At the funeral last month of the Rt Rev John Taylor, former Bishop of Glasgow & Galloway, the eulogy was written by the Rt Rev Richard Holloway, former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, but delivered by the Rev Drew Sheridan because Bishop Holloway could not be present. Bishop Holloway kindly gave his permission for the eulogy to be reproduced, and it appears below.
There’s a phrase from the Scottish cultural lexicon that perfectly fits John Taylor and his experience of life: it is ‘lad o’ pairts’, meaning ‘a youth, particularly one from a humble background, who is considered talented or promising’.
John’s background was certainly humble, but it was also loving and supportive. When his birth was registered in Aberchirder in May 1932, no male parent was entered in the register, and John never found out who his father was; but his mother, who was the cook at Duff House, the seat of the local laird, along with her parents, more than made up for the lack. And Tommy Hopkins, Rector of St Marnan’s Aberchirder, kept a fatherly eye on him as well, carefully guiding an emerging vocation to the priesthood. It is impossible to be certain about these things, but I wonder if the lack of a father in John’s life was what prompted him to be such a good father, not only to his own children, but to his curates and parishioners, many of whom have borne witness to his fatherly care of them – especially when they encountered trouble and sorrow in their lives. One of his former curates told me recently that John was the father to him that his own father was unable to be, and many others in his long ministry would make the same claim.
John Taylor, this fatherless boy, this ‘lad o’ pairts’, was a good student at Banff Academy, a ten-mile bus trip from Aberchirder, up there on Scotland’s high right shoulder, sticking out into the North Sea. But he was also an outstanding athlete. School football champion for three years, and a good all-rounder in every other sport, his career was interrupted by a bout of TB that kept him in hospital for months and disqualified him from the National Service that was then compulsory for all 18-year-old males.
As well as an accomplished athlete, John was a talented artist and a gifted water colourist, so it was no surprise that, after doing a general degree at Aberdeen University, he seriously considered training to be an architect; but he finally decided on the priesthood; so, after two years at Edinburgh Theological College, he was ordained to a curacy at St Margaret’s Gallowgate Aberdeen. It was there he met and fell in love with Edna, a member of the congregation, who was then Secretary to the Editor of the Aberdeen Press and Journal, and they married in 1959.
I could continue this address by listing the parishes John served in as rector, the nine curates he lovingly and effectively trained in the arts of ministry, before his career culminated in his consecration as Bishop of Glasgow in 1996, as if Christian ministry were a career, and becoming a bishop a professional achievement.
In the Scottish Episcopal tradition, bishops are pastors, not rulers; shepherds, not prelates. And that was the key to John’s ministry. He cared for his flocks, not as dumb beasts who needed to be driven and scolded, but as fellow-Christians struggling to follow Christ’s path of love and service. He did this by careful and eloquent preaching of sermons whose very brevity was part of their punch and effectiveness. And he got alongside his parishioners in all their human needs, because he himself was in touch with his own frailties. His was what might best be described as a ‘companionate ministry’. Clergy are often tempted to exceptionalism; the delusion of difference, apartness. Not John Taylor. It was his humanity that was his best pastoral asset, and he maintained it when he became a bishop, a pastor to the pastors, which is all a bishop is.
And it was a humanity that was not without its own foibles and eccentricities. He was an impatient driver. He loathed church meetings and committees. And, for some reason, he was irritated by labels on clothing, and would hack them off ferociously after buying a new garment. In his hatred of labels, I am tempted to find a metaphor for his indifference to the parties that often bring strife and division to the life of the Church – and I think it works.
He wasn’t a party man. He was a main-line Scottish Episcopalian of the original Aberdeen variety. True, he liked a whiff of incense now and then, but his northern sensibility prevented him wandering too far into the more exotic regions of Anglo-Catholicism and its famous resistance to the new. John was measured and cautious in his attitude to change, but it was that very steadiness that helped the Scottish Episcopal Church manage its attitude to women and the gay community without serious disruption, and be the prophetic community it has recently become.
Looking back at a life of such dedicated and loving service, it is painful to reflect on the suffering that afflicted John’s last years, and the sorrows that suffused them. Nine years ago, his grand-daughter Claire, aged 17, died of undiagnosed diabetes; and less than a year later his daughter Alison, a gifted and compassionate scientist, died of ovarian cancer. Added to these sorrows was Edna’s increasing dementia and the prostate cancer that was riddling his own body, circumstances that led to them being taken into residential care, a sorrowful conclusion to a life of such service and accomplishment.
This accumulation of tragedies rocked his hold on the faith he had given his life to. But thanks to the ministry of former curates, whom he had nursed through similar crises, and the pastoral visits of Bishop Bruce Cameron, he died blessed by and finally at peace with the Church he had served so devotedly.
So, fare forward, beloved old friend.
The strife is o’er, the battle won.
Rest in peace. Amen