James Alexander Grant AM (1931-2019) - Deacon, Priest, Bishop

By Colin Reilly

July 22 2019 

Most of you here will have your own memories and anecdotes about Bishop Grant, which I am sure you will share after the service. Others will attempt to chronicle the fullness of his life and ministry. This will be a hard task; as Bruce Kaye said on hearing of his death: “It is difficult to imagine the Diocese of Melbourne without James 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 clearly on the side of the angels (people like us, a long-time member and supporter of the Australian Church Union, unfailingly attending our functions), but he was also fair and broadminded 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.

Bishop Grant was an Anglican through and through. He 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. Cultivated, intelligent, industrious but unpretentious, he shared his unparalleled store of knowledge generously. 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 enquiring 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.

No one could work a room quite like James Grant, moving purposefully from one person to another, coming alongside you rather than confronting you, exchanging news, challenging opinions, prodding you into action, and looking over your shoulder to the neglected person he would soon make his friend. Many people have commented on his being a valued mentor, but I think his gift was beyond that of mere adviser; he saw people for what they were and valued that, but he also saw what they might be and was the irritant that provoked people into producing their hitherto unrealised pearls.

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. The compleat Melbournian, he had a great affection for the Geelong of his early years. It is a happy coincidence that his ecclesial life began at Christ Church Geelong and concluded at Christ Church Brunswick, because his was a Christ-centred life. His mortal remains will return to Geelong for burial.

Always a champion of the laity, he would say to me that he got more value from the lay canons than the clerical canons at the Cathedral. He may, of course, have been a little biased because Rowena Armstrong was a lay canon before she was a bishop’s wife. Our hearts go out to Rowena at this time, but isn’t it wonderful that the double portrait at Trinity College bears tribute to such a profound partnership?

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. Befittingly for the patron of the Prayer Book Society it was using the Interim Rite. 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 Colin Reilly, a parishioner of Christ Church Brunswick and senior Anglican layman, paid this tribute to Bishop Grant at the Australian Church Union’s annual Keble Celebration at St John’s Camberwell on 14 July.