Cyril Alliston: Missionary in South Africa and Borneo

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The Independent Online

Cyril John Alliston, a missionary of the Anglican church, a servant of the late British Empire and benevolent pastor to people of many of its races, died in Cape Town three weeks short of his 98th birthday. The life of this modest and saintly man, who was more committed to Christianity than to mere religion and who abhorred the word "denomination", illustrates the changes that came over his country and its ways of worship in the course of the 20th century.

Born in 1911 to a comfortable Low Church middle-class family in Cambridge, Alliston went to the Perse School and then to Fitzwilliam House (later Fitzwilliam College) to read history and theology, graduating with an undistinguished degree in 1933. Though he had as a young boy and an undergraduate been exposed to influences which much later were to lead him out of the Church of England, he entered Cuddesdon (now Ripon) College to study for holy orders. After a visit organised in 1934 by the Cuddesdon chaplain to the tercentenary performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany he cycled on with friends to Maria Laach and Aachen and had his first taste of Nazism and the tear-gas of its thugs.

He was ordained in 1936. For five years he worked in England as a curate at Boyne Hill and later Hessle but that was just an apprenticeship for the missions which became his life. In 1940 he was at work as one of eight chaplains on South African Railways in a life of constant travel as he brought the gospel to those who worked on or near that broad network.

His stipend was £4 a month, a rail pass and the use of a caboose which could be hitched and unhitched as required behind any passing locomotive from De Aar to Francistown on the border of Southern Rhodesia. He recalled, "It meant visiting a seemingly endless succession of tiny stations, halts and remote cottages, conducting services in waiting rooms and halls, hotel dining rooms – even bars.

"On one occasion I had set out the small cross and candle sticks I always carried and had lighted the candles when a man who had patronised the bar at some length calmly stepped forward and lit up a cigarette." Despite all, and though conscious of the growing cancer of racism in South Africa which was soon to develop into apartheid, he came to love the Kalahari desert and the people of all races who lived in the region. An enthusiastic artist, he took his brushes and paints everywhere in his haversack.

Five years later, at the end of the Second World War he took the remote parish Douglas with Griquatown and Hopetown on the Orange River in the diocese of Kimberley. He wrote to Mary Hale in England proposing marriage and she replied by telegram and joined him shortly afterwards. (Bishop Hunter of Kimberley married them having said, "Choose any hymns you like – except 'Fight the good fight'".) Mary was to be his companion well into the 21st century and was his strong support till she was severely affected by the infirmities of age.

After a decade in South Africa and on Mary's initiative they went on to Borneo, where three much less developed British territories were recovering from Japanese occupation and Shell was building up an important oil industry. In 1950 he was named curate in charge of St Columba, Miri, and the Sarawak oil fields near Brunei and two years later Archdeacon of North Borneo and Rector of Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) and canon of its cathedral.

His territory contained head-hunters and was still administered by such as District OfficerFrancis Drake who, as Alliston had done in South Africa, wore a solar topee. Inter alia he was called on attend the coronation of the Sultan of Brunei, exorcise the house of one of the Chinese who constituted the bulk of his flock and accompany the bishop on a visit to a Dayak longhouse where his lordship was serenaded by a bare-breasted local girl and plied with strong drink. (Nothing untoward occurred.)

Though he never aspired to academic scholarship he wrote two books about Borneo and produced a constant flow of elegant articles and poems, as well as oils and watercolours. He returned home to take up the parish of Somersham with Pidley-cum-Fenton and Colne near Cambridge in 1960, moving to Penponds near Truro three years later.

South Africa called him back and he took Mary and their two children to Cape Province. The family recalls him as initially a parent who was, in the English manner of the day, not given to emotion. In later life, however, he mellowed into an affectionate father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

When he was nine he had sneaked looks at that Romanism against which he had been so strongly warned. "On the second occasion", he wrote in 2001, "I hit on the service of Tenebrae. I never imagined that such services existed in the Christian Church. The beauty of the Psalms sung to their plainsong chants, the gradual extinguishing of the candles and, above all, the dramatic 'thunderclap' behind the altar towards the end of the service completely captivated me."

As an undergraduate he also heard the preaching of the Dominican friar Hugh Pope. He later resolved that in the matter of his divorce from Catherine Henry VIII had been wrong and decided never to criticise the Catholic Church in conversation or from the pulpit. Finally in 1977 he and his wife decided, as he put it, to "swim the Tiber", a decision he believed was in part prompted by the prayers of others. They joined the Roman Catholic church in Cape Town after his 41 years in the Anglican ministry which he characterised as "for the most part very happy years and some were quite adventurous". He embraced the mass, Marian devotions and the ideal of unity and the teaching authority of the papacy with fervour.

His passage from an archdeacon of the established church, addressed as "Venerable", to that of an ordinary Catholic must have been a challenging one for a sexagenarian and his wife and they were grateful to retain the friendship of their Anglican friends. Most of their latter years were spent quietly at Hermanus and Cape Town.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy

Cyril John Alliston, missionary: born Cambridge 23 July 1911; married 1946 Mary Hale (one daughter, one son); died Cape Town 2 July 2009.