26 March 1927 to 24 July 2018
John was a loving, humble, prayerful man who exercised a very fruitful ministry with the support of his wife, Margaret.
This tribute was given by John’s son, Pete, at his funeral on 13 August 2018 at St James, Didsbury.
On Tuesday, 24 July at around 11pm, on the eve of the feast of St James the Apostle, Rev Canon John Thomas Arthur Gunstone breathed his last and was gathered to his heavenly father after a period of declining health. He was 91 and is survived by his wife, Margaret, and his son, Peter, who were with him along with some close friends.
John was born in the East Midlands and received a sense of calling to the priesthood at an early age, whilst acting as a server in his local church. He recalled an occasion when he and the priests were in the sanctuary, and he thought ‘I’m like one of them’. After reading History at Durham and completing National Service as an arts correspondent for the Forces Broadcasting Service, he was prepared for ordination by the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield.
Whilst serving his title in a range of East London parishes he moved in academic and liturgical circles and was commissioned to write a book for the Archbishop of Canterbury. This aspect of his vocation became significantly fruitful through its fusion with his experience of being ‘baptised in the Spirit’. This seemingly unusual experience for a High Churchman led to a more generous understanding of the ‘body of Christ’, and his ability to appreciate and enter into a wide range of Christian traditions became characteristic of his conviction and ministry. He went on to become an early student of Anglican Charismatics and a popular writer and speaker on the renewal movement.
After a fruitful parish ministry in East London, he was founding chaplain of the Barnabas Fellowship at Whatcombe House, Dorset, a community who provided hospitality and a space for others to experience charismatic renewal. Following a relatively late marriage at the age of 47, he moved to Manchester where he was County Ecumenical Officer until his retirement. This post was a natural expression of his generous orthodoxy and enabled him to draw together diverse aspects of his ministry, especially healing and reconciliation, as he sought to support church leaders and draw together Christians of different traditions. In retirement, he continued to be in demand as a speaker and writer on a local and national level and was a much-cherished and respected member of his parish church.
Those who were with him at his final breath also experienced a sense of his being born into the resurrection life. At one point, he was seen to hold out his arms in front of him, like a child reaching for its mother. And so, we join with him in proclaiming: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” 1 Peter 1:3-4a (NIV)
The following tribute was given at the funeral by Rt Rev Chris Edmondson.
First of all, can I say thank you to Margaret and Pete, for the privilege of giving this tribute to John, which will be both personal, but also in the few minutes I have, a way of acknowledging the immense contribution he has made to the church in this nation and beyond, over his long and well-lived life.
I first met John one Sunday in the early 1970s when he was covering an interregnum for the parish church of Blandford Forum in Dorset, and I was a young ordinand playing the organ that day. Something about his ‘attractive holiness’ as a person, as well as the way he presided and preached at the Eucharist, had a deep impact on me that day. Our paths were to cross many times in succeeding years, including when I helped lead worship, and John was a speaker, at Anglican Renewal Ministries conferences in the early 1980’s. Anyway… I’m getting ahead of myself…
John was born and grew up in the East Midlands, his initial sense of call to the priesthood coming whilst acting as a server in his local church. After reading history at Durham and completing two years of National Service as an arts correspondent for the Forces Broadcasting Service, he then trained for the priesthood at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield. Following ordination in 1952, John served his curacies in Walthamstow and Forest Gate, after which he was, for thirteen years, Vicar of St.Augustine’s, Rush Green also in the Diocese of Chelmsford. In addition to his parish responsibilities, this early period in his ministry was also characterised by his being a ‘priest-scholar’, involved in the study and development of liturgy, especially through the Alcuin Club and other similar networks. John was to become a prolific author, and the first of his books ‘Liturgy and Penance’ was published in 1966, followed by ‘The Feast of Pentecost’ ‘Christmas and Epiphany’ and his commentary on the new lectionary.
It was also during those years, when the charismatic renewal was beginning to make an impact on many clergy and parishes in the Church of England, that John himself came into a fresh experience of the the Holy Spirit’s work in his own life. This would shape so much of what was to come in his ministry, and he later wrote about its significance in ‘Greater things than these : a personal account of the charismatic movement’, which was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 1974 Lent book.
In 1971, John made a major move both in terms of geography and context for ministry, becoming founding chaplain of the Barnabas Fellowship at Whatcombe House, Dorset, and at the same time teaching liturgy one day a week at Salisbury and Wells Theological College. At Whatcombe, he, along with Reg and Lucia East and their three children, who had also lived ministered in Essex and were to become life-long friends, established a small community providing space and hospitality for people to receive teaching and ministry on the gifts and empowering of the Holy Spirit. Many guests testified to life-changing, spiritually renewing and healing experiences, as a result of a visit there. In many ways this was a fulfilment of a word of prophecy given to the community in early 1972: ‘I will touch everyone who comes to this house’.
The story of those years is told in ‘The beginnings at Whatcombe’, a copy of which we still have and treasure, not least because it was signed by John and also because it was a helpful resource to Susan and me as we embarked on our first experience of community living in 1976. Some of you might be interested later to look at the picture on the back and see who you can recognise! Lovely that some members of Reg and Lucia’s family as well as Margi Walker who left Scargill House to become the cook at Whatcombe, and is now back working at Scargill House are here today.
One person who, you might say, got more than she bargained for when going to Whatcombe as a guest, was a certain lady called Margaret Wood, who, in 1974 became John’s wife! They were married at the church in Rush Green, where John had been the vicar. The following year they moved to Manchester where John served for many years as County Ecumenical Officer until his retirement, 26 years ago. Peter was born here in 1977, and as I feel sure most of you know is married to Kirsten, and currently training for ordination in Durham. Another way our paths have crossed over the years with the Gunstone family came in 2005 when as Warden of Lee Abbey in Devon, I was delighted to appoint Peter as our Worship and Music Director!
In terms of John’s influence on Pete, when I met with him and Margaret a couple of weeks ago, I was deeply moved when Pete spoke of him not only as his biological father, but his father in the Lord, to which he added ‘more than anyone else, my parents have both modelled God’s unconditional love, endlessly going the extra mile and being lovingly tolerant of my quirks!’ Isn’t that beautiful.
This post here in Manchester, proved to be a natural expression and development of John’s ‘generous orthodoxy’, enabling him to build on his earlier and varied experiences in ministry,- not least in the areas of healing and reconciliation. Through his winsome personality, teaching skills and immense spiritual wisdom, he gained the confidence of church leaders from many different backgrounds and traditions, supporting them in working together for the sake of the Gospel.
It was during his years as Ecumenical Officer, that John proved to be a great gift to me and the church of which I was vicar. In 1983 invited him to be the speaker at our church weekend. I was a vicar in Halifax at the time, and we’d been going through quite a rocky period as a church, and as a young vicar my own confidence had been quite knocked. I will always remember my first conversation with John when he arrived at our Vicarage for lunch on the Friday, ahead of things starting in the evening. I asked how his morning had been prior to his journey over the Pennines, expecting him in my slightly intense state at the time, to say he’d been praying through and finishing preparing his talks. Instead, with that lovely and slightly lopsided smile of his he said : ‘oh, I painted the kitchen ceiling!’ That’s John isn’t it : a wonderful mixture of deep spirituality, and down to earth warmth and humanity. The weekend he led proved to be a turning point for us as a church in more ways than I have time to tell you now.
Following his retirement in 1992, John continued to be in demand as a speaker at church weekends and conferences, (he and Margaret led a wonderful weekend for our healing team in 1997, when I was Vicar of St.Peter’s Shipley), and his presence and ministry was always greatly valued at this, his and Margaret’s home parish, St.James with Emmanuel
John continued to write during these so called retirement years , including his immense contribution to the ‘Time to Heal’ report commissioned by the General Synod in the late 1990s, and at the age of 82 in 2009, his weighty ‘Lift high the cross: the high noon of the Anglo-Catholic Movement, 1919-1950’ was published. And having become Bishop of Bolton in 2008, once again our paths were to cross, through us being in the same Diocese.
John was a big man in every sense : physically tall, with a generous heart, a big smile, and a wonderfully dry sense of humour. He was also such a real person, aware of his own limitations, flawed like rest of us, and prepared to be vulnerable. We’re aware too that he has had to cope recently with a different kind of vulnerability, as a result of his health struggles over the last weeks and months, which have been a difficult time for him and Margaret. That said, I know they they have hugely appreciated the practical care and prayerful support received during this time.
As I close, it’s my belief through his writing and speaking, as well as through countless quiet and unseen ways, John has been an extraordinarily rich gift to many individuals- of whom I am one- as well as to the church in this nation for many decades. His love and legacy will undoubtedly live on, and our love and prayers go out especially to Margaret and Peter who of course grieve, but with firm hope in the risen Lord who John loved and served both faithfully and adventurously for so many years.
The following address was given at the funeral by Rev Canon David Hughes.
Jesus the Living Hope! 1 Peter 1 vv. 3-9
Claire and I have come to know and deeply love John and Margaret over the last twenty-eight years. We have treasured a deepening friendship and valued their prayer support and encouragement in our lives. John has been a Father in God to us and we knew that we could always turn to Him and Margaret for wise counsel and prayer.
When I was appointed as Team Rector of St James and Emmanuel, Didsbury I received a lovely letter from John welcoming us to Didsbury. He wrote,
“There are many spiritually mature Christians in leadership positions in Emmanuel and St James, and they are well aware of what it means to try and serve the Lord Jesus as his people in our community. I count it a special privilege to be one of their number, with Margaret and Pete , and now it will be even more special with you and your family moving in, too.”
John closed his letter with a PS. “There’s rough justice or divine humour in that Wakefield hath taken away from Manchester, but Wakefield is now giving to Manchester another DMH!”
Since my retirement we have visited John and Margaret regularly and our times together have involved a lot of laughter as Margaret regaled us with hilarious stories if incidents in their lives. John’s dry sense of humour was evident on their engagement when Margaret asked him, “John, you are an Anglo-Catholic and I am a Baptist, will that be a problem?” John replied, “Don’t worry Margaret the World Council of Churches has to start somewhere!”
When John asked me to give an address at his funeral I asked him what passage of Scripture he would like to choose and he replied without hesitation 1 Peter 1 vv 3-9, and spoke of the “living hope that came through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.”
The two most significant days in a Christian’s life are the day you were born and the day you were born from above. The one led to a physical existence and a sphere of relationships, while the other led to a new life, new relationships and a life of blessing God for a living hope which colours everything we face in life, especially the times of pain and struggle.
We measure our lives by length, breadth and height.
- Length – John was born on the 26th March 1927 and was blessed with a long life but he was vulnerable to chest infections. It was during some periods when he was off school with bronchitis that he began writing stories in an exercise book. A budding author in the making!
- Breadth – John was nurtured in the Anglo Catholic wing of the church but his experience of God’s Spirit opened his eyes to see veins of gold in the whole church. This made him an insightful author and a very effective Ecumenical Officer in the Manchester Diocese.
- Height – we all would like to achieve something in our lives; to be a good husband or wife, a good mother or father, a successful teacher, farmer, business person, a good pastor, or a good bishop. John was a humble prayerful man who exercised a very fruitful ministry over a lifetime through his priesthood, his writing, teaching, prayer and with the support of Margaret.
Length, breadth and height are a means of measurement but if our hopes are placed wholly in these things we will all end up with disappointed hopes for none of us will fulfil all our hopes and dreams. And even if we did, death would bring an end to them.
But the second most significant day in the life of a believer is the day you were born from above, or born again, for then God gave you a new relationship with him and a new life that is crowned with hope. This “living hope” centres on a grave in Palestine that is for ever empty. I love to think of the resurrection of Jesus as the first bit of the old creation that God has made new. Jesus is the first human being ever to rise from death, never to die again. His resurrection guarantees that all who trust in him will too rise from death and share his life.
Peter describes this living hope of heaven as “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading. It is both kept in heaven for you and you will be kept for it, even though en route you may go through many trials and touch weakness.” It is a great comfort to know that nothing can rob you of your salvation because Jesus who is alive from the dead is protecting and guarding you. Our living hope in the present is certain because of the resurrection of Jesus in the past. Embracing this Living Hope changes our attitude to trials and testing times for like gold our faith is purified and strengthened by going through the assayers fire. We have a special bond of love and compassion with those who have also gone through difficult times. Peter says the outcome of faith, hope and love is the ‘Salvation of our souls.’
We have a lovely word in the English language – SALVAGE which comes from the same root as salvation. Imagine a forest fire which destroyed many trees. When the fire was put out a craftsman who worked with wood might go looking for wood that he could salvage and use to make something beautiful or useful. When he carried the wood home he would remove the charred wood and begin to work with the good wood that was left to make a piece of furniture or an object of beauty. A gifted craftsman would even be able to incorporate the wound in the finished article.
God is like that with us. It is as if our lives have been damaged by fire. He does not say, “You are spoiled and it’s not worth bothering with you any more… rather he says,
“I’m going to take you and I’m going to work in your life to deal with what is charred and damaged… I’m going to give you a living hope… I’m going to purify and strengthen your faith through testing and I will give you a new love for Jesus my Son your Saviour.”
This is what the Lord has been engaged in and through John’s life and now his work will be perfected as John sees Christ face to face on the resurrection morning when he will be transformed into Christ’s likeness. John in his first letter says, “when he is revealed, we will be like him for we shall see him as he is.” I think that means that John will be as glorious a being as Jesus is and yet become most fully himself.
Although we mourn John’s parting from us, and Margaret and Peter, family and friends will need to give time and attention to the journey of grieving and readjustment, they can draw strength and comfort as they hold on to this living hope that Peter speaks of.
Let me conclude with a letter that I read to John three days before he died. The Canadian poet David Whyte fantasises about his mother dying and receiving a letter from heaven after her death.
[My mother] wrote me a letter after her death and I remember a kind of happy light falling on the envelope as I sat by the rose tree on an old bench in the backyard. So surprised to receive it, wondering what she would say. Looking up before I could open it and laughing to myself in silent expectation.
It is time for me to leave you.
The words you are used to hearing are no longer mine to give. You can only hear those words of motherly affection now from your own mouth and only for those who stand motherless before you.
As for me I must forsake adulthood and be bound gladly to a new childhood. You must understand that this apprenticeship demands of me elemental innocence and that I must let go of everything that is in my hands.
I know you are a generous soul well able to let me go.
You will in the end be happy to know that God was true and that after so many years of loving you all so long, I now find myself in a wide infinite mercy of being, where I am being mothered myself.”
P.S. All of your intuitions were true.
John commented on the last few words of the poem, “where I am being mothered myself.”
May the presence and protection of the Almighty Triune God surround you,
and may you know His Promise
“I am your Living Hope.”