Easter Garth. He soon turned its garden into a delight for entertaining. Priests who came to him for spiritual direction were grateful for his counsel, and he was in demand as a retreat conductor. He was active in the community and with the local housing association, and engaged with candour and wisdom in the debate on issues in human sexuality.

John’s relations with the Dean, Edward Shotter, were not always easy, and increasingly he found himself at odds with the prevailing ethos. It was a surprise to many when he announced that he was leaving to join the Hengrave Community. Although he hardly ever expressed it, John found it painful not being able to share fully in eucharistic communion with the Community. He had time now to continue to write reviews for the Church Times. The gardens at Hengrave had never had so much attention.

For all his peaceful exterior, there was a restlessness about John. After three years, he moved to Herefordshire, restoring an old barn, planting a large wood on the hillside, and creating gardens. He ministered in the parish church and was Diocesan Sub-warden of Readers. His gift to his many friends was to welcome them to his home, and take them on walks in the countryside, visiting remote churches.

When John realised that his energy and memory were declining, hard as it was, he sold The Barn and moved to a Pensions Board-supported housing scheme in Leicestershire. Here again, he made new friends and took a lead in the chapel services. From Kibworth, with his memory failing, he moved to Old Dalby. What he never forgot were the words of George Herbert’s poem “Love bade me welcome”, which he would join in saying with a sense of peace. The modest John, always admiring the achievements of others, would be amazed at the many tributes that he has received.

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