Obituary: Sir Ronald Harris

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The Independent Online
Ronald Montague Joseph Harris, civil servant: born 6 May 1913; Private Secretary to Secretary of the Cabinet 1939-43; MVO 1943, KCVO 1960; Second Crown Estate Commissioner 1955-60; CB 1956; Third Secretary, HM Treasury 1960-64; Secretary to Church Commissioners 1964-68; First Church Estates Commissioner 1969-82; married 1939 Julia Wharton (died 1955; one son, three daughters), 1957 Marjorie Tryon (died 1986); died 22 January 1995.

Ronald Harris had two very different careers, in both of which he achieved distinction, although it was the second which gave him the deeper satisfaction. The first was as a distinguished civil servant, the second in the service of the Church Estates Commission.

After an education at Harrow and Trinity College, Oxford, Harris entered the Civil Service and was appointed to the India Office and Burma Office, then one of the most politically fraught areas of government. In 1939, however, he was selected to be Private Secretary to the Secretary of the Cabinet, then Sir Edward Bridges, a post he held until 1943 in some of the most intensive and demanding years of the Second World War. Thereafter he returned to his parent department, at the start of an exceptionally varied Whitehall service.

In the 20 years from 1944 to 1964 he became his Minister's Principal Private Secretary, enjoyed a year's education at the Imperial Defence College, undertook two tours of duty both at the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, and from 1955 to 1960 was Second Crown Estate Commissioner, an experience which turned out to be directly relevant to his later responsibility for the landed property of the Church.

In 1964 Harris was persuaded to move from the service of the State to that of the Church. For some four years he was Secretary to the Church Commissioners and in 1969 succeeded Lord Silsoe in the key appointment of First Church Estates Commissioner, serving in that capacity until 1982.

The administration of the Commissioners' office at Millbank was not in itself an unduly heavy burden for a man of Harris's ability and experience. His tenure at Millbank was however marked in two principal ways. First, his financial control was strict and efficient, but not short-sighted. Significant improvements were achieved in both the stipends and the pensions of the clergy. From 1978 to 1982 he was, additionally, Chairman of the Church's Central Board of Finance. There can be no doubt that, in retirement, Harris was grieved that his tight, but productive, control was not in all respects continued.

The second important feature of his time at Millbank was the trouble he took over the Commissioners' relationship with the General Synod. While standing firm over those matters in which the Commissioners exercised an independent responsibility, he took endless trouble over his contributions to the Synod's debates and was ever ready to explain any matter which excited interest. Together with Dame Betty Ridley, the Third Commissioner, he inaugurated an era of understanding and respect for Millbank's work.

In a busy life Ronald Harris found room for many outside activities including the Chairmanship of Benenden School Council and the Friends of the Yehudi Menuhin School which was almost literally on his doorstep. Sadly, for a man to whom family life meant much, he was twice a widower. More happily both his children and his stepchildren formed a close family unit.