Kenneth John Fraser Skelton, priest: born London 16 May 1918; ordained deacon 1941, priest 1942; Tutor, Wells Theological College and Priest-Vicar, Wells Cathedral 1946-50; Vicar of Howe Bridge 1950-55; Rector, Walton on the Hill, Liverpool 1955-62; Bishop of Matabeleland 1962-70; Assistant Bishop, Diocese of Durham 1970-75; Rural Dean of Wearmouth and Rector of Bishopwearmouth 1970-75; CBE 1972; Bishop of Lichfield 1975-84; Assistant Bishop, dioceses of Sheffield and Derby 1984-2003; married 1945 Phyllis Emerton (died 2002; two sons, one daughter); died Guildford, Surrey 30 July 2003.
With the death of Kenneth Skelton, the Church of England has lost its natural successor to Bishop George Bell. They had many things in common. They were both quiet, unassuming, scholarly men. They had rounded faces and piercing eyes. They were far-seeing pastoral diocesan bishops and, in seeking social justice, quite fearless in speaking out.
Bell - Bishop of Chichester from 1929 to 1958 - denounced indiscriminate bombing during the Second World War. Skelton - Bishop of Matabeleland from 1962 to 1970 - denounced racism, apartheid and the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Rhodesia. Both were influential in the councils of the Church and committed to ecumenism.
Born in London in 1918, the son of a jeweller, and educated at Dulwich College and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Skelton took a double first in Classics and Theology and trained for the priesthood at Wells Theological College. After three short curacies in Derby diocese, he returned to Wells as a tutor. Then he had two incumbencies in the North of England, at Howe Bridge and Walton on the Hill. He was by then taking an interest in the work of the Society for the Propagation of Gospel but it came as a bit of a surprise when he was elected Bishop of Matabeleland in 1962.
He threw himself into the work, driving (sometimes recklessly) around his 300,000-square-mile diocese, in the west of the then Rhodesia. After a year he was fluent in the Sindebele language. He was deeply respected as a pastor, chairman of meetings and theologian, but clashes with the politicians became inevitable. Lardner Burke (the Law and Order minister) called him "The Devil's Advocate" for his defence of the rights of the ordinary people and announced that the government were watching him and would not hesitate to prosecute if he infringed the law. At the same time Skelton was keeping the Archbishop of Canterbury informed about the situation.
There was a price to pay for championing the cause of the black majority but Skelton was willing to pay it. As he said in a sermon in 1964, the year before Ian Smith announced UDI, "There is no chance for a quiet life for those who would be Christians here and now." Eight years later he was appointed CBE for his services in trying to resolve the Rhodesian situation. He remained critical of the failure of the final agreement to deal with the land problem and until two or three years ago felt that there was some justice in Robert Mugabe's actions.
In 1970 Skelton became Assistant Bishop in Durham and Rector of Bishopwearmouth (Sunderland), where he had the task of trying create a strategy for what was one of the largest deaneries in the Church of England. After five years he was appointed Bishop of Lichfield.
His predecessor at Lichfield had been in post for 22 years and the diocese had a rather old-fashioned feeling about it. He soon put a new strategy in place. He developed an area scheme with a suffragan bishop and archdeacon for each of the areas (the Black Country, Staffordshire and North Shropshire). He was a tireless visitor of clergy and parishes and managed to visit every single church in the diocese.
A trusting, co-operative person, he drew the best out of those who worked with him. He sought to keep the clergy well educated and stimulated and the diocese developing a strong identity. He did this through regular clergy conferences and major diocesan celebrations, which brought large numbers together. He was also keen to promote ecumenical work.
Nationally he was a member of the "Urban Bishops Group" which laid the ground for the 1985 report Faith in the City. He chaired a General Synod Commission on "Marriage and the Churches Task" whose findings seemed controversial at the time but prepared the way for new legislation. He was chairman of the Council of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel for several years.
His commitment to the outreach of the Church never faded but he saw it very much in sharing and collaborative terms. He retired to Sheffield in 1984 and was very active as an assistant bishop, chairing committees, teaching theological students, but above all engaging in his lifetime passion - music. He sang in several choirs and played the organ in many churches.
It might also be said of Kenneth Skelton, as of George Bell (once described as "this silent bell"), that the episcopal gift which he lacked was a public personality. He became disillusioned by the failure of the recent episcopate to speak out more clearly on moral and social issues. For him justice was more important than law and order. When he left Rhodesia, "Linkman" on the diocesan magazine The Link recorded:
Personally one of the most charming of men, a devoted Christian, an accomplished musician and a churchman of great distinction, he will on his departure leave the Church in Rhodesia the poorer. In attacking what he saw as lapses of Christian standards he has hit hard and never weighed considerations like popularity or expediency . . . but personal popularity has never been the necessary hallmark of the practising Christian.
Kenneth Skelton was, truly, an inspiring man to work with.
One story, in particular, sticks in my mind as showing the nature of the man. I was working in Botswana and, visiting him on a trip to Bulawayo, I found him in some distress. He had, the previous day, been slated by a "Smith" MP in the Rhodesian Parliament, who asked who would rid the country of this turbulent priest. From the impression the press often gave of Kenneth, one would have supposed that he would revel in the notoriety Red Skelton (as he was sometimes called by his enemies, after the jazzman) rejoicing that he had made his mark. Not a bit of it. He was deeply upset because people like the MP could not understand what he was saying, and so were sightless in a blind alley.
However much we might be in agony over the state of Zimbabwe now, the situation would be very different if Smith and Co had not been so foolish. Kenneth was humble, yet fervent, and did not seek the limelight, but saw the truth.
That his diocese of Matabeleland covered all Botswana, as well, is often forgotten, and it must be said that the Anglican Church in Botswana was a tiny, though very scattered, entity and on his visits there he was a much more relaxed person. When I asked him, on my appointment, where the parish boundaries were, he roared with laughter, and said, "As far as you like."
He was an unfailingly wise counsellor, with deep insight into the nuances of the relationship between foreign priest and local people, and of the whole questionable nature and vibrant theology of "missionary" work. One of the very good things was that, because of distance, when he visited he had to stay for a couple of days, so coming to know his clergy and people well. For my children he was the model of a bishop, and when I returned to the Church of England they found it bewildering that bishops were people who flipped in and out, and whom they only knew formally.
Rev Ben HopkinsonReuse content