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Obituary: The Revd Martin Preston

22 January 2021

The Revd Richard Kirker writes:

OF ALL his panoply of appointments in Army Intelligence, as a Baptist minister, a teacher, an Anglican priest, and an ecumenist working for the World Council of Churches, it was his tenure from the 1960s to the 1980s as Head of Religious Studies at St Dunstan’s College, Catford, south-east London, where he also taught Russian, which was Martin Preston’s most rewarding and admired.

He has been described by the Very Revd John Hall, formerly Dean of Westminster and a pupil at St Dunstan’s, as a “brilliant schoolmaster, musician, and polymath”. Preston also produced inspiring college plays, led adventurous school tours to Russia, and had a prodigious knowledge of opera and theatre, with which he enthused others. But Preston’s time there was not without its dramas, especially after he “came out” — more than once.

Studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, Christ Church, Oxford, Regents Park, Oxford, Virginia Theological Seminary, and time in Geneva and with the Central Free Church, Brighton, developed his vocation as a teacher and chaplain for 30 years. He was ordained deacon and priest in 1988, and served in the dioceses of Southwark and Chichester, all the while a devout Wagnerian and usher at Glyndebourne.

In between, there was National Service — in the Intelligence Corps, thanks to his fluent Russian. The day in 1967 when the Sexual Offences Act passed into law transformed his life, lifting for the last time his deep-rooted inner-fears.

One of his pupils at St Dunstan’s recalled in 2016: “He always put himself forward as a classic social liberal and encouraged the same in us, something in short supply at the time and much needed by many pupils. When in ’69 a few of us passed out leaflets at the school open day about its admissions policy — essentially a colour bar — part of the strength to do that lay in the knowledge of a basic sympathy from a few of the teachers like Martin.”

“He was”, another said, “a lovely, kind, intelligent man, one who brought tears to my eyes as a young man by playing the piano. I remember him so well because he was an oasis of calm, reason, and good humour.”

A founding member and early committee member of the Gay Christian Movement (as it was in its early days), he was responsible for inviting Harry Williams CR to deliver “The Gay Christian Movement and the Education of Public Opinion in 1979 at its annual conference. The event was covered, fairly and truthfully, by the future editor of the Church Times John Whale. Not all welcomed Whale’s tone. For some, it bore the marks of excessive enlightenment. This only helped to increase Martin’s belief that he was right to take up the cause of challenging Christian homophobia by remaining a committed supporter.

That support took an oblique, but still tangible form, when Private Eye, then anti-gay under the editorship of Richard Ingrams, tried to make mischief. In 1981, it could not resist revealing that Martin was gay as well as a schoolmaster at Dulwich. Pupils, showing a much more decent side to their humanity, had letters published praising Preston, while the headmaster took a decidedly hostile view, but did not dismiss him.

After his retirement, Martin became joint director of the Lovemore Trust, a project to provide education for children orphaned by AIDS, and destitute children, in Zimbabwe. This project was one closed down by President Mugabe in 2004.

While living in Brighton, he served at a city-centre church, where he fell foul of an archdeacon alarmed at an unexceptional sermon on the resurrection. Regularly volunteering at Brighthelm Centre Drop Centre for homeless people and those needing company showed Preston as the compassionate, caring man that characterised his attractive pastoral temperament.

Being sacked from the staff of another parish for coming out, in his seventies, to the Mothers’ Union, much to their delight, was one more small drama to bring further distinction to his ebullient deeply engaging personality.

The Revd Martin Preston died on 18 December, aged 89.

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