Obituary: Prebendary Geoffrey Lester

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The Independent Online
HOMOSEXUAL acts, the Grand National and the mischief-making of national newspapers - all were denounced at one time or another from the pulpit of Bath Abbey by Prebendary Geoffrey Lester, the Rector for more than 28 years.

But although he adopted a controversial stance in public, to individual parishioners, 6ft-tall, 16-stone Lester was a rock of support who steadfastly saw his flock through many turbulent years of social, economic and political change.

A paradoxical man, he breathed life into the image of a fire-and-brimstone preacher from the ancient diocese of Bath and Wells, but was never too big to apologise with true humility to those whom he felt he had wronged either directly or indirectly. To that end, when a 12-year-old boy fell off a bicycle into the path of the car he was driving and was killed, Lester not only faced the family but ended up conducting the boy's funeral service himself.

The son of a clergyman who died in the 1919 influenza epidemic, Geoffrey Lester was educated at St Edmund's School, Canterbury, before winning a choral scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge.

After being invalided out of the Irish Guards during the Second World War, he studied at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, then took up his first curacy at All Souls, Langham Place, in London. He joined the Africa Inland Mission and served as a popular and successful missionary in the West Nile district of Uganda. Various appointments in Africa eventually led to him becoming provost and rector of All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi in 1955.

His Bath appointment followed in 1960 and before long he was courting controversy. The Grand National was attacked as a "loathsome, dreadful race", newspapers condemned as "the mischief-makers of our time", and homosexual acts denounced as "perverted sexual activity" (although he made a distinction with homosexuality per se, which he nevertheless regarded as "leaning towards an intrinsic moral evil"). Even the Church of England was damned for its "failure to do battle against the corruptive influences which are eating away the moral fibre of the nation."

Church unity, he once said, was not necessarily a good thing, warning that it could become a "vast common denominator that sets out to suit everybody in general but for that very reason is unlikely to suit anyone in particular".

Fashion and haute couture didn't escape his wrath either, but for reasons which while unfashionable in the Sixties, are less so now. "In order to keep little Miss Fashion up to the mark in mink or moleskin or seal or sable, they have to massacre so many far more beautiful creatures than little Miss High Fashion will ever be," thundered Lester from the pulpit.

Those who were not parishioners or regular members of the abbey's congregation were banned from holding their weddings and funerals there, while concerts which took place beneath the abbey's rare fan vaulting - not least by Yehudi Menuhin, artistic director of the Bath Festival during the 1960s - were acknowledged in silence after Lester prohibited applause in the house of God.

He finally went a step too far in 1982 when, as well as demanding the reintroduction of capital punishment for murder, he pinned to a notice- board at the back of the abbey a petition demanding that hanging be brought back for worshippers to sign. Even the Police Federation, which was promoting the petition, expressed surprise at his action and Lester's bishop, the Right Rev John Bickersteth, objected.

A stroke in 1985 was the prelude to Lester's retirement in January 1989 but he remained a well-respected member of the abbey community for the rest of his life.

Geoffrey Lester, priest: born Cambois, Northumberland 3 December 1916; ordained deacon 1942, priest 1943; Rector of Bath Abbey 1960-89; married 1946 Mary Hancock (two sons, two daughters); died Bath 19 May 1998.