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Bishop James Grant dies after 60 years of service to the Church in Melbourne

Archbishop leads tributes to former Dean, who was a bishop in the Diocese of Melbourne for almost half a century.

Bishop James Grant (1931-2019): Collaboration with a renowned Australian historian on a book commissioned for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics started his career as an historian in the same year as he decided to seek ordination in the Anglican Church.

By Mark Brolly

July 12 2019 

Bishop James Grant – a former assistant Bishop of Melbourne and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral from 1985-99 - has died after 60 years in ordained ministry and almost half a century as a bishop. He was 87.

Archbishop Philip Freier paid tribute to Bishop Grant in an Ad Clerum (letter to clergy) on 11 July: “It is with great sadness that I write to advise that our much loved colleague Bishop James Grant AM died overnight.

“Bishop James Grant made a large and significant contribution to the life of the Diocese of Melbourne, to Christian education and in particular Trinity College, and to the church and community in general. Over the course of his long and celebrated career in the Church, Bishop Grant served this Diocese with great distinction in a variety of capacities, including as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, and as an Assistant Bishop from 1970 until his retirement in 1999. He was a colleague, mentor and friend to many over an extended period of time, and will be greatly missed and much mourned.”

Bishop Grant is survived by his wife Ms Rowena Armstrong AO, QC, a former Advocate for the Melbourne diocese who was Chief Parliamentary Counsel for Victoria for 15 years.

His funeral is to be held at St Paul’s Cathedral on Friday 19 July at 11am. The funeral will be livestreamed on the Cathedral’s Facebook page for those unable to attend at https://www.facebook.com/StPaulsCathedralMelbourne.

Trinity College has announced it will rename one of the lecture theatres in its Old Warden’s Lodge – home of Trinity’s Theological School – after Bishop Grant and the second theatre after Ms Armstrong.

James Alexander Grant was born in Red Cliffs, near Mildura, on 30 August 1931 to an Australian engineer and a Scottish mother. Most of his childhood was spent in Scotland, to which the family moved when James was a baby to care for one of his grandmothers.

After the war and back in Australia, James attended a Presbyterian church and studied at Geelong High School, where most of his friends were Anglicans and attended Christ Church. In 1948, he was confirmed in the Anglican Church in St Paul’s Geelong.

In 1950, he enrolled for a four-year Arts course at Melbourne University, majoring in history, and attended non-residential tutorials at Trinity College there – starting a connection that was to endure for almost 70 years.

Bishop Grant told Trinity College’s alumni magazine, Trinity Today, in 2017 that the first of his five books was a product of the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 before the Games even began.

“When I graduated, Australian historian Geoffrey Serle had just been commissioned to write a documental (sic) history of Melbourne in readiness for the 1956 Olympics and he hired me for a year as his research assistant,” Bishop Grant told the online journal. “However, he was extremely busy, and being a very generous man, he invited me to have a go at writing some of the commentary. The end result was ninety per cent my work and ten per cent his, so The Melbourne Scene: 1803-1956 was published under the joint authorship of Grant and Serle.”

In that same year, he applied to become a candidate for ordination in the Anglican Church.

Deaconed in February 1959 and priested in March the following year, James Grant served as Assistant Curate at St Peter’s Murrumbeena and then was part of a Diocesan Task Force established by Archbishop Frank Woods to serve areas of Melbourne with socio-economic challenges, establishing new congregations in Broadmeadows and West Heidelberg.

In 1966, he was appointed Chaplain to the Archbishop “and this was a wonderful experience”, he told Trinity Today.

“I was also his driver, so I lived at Bishopscourt, next door to the Archbishop. He was not very good on details, so I often briefed him while driving him to his engagements.”

In February 1970, he returned to Trinity as College Chaplain and on 21 December that year was consecrated as a bishop in St Paul’s Cathedral.

He served as Bishop to the Western Region from 1971-1978 and Bishop of the Central Region from 1978-85, during which time he was also Administrator of the Diocese between Archbishop Robert Dann’s retirement in 1983 and Archbishop David Penman’s election in 1984.

From 1985 until his retirement in 1999, Bishop Grant was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, serving also as Bishop of the Inner City Region in 1990-91.

Bishop Grant’s tenure as 12th Dean of Melbourne included joining Archbishop Penman in welcoming Pope John Paul II to St Paul’s, the first Melbourne engagement of the Polish pontiff’s pastoral visit to every Australian state and mainland territory in 1986. The St Paul’s visit was en route to an ecumenical welcome for the Pope at the MCG on what, to date, has been the only papal visit to Melbourne.

A tribute to Bishop Grant on the St Paul’s Cathedral website said he had greatly resourced the Cathedral’s rich musical life by restoring the organ in 1990 and establishing the Cathedral Music Foundation in 1993. With his wife, he was a Founding Trustee of the Music Foundation. He also wrote the history of the Cathedral in 2014, having consolidated the archives of St Paul’s during his time as Dean – a collection that now bears his name.

The current Dean, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, said: “We give thanks for the generosity of service of Bishop Jim, and his leadership of St Paul’s from 1985-1999. I am grateful for his continued longstanding association with St Paul’s through the twenty years since, including as a weekday Chaplain and Trustee of our Music Foundation. Our prayers are with Rowena and his family, and all who mourn his death: may he rest in peace, and rise in glory.”

Trinity College posted a condolence notice in The Age: “Trinity College was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of one of our closest friends, alumnus, former employee and inspiring leader, Bishop James Grant AM.

“Bishop Grant played an instrumental role in building Trinity College into the vibrant place it is today – taking on roles such as chaplain, acting warden, bequests officer and historian. His close relationship with the college lasted for almost 70 years, and for this we are ever thankful. 

“He will be sadly missed by many and we extend our sincere condolences to his wife Rowena Armstrong QC, who is also a dear friend and fellow of the college, as well as his friends and family.”

Archbishop Freier, in his tribute, said Bishop Grant had held a variety of other roles in the Diocese of Melbourne, including as an Examining Chaplain from 1966-71, Warden of the Honorary Readers Board for 26 years until 1997, Chair of the Department of Christian Education from 1971-78), Chair of the Home Missions Board (1978-85), and Chair of the Committee Division of Pastoral Care & Education (1988-94). He also served as Chair of the School Council at three Anglican schools (Lowther Hall, Tintern and Melbourne Grammar), and was Chair of the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Mission to Streets and Lanes (later incorporated in to Anglicare Victoria).

“Bishop Grant was a constant presence at Trinity College, and a lifelong supporter of the faculty, student body and alumni of both Trinity College and Trinity College Theological School,” Dr Freier wrote.

“Bishop Grant was well known as a church historian, and was Patron of the Anglican Historical Society from 1983. He published, in 1972, a history of Trinity College, Perspective of a Century, and wrote a history of the Anglican Church in Victoria, Episcopally Led and Synodically Governed: Anglicans in Victoria 1803–1997.”

Archbishop Freier wrote that after Bishop Grant retired from active ministry in 1999, he continued to serve the diocese in a variety of ways, including as a locum until recent years.

In the 1994 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Bishop Grant was awarded membership of the Order of Australia in recognition of his service to the Anglican Church of Australia. He also was awarded a Jubilee Medal in 1977 (marking the Queen’s Silver Jubilee) and a Centenary Medal in 2001 (marking the 100th anniversary of Federation).

Dr Freier expressed gratitude for the pastoral ministry of Bishop Lindsay Urwin, Vicar of Christ Church Brunswick, where Bishop Grant and Ms Armstrong had been involved over an extended period of time.

The Archbishop, who is on leave, said he hoped to visit Ms Armstrong at the weekend to add his prayers and condolences to those of others in the diocese.

“We give thanks to God for the long and fruitful life and ministry of Bishop James Grant, and for the outstanding contribution he made to this Diocese, in so many ways,” Archbishop Freier wrote.

  • A senior Anglican layman paid tribute to Bishop Grant at the Australian Church Union’s annual Keble Celebration at St John’s Camberwell on 14 July.

Mr Colin Reilly, a long-time member of Diocesan Council, Melbourne Synod and General Synod, said Bishop Grant was “an Anglican through and through” who was faithful in his ministry to the orders he had received – those of deacon, priest and bishop.

Speaking towards the end of Evensong commemorating the Oxford Movement of High Church Anglicans and John Keble’s Assize Sermon of 14 July 1833 that is widely regarded as marking the birth of that movement, Mr Reilly quoted the response of a former General Secretary of General Synod, the Revd Dr Bruce Kaye, to Bishop Grant’s death: “It is difficult to imagine the Diocese of Melbourne without James Grant.”

Mr Reilly continued with his own reflections on Bishop Grant: “I will just make some observations about a few of the outward signs that I think give an indication of the inner strength and holiness of the cleric I have known longest in the Diocese of Melbourne.

“He could have had a successful career as an academic historian as evidenced by his early publication with Geoffrey Serle of The Melbourne Scene, 1803-1856, but he chose that better path to ordination.

“We are taught that, as those ordained progress through the ranks as it were, they add to their roles, not supplant them. Bishop Grant was faithful to this teaching. The Saturday before last he as always prepared toast for our breakfast after Mass at Christ Church Brunswick, just one small marker of his diaconal ministry.

“His priestly ministry was exemplified by his daily participation in the Eucharist at Christ Church and celebrating twice a week. As a pastor he cared for all with good humour, never talking down to anyone (although at times he would express his exasperation at our failings), whether he had known them for decades or had just met them.

“As bishop he was indeed a shepherd, not a wolf, and was conscientious in discerning and fostering vocations … he was also fair and broad-minded in his dealings with those of differing ecclesial affiliations. A staunch ally, he would nevertheless annoyingly see the virtues and redeeming features of one’s opponents.”

Mr Reilly said Bishop Grant was most at home in the Sarum tradition of catholic Anglicanism that he first encountered at St Peter’s Murrumbeena, “understated yet dignified and reverent”.

The rite was widely used in the Cathedral at Salisbury (or Sarum, as the city was also known) before the Reformation until the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 (see https://www.salisburycathedral.org.uk/history/sarum-rite).

“Cultivated, intelligent, industrious but unpretentious, he shared his unparalleled store of knowledge generously,” Mr Reilly said. “He embodied those things that we like to think distinguish us from other Christian denominations – a deep knowledge of and commitment to scripture; loyalty to the sacraments and the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons; and an inquiring mind open to seeking truth and participating fully in the society in which we are placed. No pale imitation, he perhaps was the best surviving reflection of his hero Archbishop Frank Woods.

“All his ministry was exercised in this diocese, but he had an influence beyond it, particularly through the Deans Conference and his participation in national church life.

“One of the benefits of being a parishioner at Brunswick has been to enjoy the fruits of the bishop’s labours in the kitchen. For a modest charge (always passed on in full to some missionary or other good cause), we have purchased fare encompassing the whole of life – sweet Seville orange marmalade for our breakfasts; piquant tomato relish to accompany savoury dishes; and the purest clear crimson quince jelly for the cheese board or dessert.

“Last Wednesday, the day he died, I was privileged to serve for him at Mass at Brunswick … In the sacristy, after commending the faithful departed to God, we added our customary versicle and response of ‘Thank you’ from the celebrant to the server, and my last words to him in this life, ‘Thank you’. So, again I say: ‘Thank you, God, for Jim.’”

  • Mr Reilly passed on a tribute from the Very Revd Dr John Shepherd, a former Dean of Perth who is interim Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome.

Dr Shepherd, who was ordained in Melbourne, wrote that Bishop Grant was “the Diocese of Melbourne personified”. 

“He knew everybody – and that means everybody,” Dr Shepherd wrote. “And he knew who’d be right for certain jobs, and who wouldn’t.

“His encyclopaedic historical knowledge also helped – in fact, an argument could be made that he might have spent more time writing, and that would have been of benefit academically to the wider Church. But he chose the pastoral way, and that brought sublime benefits to a great number of clergy.”