Obituary: The Right Rev Kenneth Sansbury
Friday 27 August 1993
KENNETH SANSBURY was one of the ablest of English priests. He served the Church in a series of posts in different parts of the world during and after the shock waves of the Second World War and the break-up of the Empire, working with energy and common sense to strengthen the relationships which enabled the Anglican communion to remain united despite major theological, political and social changes.
After a double First in Theology at Cambridge and a curacy in Dulwich, he went as a missionary to Japan, first in Numazu and next in Tokyo, where he was Professor of the Central Theological College serving a number of tiny churches as well as being chaplain to several British institutions, including the Embassy.
Sansbury's appreciation of Japanese culture remained with him all his life: he even looked a little Japanese thereafter. In his last days he was delighted in the news that a Japanese priest served weekly to welcome Japanese visitors in St Paul's and Westminster Abbey. He remained 'our beloved Sansbury' to many Japanese church leaders.
After Pearl Harbor he and his wife Etheldreda and their family were evacuated to Canada, where he enlisted as a chaplain in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Conscientious as ever, he was known as 'the chap with the English accent'. In 1943 he became Warden of Lincoln Theological College, transforming that institution in order to welcome an influx of married service ordinands. He appointed an able staff, including John Yates, afterwards Bishop of Gloucester, Basil Moss, afterwards Provost of Birmingham, and John Fenton, the distinguished New Testament teacher. They continued the tradition inherited from Michael Ramsey and Eric Abbott of radical theology and Catholic devotion but transformed what Sansbury described as 'this awful monastic existence' into a community in which those who had been serving in the Forces throughout the world felt welcome and appreciated for their abilities. Etheldreda, a scholar in her own right, was a warm-hearted intelligent friend to the servicemen and their wives. Sansbury gave excellent leadership, was quick at grasping the gist of an issue or a book and able to assess the characters of those whom he was training with sure judgement.
After seven years at Lincoln Sansbury accepted the more demanding task of Warden of St Augustine's, Canterbury, an institution founded by Joshua Watson in 1846 to train missionaries. It was now hoped it might become a central college for the Anglican communion. In practice clergy, often with their wives and families, came especially from Africa and India for varying periods for study, retraining and refreshment. Sansbury faced difficulties of staffing, finance, buildings, and drawing together the ultraconservative and those who wanted change, those who came from wealthy Western backgrounds and those whose home churches were extremely poor.
This taxed all his diplomatic powers but he did not shirk the difficulties which would beset formerly colonial churches when their countries became independent. In the comparative calm of Canterbury he tried to warn the future leaders for their heavy responsibilites. Many years later a former St Augustine's student, working as a senior church leader in Africa put the sad little sentence at the bottom of a Christmas card 'You were wiser than I', in token of tensions foreseen by Sansbury but not by the student.
In 1961 he was consecrated as the last expatriate Bishop of Singapore and Malaya. Sansbury, now 56, braved tedious travelling in the tropics and taught and preached with his customary skill and energy. Perhaps Archbishop Fisher, often ultra-cautious, would have been wiser to have chosen a young non-European for this very rapidly developing Asian diocese. A cathedral service in Singapore might use seven different languages. Sansbury felt keenly the ecclesiastical and political divisions imposed by history, European traders, colonial powers and missionaries. Etheldreda was always acute in grasping subtleties of relationships and poured herself out in intelligent concern and hospitality, but after five years they were both glad to return to England.
In 1956 he succeeded Dr Kenneth Slack as General Secretary of the British Council of Churches, one of the only Anglicans to hold that post. It was a difficult inheritance, for Slack was a popular national figure, well- known as an effective broadcaster. But Sansbury brought his own ecumenical experience at Evanston, New Delhi and Bossey at a time when hopes were high for reunion.
He was a loyal assistant of Archbishop Ramsey, went to Nigeria at his request as a mediator in the civil war - a dangerous flight - and supported the efforts to reconcile Anglicans and Methodists in England. He published first Unity, Peace and Concord (1967) and later Combating Racism (1975). His enthusiasm was endless but the introversion and traditionalism of some Anglican bishops and clergy, the false hopes raised by Vatican II and the slide into a more consumerist and secular society alienated him. After the failure of the reunion schemes he gallantly kept the British Council of Churches alive as a body campaigning for reunion and radical Christianity.
Sansbury retired to Norwich in 1973, where he was an honoured member of the staff of the cathedral. He cared for those who lived in the Close, was warm-hearted in his pastoral work, punctilious in his concern to listen to lay opinion. His instinct to respect and appreciate other people's points of view grew even stronger with the years. He and Etheldreda were part of a web of relationships and friends in the UK and abroad which was a source of joy to them and to their adopted city.
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