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Obituary: The Ven. John Blackburn

12 November 2021

The Revd William Lister writes:

THE Ven. John Blackburn was born in Newport, Gwent, on 3 December 1947, though much of his childhood was spent in what he laughingly described as “leafy Caerleon”. His father served in the Merchant Navy and his mother ran a tailoring shop, and it would be fair to say that his parents’ professions were a great influence in later life. His commitment to military service was equalled only by his meticulous dress sense and his pride in the distinctive appearance of military chaplains. He believed in that distinction because deep down he wanted soldiers to see that chaplains were first and foremost ministers of religion.

He was the first of his family to go to university, studying theology at St Michael’s, Llandaff and graduating with qualifications accredited by University College, Cardiff. His love of learning never left him and he subsequently acquired two further degrees through the Open University.

As Chaplain-General, he greatly encouraged further ministerial development through academic study. He began an annual essay prize competition on pre-set theological questions and went on to obtain funding for all chaplains to read for a Master’s degree in chaplaincy studies. His goal was not only to make chaplains more visible in the organisation but also more effective in their demanding ministries.

At heart, Blackburn was a family man. He married in 1970 at Our Lady and St Nicholas, Liverpool. He is survived by his wife, Anne, to whom he was happily married for 51 years, his two daughters, Emma and Charlotte, and his grandson, Spencer.

Blackburn was ordained by the Church in Wales in 1971 (priested 1972) and served his title in the parish of St Mary’s, Risca, in Monmouth diocese. He took great pride in his Welsh heritage and had a very special place in his heart for the many regiments of Wales and those others who were based there. True to the great traditions of his fellow countrymen, Blackburn often disappointed appreciative members of his audiences or congregations by explaining that he only ever spoke or preached ex tempore and that there were no notes to share.

His interest in military chaplaincy began during his curacy in Risca. In 1973, he became a part-time chaplain in the British Army (TA) and went on to full-time ministry on a Short Service Commission in 1976. He quickly discovered that the army was his calling and was given a Regular Commission in 1981. After promotion to Chaplain to the Forces 3rd Class in 1982, he served in Colchester, Hong Kong, Northern Ireland, Germany, and Catterick. He was appointed to perhaps his most cherished post, Assistant Chaplain-General West and Wales (a few months later, renamed the 5th Division) based in Shrewsbury. The 2nd Division followed in 1997, at that time based in York.

Wherever Blackburn was to be found, there was much laughter. His sense of humour was wicked at times. Throughout his Army service, shooting was a much-loved pastime, and it was typical of the man that he named his two favourite gun dogs Runcie and Jenkins. One can only speculate how the two dogs operated together in the field!

He was a person of great charm and care, especially with new chaplains who might be daunted by the demands of ministry in a secular organisation. He relished giving pastoral support to those in personal or professional difficulty. A shrewd judge of character, later in his career he was prepared to defend and even promote those who might otherwise appear to be “lost causes” or not strictly within the norms of convention.

In 1996, Blackburn became the senior Anglican in the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department and as such, he was appointed Honorary Chaplain to the Queen and Archdeacon for the Army. He then became Deputy Chaplain-General and Chaplain-General, as well as an Honorary Canon of Ripon Cathedral.

Blackburn’s preferment represented something of a sea-change for many, and his tenacity and insightfulness ushered in a period of radical structural and policy reform.

Perhaps his greatest achievement as Chaplain-General was “convergence” of the department. This was a concept first suggested eighty years before him in the Creedy Report of 1921 which sought to bring all church denominations together under one administrative authority. The Catholic Church resisted this at the time and when amended and finally implemented, it meant that the department was split in two in both administrative and spiritual terms.

Always practical, Blackburn realised that the British Army would not put up with duplication in the chain of command for long and he judged it far better to bring together the department and the sending churches, to find their own solution, rather than have one imposed upon them.

In so doing, Blackburn put the department at the forefront of ecumenical partnership and ensured that the best people could be appointed to leadership positions from across the entire field of chaplains.

This did not make him popular with everyone, and for some he remains a controversial figure; but it is fair to say that he inaugurated, and saw through to completion, the greatest change in the history of the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department since 1922. It is also a great testament to his character, perseverance and leadership that he could keep people moving forward together.

Before his retirement in 2004, he was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in the New Year’s Honours List in recognition of his service.

Always a committed and caring priest, on retirement from the British Army, he became Vicar of Risca, where his ministry had begun decades earlier. It was here that he had time to enjoy his passion for travel and also his varied charitable work, most recently as a trustee of the League of Mercy.

After a very sudden deterioration in his medical condition in September, he was admitted to Grange Hospital, Cwmbran and died on 1 October, aged 73.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.

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