The Rev Philip Morgan

General Secretary of the British Council of Churches
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The Independent Online

Philip Morgan was deeply rooted in the Churches of Christ (or Disciples) tradition and was driven by a deep ecumenical commitment. The Churches of Christ had their origins in the United States in the 19th century, drawing on elements from congregational and presbyterian polity. They practised believers' baptism, weekly Holy Communion as the central act of worship and emphasised the ministry of the laity.

Morgan's lifetime's ministry did not at any time waver from the deep conviction expressed more than 150 years ago by Thomas Campbell, one of the founding fathers of the Churches of Christ, that "the Church of God is essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one". Until the end of his life Morgan did all in his power to pursue and further the implementation of that conviction.

As General Secretary from 1980 of the British Council of Churches, Morgan's imaginative leap was to propose that the BCC should end its life, in order to enable a broader and more inclusive ecumenical instrument to take its place. After five years of debate, reflection and prayer, the BCC came to an end on the last day of August 1990 and the new Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland (in which the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, and in Scotland, were full members), was inaugurated the following day in services of celebration and commitment in the Anglican and Catholic Cathedrals of Liverpool. This major transformation had its main inspiration and energy in Morgan's leadership and vision.

Philip Morgan was born in 1930 and, following training at Overdale theological college in Birmingham, was ordained in 1953 and began his ministry with the Churches of Christ in the South Wales District, based in the valley communities around Merthyr Tydfil, where he had family roots. The next six years were formative. Many enduring friendships and perspectives were established, and in 1954 he married Greta Hanson, who was also from a Churches of Christ background. Subsequent pastoral ministries took him to Avery Hill (1958-62) and Saffron Lane and South Wigston in Leicester (1962-66).

In 1967, after a year as Assistant General Secretary of the Association of the Churches of Christ in Great Britain, Morgan was appointed its General Secretary. In this post he played an increasingly significant role in the ecumenical life of Great Britain and in the international fellowship of the Churches of Christ. A tale about one of his international visits, when he got up during the night only to step on to a floor covered with cockroaches, was told with particular relish.

He also became involved in the British Council of Churches, as a member of its assembly and executive committee, and in due course became chairman of its division of ecumenical affairs. One of the major contributions of the division during Morgan's period of office was to initiate a process of reflection on the churches' search for unity, in the light of the resolution made by the BCC Faith and Order Conference in Nottingham in 1964 that the member churches of the BCC should seek unity by Easter 1980. In his foreword to the booklet that was the product of this process, Unity - Why Not Yet? (1980), Morgan reveals something of the heart of his vision and ministry.

His fundamental convictions drove Morgan to seek ways of bringing the Churches of Christ into unity with the United Reformed Church (formed in 1972 as a union between the Congregational Church of England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England). This led to the formation of the Re-formed Association of the Churches of Christ (but with a small number of churches remaining outside the new association) which entered into union with the United Reformed Church in 1981. This momentous step in the search for unity owed a great deal to Morgan's vision, imagination and conviction. He was elected Moderator of the URC General Assembly for the year 1984-85.

In 1980, Morgan became the last General Secretary of the British Council of Churches. His period of office was marked by a number of significant events, one of which was the war over the Falkland Islands. Soon after the end of the conflict, Morgan visited the islands with two colleagues to explore ways in which the BCC and its member churches could support the islanders. Similarly, he went to Buenos Aires with two other colleagues, to meet Argentinian church leaders and to begin to open up paths of reconciliation.

After the war, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who was President of the BCC, and Morgan were able to collaborate with the Dean of St Paul's, Alan Webster, to develop a national service which prayed for the victims of the war from both Britain and Argentina - despite strong objections from the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher - enabling the archbishop to say in his sermon during the service: "Common sorrow could do something to reunite those who were engaged in this struggle. A shared anguish can be a bridge of reconciliation."

Morgan also played a key role in the BCC Gospel and Western Culture project. One of the influences in its development was Lesslie Newbigin's book The Other Side of 1984 (1983), reflecting on changes in Western culture and their effects on belief and faith. Morgan used to tell the story of his burning three lots of lamb chops one evening as he became increasingly engrossed in this manuscript which had just arrived on his desk. He developed the conviction that British society had reached a moment of profound change that required some fundamental thinking. From this the BCC Gospel and Contemporary Society project emerged.

But Morgan's most notable ecumenical contribution was to recognise a kairos, a critical moment, in the life and relationships of the British and Irish churches created by the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1982, the failure of an English Covenant for Unity, the critical decisions in relation to the 1975 Covenant for Unity in Wales, the multilateral conversations in Scotland, the so-called "Ballymascanlon" meetings in Ireland of 1973 between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches and a growth in local ecumenical projects.

He inaugurated discussions with key church leaders, including those of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Ireland (which were not in membership of the BCC), with a view to exploring ways in which new foundations and patterns could be developed to enable a broader family of churches and denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, black-majority and Pentecostal churches, to be full ecumenical partners. The result was the Inter-Church Process of Reflection on "the life and mission of the church in the light of its calling in and for the world" and, eventually, the inauguration on 1 September 1990 of the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland.

On that day, Morgan retired as General Secretary and soon afterwards was inducted as the minister of St Andrew's United Reformed Church, Frognal, in West Hampstead, London, where he remained for five years until retirement in 1995.

Among Philip Morgan's many interests, he had two passions: mountains and poetry. He would sometimes leave London very early in the morning, drive to the edge of Snowdonia, climb to the top of Cader Idris and then drive home again. I also recall a powerful reflection he gave on R.S. Thomas's poem "Arrival". It describes "a village in the Welsh hills / with no road out / but the one you came in by". The final lines of this poem capture Morgan's understanding of God's future for the Church and for humanity, whatever setbacks we must face:

. . . [Arriving] after long journeying where he

began, catching this

one truth by surprise

that there is everything to look forward to.

Noel A. Davies