Obituary: The Right Rev Gerald Ellison
Tuesday 20 October 1992
GERALD ELLISON, Bishop of London from 1973 to 1981, was the archetypal Church of England diocesan of his generation, born to the purple, devoted to the establishment, a staunch defender not only of the faith but the status quo. Like all well-bred bishops, he appeared to be all things to all men (except when he fussed when Anglo-Catholics called him 'Father'), but beneath the smooth exterior, the modest mien and the rational outlook lay a deeply conservative nature, an inherent distrust of change and a firm conviction that any administrative reorganisation of the Church would somehow hamper the spread of its spiritual message.
Ellison's legacy - if such it was - to the Church of England was the successful campaign he waged, when Bishop of Chester, against a package of reforms enshrined in a report commissioned from the distinguished sociologist Leslie Paul. In the old Church Assembly, forerunner of the General Synod, Ellison contested, clause by clause, Paul's recommendations regarding the pay and deployment of the clergy, wide-ranging recommendations drawn up in the 1960s and seen by many as the Church's last chance to place resources and manpower where they would be needed in the second half of the 20th century. His own diocese at the time, with its 370 clergy spread over 299 parishes, was largely agricultural. He could not comprehend the needs of deprived and under-staffed inner-city areas, for to people like Gerald Ellison, brought up between the two world wars, the Church of England was still epitomised by the faithful country parson at daily prayer, and if in a redundant church, so what?
Ellison was born in 1910, the son of a chaplain in ordinary to the king. His earliest years were spent quite literally in the shadow of the throne, at St George's School at Windsor Castle. He moved on to Westminster and then to New College, Oxford, who made him an honorary fellow in 1974, and he trained for the ministry at Westcott House, Cambridge. He served what must have been an unexacting curacy at Sherborne Abbey, and immediately afterwards gained experience of episcopal life as domestic chaplain to the Bishop of Winchester.
For three years during the war Ellison was a chaplain with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and was mentioned in dispatches. Immediately on release he returned to the rarefied atmosphere of the episcopate, this time heading for Bishopsthorpe, as domestic chaplain to the Archbishop of York. He was inducted to his first parish, the fashionable St Mark's, Portsea, in 1946, and four years later, at the age of only 40, and with a mere half-dozen years experience of parochial work tucked under his cassock, he was consecrated Suffragan Bishop of Willesden.
Ellison had the kind of natural courtesy and reassuringly English good looks that endeared him to respectable London surburban parishes, and it was no surprise when only five years later he was sent to Chester. Some imagined he was destined at least for York. But in many respects, the bishopric of London requires even greater expertise in coaxing and calming wealthy patrons, livery companies and other City luminaries than either of the two archbishoprics, and in 1973, by now 63 and too old to hope for either York or Canterbury, Ellison returned to London as its diocesan.
Here, at the Cenotaph and wherever else the evenly modulated tones of a reliable adherent to tradition was in demand, Ellison conducted his episcopate in the sure and certain belief that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Things occasionally went wrong, however. He had rowed for his university, he was a steward of Henley Regatta, and one year he was invited to start the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. Alas, one of the eights slowly and gracefully sank.
Ellison always displayed the courage of his convictions, and once, presumably alert to what he saw as his responsibilities to the shipbuilding industry at Birkenhead, he went ahead, despite fierce criticism, with a service of blessing for a Polaris submarine; afterwards, he wrote four-page letters of explanation in his own hand to those who had cabled telegrams of protest.
In 1947 Ellison married Jane Gibbon, and they had a son and two daughters. On his translation to London he automatically became a member of the Privy Council, and he was appointed a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1981. Following his retirement, he spent a brief spell in the extra-provincial diocese of Bermuda as Vicar General. His hobbies included tapestry.
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