Obituary: The Ven Percy Ashford

IN 1965 Percy Ashford felt the call to prison ministry which was to become a personal quest for fulfilment in his work for the Church of England. This ambition, I believe, he achieved, for he was at his best in understanding the complex lives of those who found themselves in prison.

He believed in a social gospel which understood the frailties of people and which had a human face when it came to tolerance and forgiveness. Serving at Wormwood Scrubs, Risley Remand Centre, Durham, Wandsworth and Winchester, and then as South West Regional Chaplain of Prisons, Ashford was instrumental in bettering the conditions of service for the Prison Chaplaincy through a review and restructuring which took place in the late 1970s. In 1981 he was appointed Chaplain General of Prisons, becoming the following year the first Archdeacon to the Prison Service, and then Chaplain to the Queen in 1982.

Ashford belonged to the Evangelical wing of the Church of England and evidence of this was seen in the place of the pulpit in his life, with the preaching of biblical truth central to his convictions. He also enjoyed hymn-singing and always maintained a love of choral music, something he inherited from his father, who had conducted choirs in and around the Hampshire area where Ashford was brought up.

Whilst remaining loyal to his tradition, he grew in his understanding of others' churchmanship. He led an ecumenical team at the Chaplaincy Headquarters of the Prison Service; developed in-service training; and began to tackle the spiritual needs and requirements of other faiths whose numbers had increased dramatically in prison in the Seventies and Eighties.

Ashford's potential was not fully realised for, during his time as Chaplain General to Prisons, he was dogged by increasingly poor health and this forced his early retirement in 1985 after four years in office. After a bypass operation on his heart he did recover sufficiently to become Vicar of Hambledon, near Portsmouth, for two years, but he was forced to recognise that his health was not going to improve enough to allow him to continue, and so he finally retired to Fordingbridge in Hampshire in 1987.

As a contemporary working alongside him in the Prison Service Chaplaincy, I remember him best as a man with a disarming smile, who could be as effective in dealing with staff as he was prisoners. He was an ennobler of others, and, although remaining a realist, he was always one to encourage others to achieve their potential.

Such qualities came out of his own experience, for when he felt the call to be ordained, Ashford had to work harder than most to achieve the educational demands the Church made on those seeking ordination at the time. After qualifying at Bristol University and Tyndale Hall Theological College in Bristol, he was ordained deacon in 1954, and priest in 1955. Curacies at Ilfracombe and Aylesbury were followed by his first incumbency at Poughill, near Bude in Cornwall, in 1959.

Here was a man who had an uncomplicated view of life in general and faith in particular. He prioritised care and concern for people with a humility and "hands-on" approach which never deserted him. Not one for theological debate or academic niceties, he lived with an urgency to proclaim the Gospel with zeal and conviction to the end.

He prepared all the detail for his own funeral and this included the text for the preacher which was, "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians i,24). He could have no better epitaph.

Percival Leonard Ashford, priest: born 5 June 1927; ordained deacon 1954, priest 1955; Vicar, St Olaf's, Poughill 1959-65; Assistant Chaplain, HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs 1965-66; Chaplain, Risley Remand Centre 1966- 69; Chaplain, HM Prison Durham 1969-71, HM Prison Wandsworth 1971-75, HM Prison Winchester 1975-77; South West Regional Chaplain of Prisons 1977-81; Chaplain General of Prisons 1981-85, Archdeacon 1982-85; Chaplain to the Queen 1982-97; Vicar of Hambledon 1985-87; married 1955 Dorothy Harwood (two sons); died Southampton, Hampshire 11 October 1998.