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Obituary: The Rt Revd John Dennis

26 June 2020


The Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich writes:

THE Rt Revd John Dennis died on 13 April, aged 88, having been Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich from 1986 until 1996. He was a much-loved husband, father, priest, and bishop.

Born in 1931, John Dennis grew up in Merton, south-west London, with his sister, Pamela, and parents, Ronald and Evelyn. His early childhood, as for many of his generation, was shaped by the Second World War. To avoid the London Blitz, he was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Yorkshire. Despite his being evacuated, and, at the age of nine, catching typhoid, his childhood was a happy one. It was from the end of the war that John, with his parents, started regularly to attend church, something that John later described as one of the significant turning- points in his life.

Through confirmation classes, John’s faith and sense of vocation grew, and so, intending to pursue holy orders, John went to study theology at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. Before Cambridge, John undertook two years’ National Service in the RAF and, having been marked as potential officer material, took a commission as a pilot officer.

When he made it to Cambridge, John developed a passion for rowing. By his own admission, he was terrible at ball games, but he took well to the river, rowing in the St Catherine’s first boat and even having trials for the university crew.

The most important aspect of his time at Cambridge, however, was meeting his future wife, Dorothy, a fellow undergraduate, also studying theology. John described meeting her as a “great life-changing experience”, and they became engaged while John was training for ministry at Cuddesdon.

Cuddesdon was followed by curacies in Armley (central Leeds) and Kettering, which served as a great training ground for John’s first incumbency as Vicar of the Isle of Dogs from 1962 to 1970. Aged only 30, John and Dorothy, now with two children, John and Peter, embraced life in this busy urban parish. Reflecting on his time in the Isle of Dogs, John once remarked: “The job of a priest is one of the most wonderful jobs in the world.”

John went on to become Vicar of John Keble Church, Mill Hill, before returning to Yorkshire as Bishop of Knaresborough in 1979.

It was during this ministry that John chaired a working party looking at the question of admission to communion before confirmation. The resulting report was commonly known as “the Knaresborough report”. A passionate sense of inclusion drove John’s advocacy of admission to communion before confirmation. The report was ahead of its time, but the Church of England would eventually make room for the proposals.

In 1986, he was translated to St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, where he would serve as diocesan bishop until his retirement. His attempt to be “instituted” rather than “enthroned” in the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds was thwarted. Still, the sense of humility which motivated such a request became a defining feature in his episcopal leadership.

In Suffolk, he is fondly remembered as “the cycling bishop” on account of his many cycling tours around the whole diocese. Without pomp or ceremony, John would faithfully cycle from parish to parish getting to know clergy and churches, and stopping to chat and pray with parishioners. Such episcopal perambulations seem more common now, but they were not back then, and it would be easy to overlook the significant impact this had on building a relationship with each of the 475 parishes in the diocese.

His arrival in Suffolk came at the time when the debate about the ordination of women in the Church of England was at its height. He is described as “wonderfully supportive” by those women in the diocese who felt called to ordination but had to wait until the final vote in General Synod. Just before the first service in his cathedral at which he was to ordain women as priests, as the procession was forming up, he was heard to say: “Let’s go give them a taste of heaven!”

John was a strong advocate of Local Ordained Ministry, recognising that God’s call to ordained ministry embraced many who might not see themselves or be seen as candidates. He also saw that the provision of ordained ministry especially in rural communities needed to change, and again he was ahead of his time. He was also a passionate ecumenist. He once described himself as an “ecumaniac” and was the Anglican bishop responsible for links with the Ethiopian, Syrian, and Armenian Churches. Back at home in Suffolk, he took time to preach at churches in many denominations, seeking to promote compassion, respect, and, in his words, “reverence” for other Churches.

In retirement, John and Dorothy moved to Winchester. John remained active in ministry as an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese, a much sought-after spiritual director, and a supporter of many local charitable organisations.

John and Dorothy enjoyed more than 60 years of married life together and died only six weeks apart. They are survived by their two sons: John, a senior diplomat and former Ambassador to Angola, and Peter (Hugh) Dennis, the actor and comedian.

The final word must go to John himself who, when asked by Mark Byford in 2015 to give one piece of advice, said: “Work on opening your heart to the knowledge and love of God, who is closer to you than your own breathing.”

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