Courage of the vicar who 'loved everybody'

Murdered cleric: Shock caused by killing of a priest outside his church underlines the physical danger facing inner-city clergy
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The Independent Online
As tearful schoolchildren laid flowers and pictures at the spot where the Rev Christopher Gray, 32, was brutally stabbed to death beside his modern brick church in Liverpool, his parents yesterday recalled their son's courageous disregard for the growing risks facing clergy in Britain.

Dr Philip Gray, 63, a retired GP from Portsmouth, described how his son, a brilliant scholar with a great future in the Church, had no other ambition than to work among the most socially deprived.

He said: "It was a measure of his character that he chose to shelter us from full knowledge of the risks he was taking ... there was nothing we could do to lessen it anyway. He'd chosen to accept those risks and we had to accept his decision."

Mr Gray, who was ordained in Liverpool three years ago, was stabbed through the heart early on Tuesday outside his home when he returned to St Margaret's vicarage in Anfield shortly after midnight.

The police are holding Terence Storey, aged 31. Mr Gray had been helping him since he was recently released from Walton Prison.

For the Church of England, nothing could more tragically sum up the increasing pressure on clergy than the death of Mr Gray, who was among the most promising priests of his generation. He was a "rising star" who combined scholarship with a simple love of people.

Dr Gray said: "He was different things to different people. To the parishioners and friends of St Margaret's he was a well loved priest ... to the academic community he was a scholar of high repute with a First Class honours degree in Classics from Oxford and two post-graduate degrees, one in philosophy, one in theology."

He added: "In spite of his academic ability he never lost his common touch with people from all walks of life. Anyone could talk to him as a friend ... Chris had no ambition in the Church, and was willing to go where he was sent and do what he was asked to do."

The news of Mr Gray's death was broken to his parents while they were on a walking holiday in Northumbria. His mother, Dr Margaret Gray, 64, also a retired GP, said yesterday: "He was an extraordinary son, and I adored him."

It also emerged yesterday that Mr Gray had been held hostage at knife- point two years ago, while he was working in another Merseyside parish.

At St Margaret's there was a constant flow of children and their parents laying tributes with simple notes, which included: "We will miss you so very much", and a simple drawing in felt-tip pen of a smiling priest.

Marian Blackburn, 15, who went on a youth trip to the Czech republic with Mr Gray last year, said: "He wanted the best for everybody, he loved everybody. You could tell, just from the way he talked to people, even if he didn't know them at all. We just couldn't believe what's happened."

Mr Gray's death has also been received with shock by the clergy. Many sense they have become more vulnerable in recent years, while struggling to maintain an open-door policy to those in need. Yet many priests, like Mr Gray, remain determined to work among the most socially deprived and challenged communities.

The Rev David Gavin, 33, moved to St Cleopas Church, in Toxteth, a year ago, with his wife and son. He said: "I'm really enjoying life here. The amount of life you hit face-on makes it very interesting. Like Chris, I came from a fairly well-off background and maybe that draws you into the inner cities."

Mr Gavin's family has felt vulnerable on occasions, and his wife has become reluctant to invite visitors in to wait for her husband in the evenings when he is not at home.

Mr Gavin said: "There's been a change in the way clergy are trained. We're taught to be a bit more aware of potential problems - drugs, and people making accusations against you.

"But you're in a job where, ultimately, you are trying to meet people's needs. Sometimes you to have to bend the rules, and that will always make you vulnerable."

The Rev David Lewis, 48, Dean of North Liverpool, where Mr Gray was a priest, described how he experienced violence spilling over into clerical life: "Society has changed and things we would once have done without thinking about them, we are now more nervous of. We are making judgements all the time on whether it's safe to open the door to someone late at night."

Mr Lewis was threatened once by a man in his study demanding money for a train fare to Scotland. Another visitor leaned on his doorbell for an hour, demanding money.

He said: "At the end of the day it's about your own survival and I suppose the remarkable thing about Chris is that for him, at the end, it wasn't."

Obituary, page 12