Obituary: The Right Rev Gerald Ellison
Tuesday 20 October 1992
HEARING from 10 Downing Street that I was to work in London as Dean, I naturally rang the Bishop, writes the Very Rev Alan Webster. Gerald Ellison's consistent courtesy and frank friendliness were evident in the reply: 'Oh, I had no idea you were to be appointed . . . Would you and your wife like to come to stay with us? Jane would be so pleased.' Working together for three years up to his retirement in 1981, I could always rely, as could other London clergy, on his wisdom and be sure that Jane would be herself with her own views and endlessly hospitable.
Gerald Ellison devoted himself to holding the Church of England together. His skill as an oarsman and time in the Navy trained him not to rock the boat. He was so confident in his own powers of leadership that he could afford to make daring appointments - Donald Reeves to St James's, Piccadilly; Malcolm Johnson to St Botolph's, Aldgate; Gonville Ffrench- Beytagh to St Vedast; and Victor Stock as University Chaplain in Gordon Square. He searched for individuals committed to the community rather than to 'churchy' trivia.
His area bishops included three who became diocesans, all of whom stood outside church party lines - Jim Thompson of Stepney, Hewlett Thompson of Willesden, and Bill Westwood of Edmonton. All three could do their own thing and be critical of Gerald but still work together. He cherished the Area System to devolve episcopal guidance and it has largely stood the test of time.
Ellison (one of the last bishops to call clergy by their surnames) was a power in the House of Lords, where he was uniquely respected. He seemed to be recapitulating his mentor Cyril Garbett, the Archbishop of York, whom lay people felt they could trust. The simpler peers, often afraid that bishops were either too clever or too devout, responded to him, appreciating his links with Windsor, the public schools and the law. He gave himself to listening to lay opinion and his real courage made a strong appeal. He led a protest march against homelessness. He was sufficiently uninhibited by the educational establishment to ring up a university chaplain and begin 'Your Ordinary is speaking.'
He was honest, direct and occasionally surprisingly open: 'The reason why X will receive no preferment is that he is incompetent and lazy.' He chaired a commission on the ordination of women (as long ago as 1963-66) and became a firm supporter for women in priests' orders. The younger clergy wished he could grasp the speed of change in London itself but he was already 63 when he was appointed. He could accept defeat with a good grace, as when Canon John Collins, with benign Machiavellianism, outed Wellington's funeral car from St Paul's and repositioned it at Stratfield Saye.
In his retirement until the onset of his long illness he cared greatly about retired clergy, writing individual letters and remembering them in prayer. They valued his wisdom and his occasional old- fashioned ways were for laughter rather than for criticism. Jane's devotion and invariably unostentatious friendliness have long been treasured in London.
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