The Very Reverend Dr Robert Jeffery
Obituary by Canon Dr Daniel O’Connor (2017) – friends with Bob Jeffery since their ordination in the Durham Diocese in the 1950s
Preparations for an event as significant as a Lambeth Conference are a complex affair needing much of the preceding decade to put together. In the case of the 1968 conference, however, the saintly and scholarly Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, his mind on higher things, had forgotten that it was coming up. It was only when the secretary of the Church’s Missionary and Ecumenical Council, the gifted but under-acknowledged David Paton reminded the Archbishop, that. with less than three years to go, things began to happen. The first of these was that Paton turned to his new assistant secretary, Bob Jeffery, fresh from his second curacy, to start work on the agenda. To Bob, that was “a magic day” for a young man, to be given such responsibility – including in time the preparation of the 38 sub-group themes to which the Lambeth fathers would turn their attention.
The Very Reverend Robert Martin Colquhoun Jeffery was born at Uxbridge on 30th April 1935, son of Norman and Gwennyth Jeffery. His father worked in the Inland Revenue and was a leader in the Scout Movement. Bob attended the Prebendal School, Chichester (where George Bell confirmed him), then St Paul’s School, Kensington (where the chaplain, Christopher Heath, sowed early seeds regarding ordination). After National Service in the R.A.F., he studied for a BD and the AKC qualification at King’s College, London, with a final year’s preparation for ordination at St Boniface College, Warminster.
Jeffery was ordained deacon at Durham in 1959, priest in 1960, served his title in Sunderland and went to a second curacy with Heath, now at Barnes. At this time he became an associate of the Society of St John the Evangelist, the ‘Cowley Fathers’, supporting their work in UK and the USA thereafter. In 1964, he was appointed assistant to David Paton at ‘M.E.C.C.A.’ as it was then known, and was soon plunged into his work for Lambeth 1968. Ruth Tinling was a colleague on the Council staff – they married in 1968. Subsequently, he was Secretary for Mission and Unity at the British Council of Churches. These two appointments early in his career brought many opportunities to think boldly, write widely, and, more significantly, broadened his knowledge of the churches in Britain, and their leading personalities. This last was a particular gift, so that over time he became known, not least to senior church appointments secretaries, as a master of the grapevine, shrewd and unsentimental in his judgement.
After seven years as Vicar of St Andrew’s, Headington, Oxford, and father now of four children, he was appointed by the radical, Kenneth Skelton, Bishop of Lichfield as his Diocesan Missioner. He went on from that to be one of Skelton’s archdeacons (of Salop). Throughout these two jobs, he was also Vicar of Tong in Shropshire, this leading later to his wonderfully readable and often hilarious Discovering Tong (2007). From 1987 to 1996, Jeffery was Dean of Worcester. The cathedral had already entered on a major restoration programme costing many millions, and Jeffery, working with the canons of the chapter, stonemasons and fundraising laity, saw this through. Despite the demands of the restoration, he found time to publish in 1994 Anima Christi: Reflections on Praying with Christ. A deep shadow fell over his last year at Worcester with the sudden death of Ruth. He was fortunate to be able to move to be Sub-Dean and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, a post that suited him well and helped him, if anything could, in his loss. At Christ Church, he was a wise but lively guardian of the cathedral’s liturgy, also of the high table’s menu, and himself a generous entertainer. No one better informed, he enjoyed identifying candidates for Christ Church’s many parishes and arranging the clergy’s annual summer school. At this time, in 1999, he was awarded a DD by the University of Birmingham. His appointments, to Worcester then Oxford, and a sabbatical tour of Anglican Communion cathedrals, equipped him for his popular training sessions (with John Rogan) for English cathedral staff.
On retirement in 2002, Bob stayed in Oxford, where he developed a particular and unstintingly caring ministry, to the elderly and their families. He was also warmly hospitable, loving to cook for his many guests and to share his incomparable knowledge of the Church of England. This last made him a wonderful conversationalist, watchful over movements in the Church, with a keen eye for nonsense, and for character. He also completed a new translation of The Imitation of Christ (Penguin 2013), wrote innumerable fine obituaries for leading newspapers, and, so long as his own health allowed, went off to preach at funerals and festivities throughout the country and to visit his exceptionally wide circle of friends
Bob Jeffery was a model Anglican clergyman, with a pastoral heart, an ever-developing spirituality, a broad and liberal theology, and gifts as both preacher and writer – never letting these obstruct his parental concerns, for he was a loving and proud father to his gifted family, Graham, Hilary, Philippa and Charlie, and their children. He will be sorely missed by them and by his many friends.