The Right Rev John Yates: Reforming Bishop of Gloucester

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The Independent Online

As war experience changed perceptions of how to work for peace, the poet Sidney Keyes wrote: "I am the man who looked for peace and found my own eyes barbed." John Yates, unlike Keyes, returned from service in the Second World War and was able to give himself to a peaceful ministry. But though gentle, humorous and relaxed about himself and the Church of England, in which he was a bishop for 22 years, it felt as if his time in RAF aircrews had given him a sense of urgent reality – hence his challenging of boring religiosity, his willingness to enable unpopular reforms and his hopes that all the churches would change so that they could contribute to God's peace.

Like many priests and ordinands who came back from the forces and the work camps with radical attitudes, he believed the time had come to "humanise" the churches. He was committed to new attitudes in worship and new methods of interpreting the scriptures and tradition. He challenged the old suspicions about lay participation in church government, the exclusion of women from the priesthood and the censuring of the divorced, homosexuals and the unorthodox.

Born in 1925, Yates won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, and after taking a first in theology he was ordained at St Paul's. After marriage to Jean Dover and a curacy at Southgate, he was appointed to the staff of Lincoln Theological College. He later became Principal of Lichfield Theological College and was influential in the training of hundreds of Anglican clergy. He and Jean always kept an open house and were famously approachable. He was many-talented: ready to join a college hockey team, or play the piano at the concert or explain the complexities of Bultmann on New Testament exegesis. Later, at Gloucester, the Yateses fed the hungry on the doorstep of the bishop's house, Jean filling up the mugs and collecting sandwiches at the end of the day from Sainsbury's. They had a joint ministry, so that when Yates had to press the claims of Faith in the City or urge Douglas Hurd at the Home Office to listen to a church report, he spoke firmly from experience. Jean researched a number of social problems: both had no side but were people of influence and stature.

Archbishop Donald Coggan, then at York, admired Yates's scholarship and steadiness and appointed him Suffragan Bishop of Whitby in 1972. His appointment to Gloucester three years later was one of the early successes of the Crown Appointments Commission. The clergy and lay people of Gloucestershire, thought to be conservative, responded to his leadership. He was independent, not beholden to any group or party, and gradually collected an impressive staff, which made Gloucester a happy and confident diocese. They sympathised with his plea: "Let us aim at dignity with simplicity in our worship, high standards of performance, but with a minimum of fuss." He warned against "the money men . . . who would govern the church on consumerist lines . . . regarding worshippers as customers". When he spoke of costly self-giving on behalf of the poor and powerless his words resonated. Gloucestershire people thought of those mugs filled with tea and the weekly search for sandwiches. The Church was humanised and to use his words: "Evangelism was not understood as Mother Church calling back naughty children . . . but as going out to meet other human beings on the basis of our shared humanity."

Yates faced a testing task in chairing a General Synod Board of Social Responsibility Group of 12 scholars who, in 1979, produced their report Homosexual Relationships. The Wolfenden report had been chaired by an Anglican layman and Archbishop Michael Ramsey had defended the liberalising legislation in 1967. But there were some who believed that the mythic history of Sodom and Gomorrah and the not uncomplex prohibitions of St Paul (Jesus says nothing on homosexuality) were still highly relevant. Yates's report was learned in its discussions of the references in the scriptures as well as the developments in psychological and legal reflection. Unfortunately, his report was not widely studied and reprinting was not sanctioned. Lambeth Conference discussions and resolutions appear naïve when compared with the nuanced and learned conclusions of the "Gloucester report".

In 1987 and 1988 Yates was involved in efforts to influence the tragic history of Central America. Many were killed in civil wars, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, Jesuit scholars at the Central American University and thousands of civilians. In 1986 an ecumenical peace mission, Anglican, Free Church and Roman Catholic, in part financed by London institutions, had visited Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua joining a Via Crucis march in the areas threatened by the Contras. Yates's mission was a valuable follow-up. He met the liberation leaders and thought deeply on their sufferings. But on his return to England other problems were on his agenda and he was not willing to campaign.

Yates also led the UK delegation to the Basle Conference of the World Council of Churches. This was a notable conference in Cold War days remarkable, if not unique, for the generous and warm-hearted co-operation of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Churches. Yates had not been an ecumenical traveller but his sensitivity and anxiety to learn made its own impression. He also visited Africa on behalf of the Church of England's "Partners in Mission" policy to increase overseas awareness in England.

Early in his Gloucester years, as Chairman of the Accredited Lay Ministry Committee – a cautiously devised title – he had headed a group which suggested that the time had come to welcome women in the ministry of the Church. Again, he did not campaign, but the Gloucester lay majority vote in the General Synod in 1992 topped the list of diocesan laity voting in favour of the ordination of women to the Anglican priesthood.

His last three years before retirement saw him as Head of the then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey's staff at Lambeth. He is remembered there as one of those who did much to prepare the church to make the changes needed for it to unite for the sake of the Gospel it has inherited. He remained pastorally minded and never became a church bureaucrat.

Alan Webster

John Yates, priest: born Burslem, Staffordshire 17 April 1925; ordained deacon 1951, priest 1952; curate, Christ Church, Southgate, 1951-54; Tutor and Chaplain, Lincoln Theological College 1954-59; Vicar, Bottesford-with-Ashby 1959-65; Principal, Lichfield Theological College 1966-72; Bishop Suffragan of Whitby 1972-75; Bishop of Gloucester 1975-91; Head, Archbishop of Canterbury's staff (with title of Bishop at Lambeth) 1991-94; Chairman, General Synod Board for Social Responsibility, 1987-91; married 1954 Jean Dover (died 1995; one son, two daughters), 1998 The Rev Beryl Wensley (died 2007); died Winchester 26 February 2008.

* Alan Webster died 3 September 2007