Obituary: The Most Rev Robert Selby Taylor

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Robert Selby Taylor, priest: born 1 March 1909; ordained deacon 1932, priest 1933; Bishop of Northern Rhodesia 1941-51; Bishop of Pretoria 1951-59; Bishop of Grahamstown 1959-64; Archbishop of Cape Town 1964-74 (Emeritus 1987-95); Bishop of Central Zambia 1979-84; CBE 1983; died Cape Town 23 April 1995.

Robert Selby Taylor had the unusual record of serving as a bishop for more than 50 years.

From 1964 to 1974 he was Archbishop of Cape Town, and in that period guided the Church of the Province of South Africa with courage and a quiet determination. His style was not spectacular. He believed that if the Church were to offer a continuous and effective witness under the nationalist regime, an unobtrusive, but nevertheless firm influence was likely to achieve more in combating injustice and righting wrongs than a strident voice and the courting of publicity overseas.

There was little in Selby Taylor's family background that would make him seem predestined to serve in the Church or work abroad. The eldest of five children, he was born in County Durham in 1909. His father had interests in the mining and brewing industries, and his mother was the daughter of the first Lord Joicey. The family later moved to Cumberland. Selby Taylor was educated at Harrow and then went up to St Catharine's College, Cambridge, with the possibility of ordination already in mind. To broaden his experience his parents arranged for him to visit New Zealand in the company of a rather more extrovert cousin.

The visit proved enjoyable, and in the outcome the cousin too offered himself for missionary work. After graduating Selby Taylor trained for the priesthood at Cuddesdon, a place for which he retained an abiding affection and often re-visited. There the foundations were laid for his strong, disciplined spiritual life - based on the daily offices, mental prayer and the Eucharist - that characterised his long ministry.

In 1932 he returned to the North and was ordained to a title at St Olave's, York, where he remained until 1935 when he went under the UMCA (the Universities Mission to Central Africa) to serve as a mission priest in Northern Rhodesia. In the same year he became a priest member of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd. Founded in Cambridge shortly before the First World War, by a group of college chaplains and dons, the Oratory is a fellowship of celibate priests and laymen living under a common rule. Selby Taylor had come under the influence of the founder members, among them Eric Milner- White and Wilfred Knox, as an undergraduate; and his adherence to the Oratory was of fundamental importance to him during the whole of his ministry.

He was consecrated Bishop of Northern Rhodesia in 1941, at the age of 32, probably the youngest bishop in the Anglican Communion. After 10 years he was translated to the diocese of Pretoria, and then in 1959 to Grahamstown, when he also became Dean of the Province.

He was a highly effective diocesan bishop, an excellent pastor who knew and loved his clergy and was very hard- working. His tall, upright bearing, his personal shyness combined with a somewhat patrician manner, could give the impression of being rather aloof. But this was misleading, as his clergy quickly realised. For in reality he was a person of great humility, with a strong spiritual discipline and very generous in unobtrusive ways.

Possessed of private means, he readily helped those in need, ensuring that hard-pressed priests could get a holiday without ever advertising where these resources came from. He was a sound judge of people and situations, making good appointments, and won the loyalty and respect of his clergy; though it was said they loved him more in Synod than at breakfast, where his lack of small talk could be disenabling.

Selby Taylor was a man of great physical energy; a keen walker and hiker, he enjoyed strenuous holidays. He was also an accomplished bridge player and an adventurous motorist, whose passengers needed to be possessed both of faith and courage. In congenial surroundings he could relax and unwind, and once his shyness was overcome his warmer friends found him a delightful host, who entertained graciously, and the most welcome of guests. He enjoyed particularly the society of his fellow bishops at Bishops Court. Discussing the difficulties of establishing a rapport with ordinands, they learnt that the Archbishop's practice was to give them lunch and take them out to climb the Table Mountain. Hearing him lament how few were coming forward, one bishop commented: ''If you treat them like that, can you be surprised?''

After he relinquished the archbishopric in 1974, Selby Taylor's first period of retirement proved to be brief. For he was petitioned to return to a part of his first diocese and serve as Bishop of Central Zambia. This he did for five years until 1984. In his last year he purchased Braehead House, in Kenilworth, outside Cape Town, which he established as a home for retired priests. Here a stream of people came to see and stay with him, enjoying his company and hospitality, and sharing with him in the daily Eucharist and offices in the chapel.

Last year cancer was diagnosed. He bore his illness with great courage, corresponding with his friends until the end. Though a very sick man he was particularly pleased to be able to greet once more the Queen during her recent visit. Characteristically, he had provided in his will an endowment so that Braehead could continue.

In 1964 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of St Catharine's, and he was appointed CBE in 1983. To mark the 50th anniversary of his consecration as bishop in 1991, Selby Taylor was deeply touched when the Archbishop of Canterbury conferred on him the Lambeth Doctorate of Divinity. A fitting tribute to one of the great and yet most humble servants of the Anglican Communion.