Donald Barnes: Church of England priest and prominent supporter of the ordination of women

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The Independent Online

One of the endearing characteristics of the Church of England, in times of tranquility and trauma, has been the virtuosity and variety in its parish priests. Donald Barnes, who gave nearly 60 years of service across north-west London, was a vibrant and much-loved example of the genre. But he was also someone who, in his sweeping interests and commitments, was prophetic in espousing the progressive movements – above all the movement for the ordination of women – which have revitalised Anglicanism even as they have challenged it. Barnes was ahead of that curve at a time when it was still a very brave stance to take.

Some clergy secure their reputation through their intellectual studies, some by their love of people and some by skilfully working through institutions to change them. Donald Barnes excelled in all three areas, with learning that was lightly worn but bedrocked in his faith.

He grew up in Essex between the wars with a father who was a solicitor's clerk and a mother who was a product of Christ's Hospital and whose strong intellect was a key influence. He went to high school in Westcliff-on-Sea, where his lifelong love of history exhibited itself early – as did his devotion to his faith. Evacuated to Derbyshire during the Second World War, he would climb out of the window from the locked house where he was billeted to ensure that he did not miss early-morning Mass. When he was called up to do national service in Kenya he considered ordination there, and that African association was to echo richly and repeatedly in his subsequent pastoral life.

On his return to England he took a first class Honours degree in Theology at King's College, London and was ordained a priest in Coronation year, 1953. His early churchmanship was strongly High Anglican but never partisan and as he established himself as a significant figure in the Church across North London – with a curacy at St Matthew's, Harlesden followed by incumbencies as vicar at St Peter's, Cricklewood (1959-79) and then, until his retirement in 1996, at St Peter's, Belsize Park – it became ever more pluralistic.

At a time when the Second Vatican Council and books like John Robinson's Honest to God were pointing to new progressive and ecumenical possibilities, Barnes's religious reading was voracious. Old and New Testaments in Hebrew and Greek were supplemented by the works of the anti-Nazi pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Latin American liberation theology and the writing of the liberal Catholic theologian Hans Kung, who so upset Pope John Paul II. Barnes turned his enquiry into actions, as an early member of the Anglican-Orthodox Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, the Modern Church Union, and later the Anglican-Lutheran Society; and as the Sixties counter-cultures fed through into the C of E in the 1970s, he gave support to the Movement for the Ordination of Women and to lesbian and gay Christian groups.

Barnes's skills in debate and in advice tactical, pastoral and strategic played a crucial role in the successful outcome for women's ordination. He was a founder-member of the movement, and of its successor, Watch – Women and the Church – alongside his wife, Sally, who from the time they met when he was a curate, and throughout their 50 years of married life, was his soulmate and co-conspirator.

At a time when many in the C of E – some sadly at the highest levels – regarded the movement as at best eccentric and at worst subversive, Barnes nurtured and encouraged women's service in the Church in close alliance with his friend Alan Webster, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, where Barnes later became a Prebendary. This included training up women ordinands in both his parishes, including Claire Wilson, who became his curate at Belsize Park for many years.

Along with the many administrative duties he fulfilled – as an Area Dean, a member of Diocesan councils and Warden of Readers, as well as his insightful lectures to the Hampstead Christian Study Centre – Barnes was able to use his time as a member of General Synod in the 1980s and 90s, during years of deep controversy, to witness powerfully to his inclusive beliefs. But it was always done with warmth, dry humour and without malice of forethought or afterthought.

A lifelong member of the Labour Party, he understood how to cajole – and, where necessary, to confront – committees and bureaucracies to advance the cause. The indulgent flounce or gesture was alien to him: one frustrated woman activist who announced she would make a dramatic exit from the C of E received the comment that she was quite within her rights but with the addendum, "you realise, of course, you can only leave once". As the Dean of Guildford, Victor Stock, allegedly said, "Donald's motto was never threaten to go, always threaten to stay."

None of this in any way diminished the full measure of warmth, pastoral commitment and gift for befriending and friendship that Barnes poured out as a parish priest. If political activists, spiritual or secular, are enjoined to have a hinterland, his was a veritable empire. A fondness for dogs, cricket and crime novels went along with an encyclopedic knowledge of dates, Test Match scores and by-election results. In his vicarage, where volumes of Wisden jostled for space with historical biographies, cutting-edge theology and General Election analyses, hospitality was dispensed to all and sundry, whether nips of his favourite ginger and whisky "mac" to churchwardens or an oversize turkey to cater for all those brought in to share the family Christmas.

These were the qualities that made him a hit on the factory floor as an industrial chaplain at United Biscuits in the 1970s, and when during the same period he topped the poll from three losing Labour candidates in a Barnet council election by more than 200 votes. After he had given a sermon during the election campaign in a joint RC and C of E service at his church, the neighbouring Irish parish priest pointed to his picture on the church door, with the three-line-whip invocation "that's your man, the one to vote for, Father Barnes!" The election coincided with Ascension Day and as Barnes's agent I had to gently persuade him to move the special parish communion to earlier in the day – not the customary 7pm, which clashed with peak time for knocking up the voters.

It was on the eve of Ascension Day this year that Donald Barnes died, peacefully at home and with the words "the Son is coming" on his lips. His funeral service was at the Golders Green Parish Church, where he was assistant curate after his retirement – over 300 people, sitting in the pews which volunteers had reinstalled when the church, which is being restored, was reopened specially for the occasion. Solid Anglican hymns, High Church incense, exuberant singing from a choir of Nigerian women and the Orthodox Kontakion for the dead sung by a single chorister were a fitting summation of that diversity that was the testament to his life, love and work.

He leaves his wife, Sally, children Simon, Richard and Rebecca and five grandchildren.

Gordon Marsden MP

Donald Barnes, priest: born 13 February 1926; married Sally (two sons, one daughter); died 1 June 2011.