The Daily Telegraph
The Right Reverend Keith Sutton
Bishop of Lichfield whose pastoral sensitivity was informed by his years spent teaching in Africa
THE RIGHT REVEREND KEITH SUTTON, who has died aged 82, was Bishop of Lichfield from 19842003 and before that spent five years as suffragan Bishop of Woolwich in Southwark diocese. He was one of the Church of England’s most highly regarded leaders, combining considerable intellectual gifts with a warm, attractive personality.
Lichfield made heavy demands on his skill and stamina, since the diocese covers both Staffordshire and Shropshire and embraces a wide variety of parishes ranging from the heavily industrialised West Midlands to attractive country towns and villages on the Welsh borders. Moreover, the area systems in place, with three suffragan bishops and four archdeacons, required firm but consensual leadership to maintain the unity of the diocese and prevent it from degenerating into separate baronies. In this he was conspicuously successful.
Sutton’s earlier experience as a theological teacher in Uganda also equipped him well for dealing with the multi-ethnic issues that occupied a prominent place on the diocesan and community agenda during his time as bishop. The deep commitment to mission which had taken him to Africa also proved to be invaluable in the reorganisation of a diocese which, during his early years in office, rarely had fewer than 80 parishes vacant. As chairman of the General Synod’s Board for Mission and Unity, he proposed in 1989 that the Church of England should join the other major churches in a Decade of Evangelism – an enterprise that enjoyed only limited success.
Keith Norman Sutton was born on June 23 1934 in Balham, South London. His father, a textile worker, took the family to Pirbright, in Surrey, to avoid the wartime bombing, where they lived in comparative safety. The future bishop’s younger brother and his twin sisters died, however, of a blood disorder. The way in which his parents coped with bereavement had a profound effect on him.
In 1946 the family returned to London and young Keith was uprooted from Woking Grammar School and given a place at Battersea Grammar School. While in the Sixth Form there he broke the schoolboy record for 100 metres in a contest at the White City stadium. About the same time he had an evangelical conversion experience prompted by the influence of a family friend who had spent some time as a missionary in India.
From this point onwards Sutton’s mind turned towards full-time Christian service, but on leaving school he was required first to undertake National Service. A commission in the Sixth Armoured Division took him to Germany where he encountered many refugees from Eastern Europe. This led to a lifelong interest in Russian literature.
On demobilisation he went to Jesus College, Cambridge, on a scholarship in English, but Theology became his chief interest and he was greatly influenced by two leading New Testament scholars of the time – CH Dodd and CFD Moule – who provided his evangelical faith with strong intellectual roots.
A postgraduate year at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, completed his preparation for Holy Orders and from 1959-62 he was a curate in a strong team at St. Andrew’s Church, Plymouth – one of the west country’s leading parishes. He then returned to Cambridge as chaplain of St John’s College, where he remained until 1967.
This was the time of Honest to God theological radicalism and much questioning of traditional expression of belief, especially in Cambridge, but Sutton sought to promote stability rather than encourage turbulence among members of the College. Many were grateful for the reading parties he organised for dons and undergraduates of all disciplines.
After five years Sutton placed himself at the disposal of the Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwum, who was later murdered on the orders of President Idi Amin. From 1968-73 Sutton was Chaplain and Tutor at Bishop Tucker College, Mukono – the provincial theological college – and he also taught at Makerere University. He learned Ugandan, became a colleague and friend of Terry Waite, and was a popular leader of Bible studies at Christian conferences throughout the country.
Once again he made a multitude of friends, including a young advocate at the High Court named John Sentamu. When Sentamu incurred the wrath of President Amin, with consequent imprisonment and beatings, Sutton secured a visa for him to flee Uganda in order to study Theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge. This was followed by training for Holy Orders at Ridley Hall and eventually appointment as Archbishop of York. When Sutton himself left Uganda for England, Archbishop Luwum described him as a “Muzungo with the biggest heart in the Church of England”.
The reason for his return was a pressing invitation to become Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge. The halcyon, post-war years of full theological colleges were over and the new Principal was required to work within an ecumenical federation of colleges and forge closer links with the university’s School of Divinity. All of which was within Sutton’s capacity and he steered a traditional evangelical institution towards a more open approach to scholarship and to social questions.
In 1978 however Bishop Mervyn Stockwood enticed him to South London as suffragan Bishop of Kingston-upon-Thames, with pastoral responsibility for a territory extending from Waterloo to Gatwick and including some of the Church of England’s toughest parishes.
It soon became evident that Sutton had the makings of a great bishop and that his time in London would be no more than a short apprenticeship for a major diocesan appointment. When this came, with appointment to Lichfield, the loss of a leader of vision, unusual skill as a reconciler, and deep pastoral sensitivity was keenly felt, but it was recognised that an excellent choice had been made and that he had much to offer to the wider church.
At Lichfield his influence was soon widely felt and his stature recognised, even by those who were sometimes frustrated by his administrative aberrations. He was always a firm supporter of the younger clergy and, in the right context, enjoyed their teasing of his style. He, in turn, was not averse to getting his own back and on one occasion invited a curate to lunch in the House of Lords, explaining to other guests that this was to remind the young man of his insignificance.
Admiration and affection for him increased when, after a few years at Lichfield, his wife, Jean, who had played an important part in his ministry, developed a prolonged disabling illness which became increasingly worse and from which she never recovered. Demanding and distressing though this was, he continued to grapple with his heavy diocesan responsibilities, arranged for her to receive full-time care at home and resisted any suggestion that he might retire early. He was sustained by both faith and a great love and knowledge of music – something he shared with the Dean of the cathedral, Tom Wright.
In 1989 Sutton became a member of the General Synod Standing Committee and in the realm of theological education he was President of The Queen’s College, Birmingham, and a Governor of St. John’s College, Durham. His small volume The People of God (1983) demonstrated both his clarity of thought and his teaching skill.
His wife, Jean, died in 2000, and he is survived by three sons and a daughter. Another daughter died in infancy in Uganda. The Rt Rev Keith Sutton, born June 23 1934, died March 24 2017