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Obituary: The Rt Revd Dr Alec Graham

28 May 2021

The Rt Revd Dr Alec Graham dedicates an engine to St Nicholas for the Cathedral Church 900 celebrations, in December 1992

The Rt Revd Dr Alec Graham dedicates an engine to St Nicholas for the Cathedral Church 900 celebrations, in December 1992

The Very Revd Nicholas Coulton writes:

DR ALEC GRAHAM was a bishop to whom audiences keenly listened when he spoke on doctrine in the General Synod or in local courses. His keen mind dissected issues with clarity and consideration of the views of others, while holding to essentials.

Commending a study guide on the report We Believe in the Holy Spirit, he hoped that users would be led to believe with deeper understanding, and to become “more vividly aware of the riches of life in the Spirit, in whom we have already been given a share”. Chairing the Doctrine Commission from 1987 to 1995, while the Church experienced sharp divisions, he held together members with diverse theologies.

Alec’s effective sermons were built on a pithy, oft-repeated, phrase. His installation sermon as Bishop of Bedford drove home Jesus’s words to Martha and Mary “One thing is needful.” A Christmas sermon there had the refrain “Changed Priorities Ahead”, words that he had seen at a roundabout near by. Page after page of handwritten sermon notes fluttered down the open-work pulpit stairs as each was finished and thrust aside.

Born in Highgate, north London, and growing up in Kent, Andrew Alexander Kenny Graham went, via Tonbridge School and National Service, to a second-class degree in Modern Languages at St John’s, Oxford. This led to a diploma in theology with distinction, studying particularly Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among other German theologians, and then, via Ely Theological College and ordination in 1955, to a brief curacy in Hove; shepherding the large Sunday school to its outing on Eastbourne beach was an ingrained memory. Next came his posts as Chaplain and lecturer in theology at Worcester College, Oxford, and, after two years, as Fellow and tutor there for ten more years.

Lacking long parochial experience was no handicap to a ministry in which academic flair flowed from a pastoral heart. My one-hour extramural tutorials with Alec in Oxford were always followed by tea, fruit cake, and a walk outside to watch the college rugby team. Not himself a sports fan, Alec knew what proper chaplaincy involved.

As Warden of Lincoln Theological College from 1970 to 1977, he lifted academic standards into the mainstream, and welcomed women training to be deaconesses. His dog Leah was invaluable — her name a test for unobservant students who knew their Shakespeare better than their Bible.

The call to become Suffragan Bishop of Bedford — the land of bricks, Brussels, and Bunyan — brought him into Robert Runcie’s mutually stimulating St Albans team. Alec had lectured at Cuddesdon for Runcie on Augustine and grace. Bedford in 1977 was the most ethnically, culturally, and racially mixed town in the country. One tenth of the population were Italians, and it was home to communities, both secular and religious, of Poles, Serbs, Ukrainians, West Indians, and South Asians, most recruited by the London Brick Co. at Stewartby in successive waves through the 1930s to ’70s, before automation took hold.

Alec’s readiness to engage across boundaries in what had been called “The Unmelting Pot” fitted him to become Bishop of Newcastle in 1981, a diocese marking the centenary of its creation out of Durham. Already, economic depression was biting. The 1981 Brixton riots surfaced in other northern cities, leading to the two years’ work of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas and its Faith in the City report, led by a former St Albans colleague, Eric James.

In July 1981, Newcastle diocese, with North Tyneside Borough Council, began the Cedarwood Centre, a live-in community on a “no-go” estate in South Meadowell where unemployment had become hard-core across generations since the 1930s. Alec gave keen support to that and other projects. When he brought me from Bedford to be Provost of Newcastle, he asked me to involve myself in Cedarwood and in west Newcastle. Reaching Alec late at night after a stormy drive leaving Bedford, my wife and I watched him put our perplexed young children at ease, finding them things to do.

Himself unmarried, Alec’s thoughtfulness for clergy wives made him a welcome visitor to vicarages in Bedfordshire and then Northumberland. John Bell, chauffeur to the two preceding bishops and well familiar both with parishes and clergy concerns and with Tyneside roads and Border country lanes, guided him expertly. When Alec drove alone, his Labrador Zillah, successor to Leah, sat in the passenger seat; those driving behind could spot their earnest conversation. Zillah helped, too, in interviews and at Newcastle staff meetings, often questioned what to do with this or that.

Alec enjoyed pretending to be a caricature of himself, his tattered raincoat masking quick intelligence. Resistant to having a fax machine in his house (“work of the devil”), he would send John Bell to the diocesan Church House to use theirs. Invited to name an engine St Nicholas for the Cathedral Church 900 celebrations, Alec, a railway buff, searched for Bible references, and was delighted that Zechariah 9 (Authorised Version) mentioned a signal in the upper quadrant.

Alec loved the Northumbrian fells and holidaying in the Hebrides. His frequent companion striding the fells was the eminent Professor of Persian Nancy Lambton, often claimed (perhaps wrongly) to have originated the UK-CIA plot to topple Mossadeq in 1953. Her theological acumen matched Alec’s.

Believing that he personally must be more convinced before ordaining women priests, he unfailingly supported those who were priested.

Retirement in Cumbria included chairing his parish council and assisting parishes. He seldom went abroad, but three weeks in India supporting his former student and long-term friend Andrew Wingate’s theological work let Alec pursue that analytical enjoyment of other cultures, so much a mark of his enquiring mind.

Wise and eccentric, yes, both. The Church needs such bishops.

The Rt Revd Dr Alec Graham died on 9 May, aged 91.

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