The Very Rev Michael Mayne

Dean Emeritus of Westminster who would have been an actor if he had not been a priest


Michael Clement Otway Mayne, priest: born 10 September 1929; ordained deacon 1957, priest 1958; Domestic Chaplain to the Bishop of Southwark 1959-65; Vicar of Norton 1965-72; Head of Religious Programmes, BBC Radio 1972-79; Vicar, Great St Mary's, Cambridge 1979-86; Dean of Westminster 1986-96 (Emeritus); Chairman, London Ecumenical Aids Forum 1992-96; KCVO 1996; married 1965 Alison McKie (one son, one daughter); died Salisbury, Wiltshire 22 October 2006.

When Michael Mayne succeeded Edward Carpenter as Dean of Westminster in 1986 he came to a national institution to which his courageous and unconventional predecessor had given a high and sometimes controversial public profile, welcoming into it events ranging from the annual Commonwealth Observance attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, in which representatives of other religions took prominent parts, to a silent prayer vigil after the Sabra and Chatila massacre in 1982 attended by leaders of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.

None of this wider ecumenical concern was to be repudiated or discontinued; but the new Dean saw it as his task to consolidate the Christian foundation of Westminster Abbey's work and witness, strengthening the life of prayer by which it must be nourished and making more prominent the sacramental worship which is at the heart of the Catholic Anglican tradition. Though he brought a rich array of other gifts to the task, the heart of his preparation and of his ministry was the basic commitment, assumed at his ordination as priest of the Church of England, to maintain and promote dignified and relevant public worship supported by a sustained and comprehensive pastoral ministry.

Mayne was born in 1929. His childhood was deeply marked by the suicide of his father, a Northamptonshire country priest, and by the material difficulties which ensued; but, enabled by clerical charities to become a pupil at King's School, Canterbury, under its redoubtable headmaster, Canon John Shirley, he was able to develop the acting talent which became one of the motivating impulses of his life, taking part in school dramatic performances and even staying on an extra year in order to be able to take the title role in Hamlet.

Indeed acting seemed likely to be his chosen profession when, during his time at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, he jeopardised his chances of a good degree by performing on Cambridge stages. But an emphatic letter from his former headmaster, assuring him that his true vocation was not the stage, but the priesthood, prevailed over this enthusiasm; he read Theology after English in the tripos, and after doing his National Service in the RAF proceeded straight to Cuddesdon Theological College, Oxford.

After two years as a curate in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, he was in 1959 given an opportunity to experience a wider church scene as domestic chaplain to Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark. This was not only an opportunity to engage with and learn from one of the most controversial (and, it might be said, theatrical) Church of England bishops of the time; it involved him in the excitement and inevitable tensions of a diocese which was at the forefront of liturgical and pastoral innovation - an atmosphere still detectable today, and well captured by David Hare's 1990 play Racing Demon. After six years in this post, during which he met and married Alison McKie, who became from that moment a crucial support to his ministry, there followed seven years as vicar of the parish of Norton in the diocese of St Albans.

By now his gifts and abilities had become sufficiently widely known for him to be appointed Head of Religious Programmes (Radio) at the BBC in 1972. Here his literary and dramatic gifts began to flower, and he brought to religious broadcasting, if not much in the way of innovation or combative empire-building, yet a great deal in terms of stylistic enrichment and quality. He was (as a colleague said) an artist rather than an administrator, a performer rather than an initiator; but he enjoyed very wide respect in his department and outside, with a wit and a humanity which endeared him (despite an occasional grandeur of manner) to his many friends.

Similar opportunities continued to be offered in his next appointment, that of Vicar of the University Church of Great St Mary's at Cambridge from 1979. But here, alongside his enthusiasm for poetry and the theatre, he is remembered for his outstanding preaching gifts and for a pastoral ministry that was deep, prayerful and compassionate: his modest publication Prayers for Pastoral Occasions (1982) was one of its fruits. He also earned the respect of academic colleagues (by no means to be taken for granted), and did much to bring university chaplains together to confront the pastoral problems they shared.

It was at this point that his career was interrupted by an attack of ME (chronic fatigue syndrome), a still mysterious disease of which one of the most distressing features is the uncertainty, often verging on disbelief, with which it is treated by the medical profession. In his case it involved a whole year's leave of absence, and the unpredictability of recovery inevitably delayed his response to the invitation to become Dean of Westminster in 1986. But by July of that year he was deemed well enough to take up the appointment, just in time to preside over the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of York (which had been meticulously prepared by the Sub-Dean, Bishop Edward Knapp-Fisher).

On arrival he let it be known that he would do the job for 10 years, a statement that may have been prompted by his sense of physical frailty at the time, but which came to haunt him when he felt impelled to keep his word and retire 10 years later, though by then in apparently robust health and still entitled to continue for three more years.

At the abbey there was much to be learnt, and time was needed to learn it. For some time after his installation colleagues at meetings of Chapter or committees would be startled to be given his own strongly expressed opinion before the discussion had even begun, thereby inhibiting the expression of any other views. But his underlying strategy, which he rapidly adapted to the conciliar style of the Chapter, remained firm. To give reality to a concept he had inherited, that of the "Abbey Family", he sought to make every employee and every voluntary helper feel needed as part of a caring institution.

Within the closer team of his immediate colleagues, he enabled all to pursue their own particular gifts and interests while giving himself space for his own. His conviction about literature and the arts, as he came to express it at the end of his life, was that they were there to "redress the balance" against the evil and suffering in the world.

It was perhaps this sense of a balance to be redressed, as well as his ready capacity for self-deprecating humour, that enabled him to hold together the two guiding passions of his life, acting and the priestly ministry, and which led to much enrichment of the abbey's life.

His love of poetry can be seen in no less than seven memorials to poets that were dedicated in his time in Poets' Corner (including two, Oscar Wilde and A.E. Housman, to whom a previous generation would have sternly refused the honour on moral grounds); and he instituted a greatly appreciated series of poetry evenings in the Jerusalem Chamber, featuring well-known actors and literary figures, which raised many thousands of pounds for Aids sufferers, a cause he strongly espoused and worked for.

Meanwhile he pursued other public issues outside the abbey. He was involved in the human rights movement Charter 87, he hosted meetings of Central Line (a London clergy support group), he showed his concern for refugees through lobbying Members of Parliament, and even once exercised his traditional right to sit on the steps of the Woolsack during a debate in the House of Lords.

The two achievements of his deanship for which he would have most wished to be remembered were, first, making the principal Sunday service an "Abbey Eucharist" instead of Matins (which was now to precede it, but sung at an earlier hour), so giving expression to his conviction of the primacy of the sacramental life of any great church; and secondly, the creation of a monument to the Innocent Victims of Oppression, Violence and War outside the west door of the abbey, a counterpart to the tomb of the Unknown Warrior. This was unveiled by the Queen in 1996 amid a poignant group of wounded innocent sufferers. He was appointed KCVO on his retirement.

While at Westminster Abbey he found time to write three books, the first of which, A Year Lost and Found (1987), was a meditation on his experience of ME and secured him a large readership. There followed This Sunrise of Wonder (1995) and Pray, Love, Remember (1999), in a similar style, and richly furnished with quotations and allusions from his wide reading of literature and drama.

Then, in retirement (along with the promotion of causes he had at heart, particularly the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture), he wrote Learning to Dance (2001), a personal review of his time at the abbey, and finally The Enduring Melody (2006), an astonishingly frank and compelling account of his struggle with cancer of the jaw, seeking always to integrate the excruciating pain and discomfort of his condition with the beliefs which had sustained his life, and conveying undimmed his sense of the beauty of creation.

That he lived to see the publication of this with a book launch in Salisbury in September, and also to baptise the fourth of his grandchildren in July of this year, was a fulfilment of profound longings and a testimony to his courage and determination in the last phases of a painful illness. He died at home, surrounded by a family that meant everything to him.

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