During the 21 years that King's College London ran the fourth year of its ordination training course at Warminster, no one had a more profound influence on the life of St Boniface College and its students than John Townroe. He was there at the very start of the venture in 1948. He remained there, totally devoted to the college and its students, right up to the time of the college's closure in 1969.
The leasing of St Boniface College in 1948 was the final step in Eric Abbott's project to provide a postgraduate fourth year for ordinands at King's College, during which they could prepare for ministry both practically and spiritually, freed from the worry of having exams to pass. After three years of academic study at the Strand in central London, the year at Warminster was to provide a time of pastoral and practical learning, with experience of preaching, pastoralia, and mission, within a framework of devotional discipline and community living.
The most detailed history and account of the ordination training provided by King's College at London and Warminster is that compiled and edited by The Revd David Wilding, himself a Kingman (London 1964-67, Warminster 1967-68). His book The Warminster Venture was published by the St Boniface Trust in 2010. Among other things, it provides excellent insights into the personalities and ministries of Eric Abbott, Sydney Evans, and John Townroe, the three key figures in the story of King's College and Warminster. Three deeply spiritual, academically able and pastorally sensitive men who contributed so much to the Anglican church in their training of priests.
Because the book is such an important record and is no longer in print, a web version of The Warminster Venture has been created. It can be viewed or downloaded using the link here.
There is a chapter in The Warminster Venture headed A Fourth Year at Warminster. In this David Wilding explains in detail the thinking behind the establishment of the postgraduate year at St Boniface College.
The plan to establish a fourth-year course was conceived and brought to fruition by Eric Abbott who was appointed Dean of King's College in 1945. Writing in the AKC Gazette for 1946–47, he said '… we are hoping to find a Country College for last year’s freshmen to go to in July 1948. The place has not yet been found. When it is found, we shall need for it a first–class Warden and Chaplain …'.
St Boniface College was found for the place; a truly first-class Warden and Chaplain were found in the persons of Sydney Evans and John Townroe.
The invitation from Eric Abbott to become Chaplain was received by John while he was serving his title-curacy at a church on a slum clearance Corporation housing estate in Sunderland, County Durham. He went into Retreat to reflect on the invitation and during the Retreat it became clear to him that he should accept it.
Right: Licensing of John Townroe (far left) as Chaplain
and Sydney Evans (second from left) as Warden,
by the Bishop of Salisbury on 12th August 1948.
John moved into the Chaplain’s quarters in St Boniface College early in July 1948. The first intake of ordinands arrived on Thursday 29th July and the Michaelmas Term began. On 12th August the Bishop of Salisbury, during a service in the college chapel, licensed Sydney Evans as Warden and John Townroe as Chaplain. Thus began the 21 years of King’s College London at St Boniface College, Warminster.
1956 saw a succession of staff changes. Eric Abbott, who had been Dean of King's College since 1945, was elected Warden of Keble College, Oxford. Sydney Evans, the Warden at Warminster, succeeded him as Dean of King's College and moved to London. In Sydney's place at Warminster, John Townroe was appointed Warden of St Boniface College. He continued as Warden until the college closed in 1969.
Installation of John Townroe as Warden of St Boniface College in 1956,
with The Rt Revd William Anderson, Bishop of Salisbury
During John Townroe's twenty-one years at Warminster, eight as Chaplain and thirteen as Warden, it is estimated that more than a thousand ordinands came under his influence. He earned their deep respect, trust and affection, and maintained contact with many of them after they left Warminster and after the college's closure.
A detailed account of events following John's appointment as Warden can be found in the chapter of The Warminster Venture entitled A New Warden at Warminster.
In the late 1960s an overall decline in the number of Church of England ordinands led to the reorganisation of the theological colleges. St Boniface College closed in 1969 and the King's College fourth-year course was re-located to St Augustine's at Canterbury.
John Townroe with Joe Fison, Bishop of Salisbury,
at St Boniface College in May 1969
John Townroe listened to all the arguments made at the time about the closure of Warminster. He was not convinced that the move to Canterbury would prove to be in the all–round best interests of King’s College London ordinands. He decided against going to Canterbury. Canon Michael Long, writing in the Church Times of 28th September 2018, said that John's decision not to move with the college to Canterbury 'was made after listening to all the reasons for the change, weighing it up, and much prayer. … It was the shutting of a door, but it opened another for a wider personal ministry here and abroad.'
In her eulogy at his Funeral Eucharist, Sister Carol commented that 'the closure of the college in '69 was a wounding, traumatic time' for John but that 'mercifully for many of us, there opened a wider and specialised ministry as a speaker, retreat giver and spiritual director'.
It is fully understandable and natural that John found the closure wounding and traumatic, having given 21 years of his life so completely to the college and its students.
The American Roman Catholic Bishop, Fulton Sheen, wrote to John inviting him to go and live in his diocesan seminary. John did not accept the offer of a full-time post but spent three extended periods as visiting professor and a member of the Faculty of St Bernard's Seminary, Rochester, New York.
When John was appointed Chaplain of St Boniface College in 1948, Eric Abbott wrote in the AKC Gazette for that year, 'We have been fortunate in securing the services of John Townroe … a priest with special gifts of spiritual wisdom'. How very perceptive and very true !
In the years after the closure of St Boniface College, John exercised a much valued and influential ministry as a speaker, retreat giver and spiritual director: teaching, lecturing and writing on prayer and spirituality, conducting retreats, and being a spiritual director to a wide variety of individuals and groups.
After St Boniface College closed in 1969 the Council of the St Boniface Trust supported John by agreeing that he should continue to live in The Lodge and use it as the base for his personal work and ministry. John continued to reside there until his death in July 2018. Subsequently the Lodge was leased by the Trust to Warminster School and, following some conversion work, became the school's Sixth Form Centre which opened in September 2020. It was renamed Townroe Lodge: a fitting tribute to one for whom it was home for more than sixty years.
There is a chapter in The Warminster Venture entitled Life after Warminster. In addition to describing events following the closure of St Boniface College in 1969, it is well worth reading for what it tells us about John's understanding of spiritual direction and Christian Spirituality.
When John arrived at St Boniface College two chestnut trees were planted. Then, in a great storm, one of the two saplings was almost destroyed. A decision was made to leave it, to give it a chance, and in due course that tree recovered. The trunk grew around the wound where it had been snapped and in fact it became bigger, stronger and finer than the tree that had suffered no damage.
In this John saw a parable. When we are broken God's grace has the power to heal us and, indeed, to make us stronger.
When at school, at the age of 17, John bought and read The Manual for Interior Souls by the French Jesuit priest Jean Nicolas Grou (1731–1803). The book influenced him profoundly, then and through his life. In a 1978 article on Grou for New Fire John wrote: 'Like his fellow–Jesuit, Jean–Pierre De Caussade, and many other French authors, Grou has the greatest confidence in the power of grace. "When I am weak, then I am strong", … or as he explains it: "When we know our own helplessness, we learn to understand the value and efficacy of grace".
Many recall John telling his tale of the two trees. Sister Carol spoke of it in her eulogy at John's funeral. Richard Ford (Warminster 1965-66) attended the very last Warminster Conference, Reunion & Retreat, held in 2019. His report on the event, 'Warminster - The Last Hurrah', included this: 'I was one of the last to leave and I wandered around a bit. The trees are lovely this summer. Two horse chestnuts were planted years ago and one was badly damaged in a storm. John Townroe insisted that it should be allowed to grow. And it did. It's a bit twisted, broad and massive - not far away is its tall and elegant neighbour. John Townroe saw this as a powerful parable.'
During his 21 years at Warminster how many men under his care did John recognise as being broken, and by his wise counsel, guidance, support and prayer lead them to find the grace of God that would bring healing, and enable them in their subsequent ministries to bring the healing grace of God to others?
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills : from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh even from the Lord : who hath made heaven and earth. (Ps. 121)
John died on Tuesday 17th July 2018 – just three days after the 2018 Warminster Conference, Reunion & Retreat. He died, aged 98, at home in the Lodge where he was being cared for by Sister Carol and Theresa.
It is not unusual to discover, when you hear the funeral eulogy or read the obituary of someone you have known for many years, how little you really knew about them.
The eulogy, reminiscences and obituaries reproduced below offer revealing insights into John Townroe’s life, his character, and his ministry. They cast light on the breadth of his influence and on why he was so widely respected, admired and loved. The rest of this page comprises: -
A Funeral Eucharist, celebrating John's life, was held in the Minster at Warminster on Tuesday 31st July. The Bishop of Salisbury, The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, acted as President and gave the Homily. The service was well-attended; the congregation including some 30 alumni of St Boniface College, together with staff and friends from Warminster School and from the local community.
Below are the eulogy and the homily delivered during the service.
John hoped that this service would reflect the reality of the Resurrection. His whole life was lived by faith in the resurrection Spirit of Christ always and everywhere at work.
John had three rather older siblings but nevertheless he was, in childhood, often solitary and there developed that contemplative nature which characterised his ministry. But he was a real boy; winning prizes for boxing in his local prep school, racing with his dog Ginger on Hampstead Common; and running, very seriously, the AIB, Automobile Investigation Bureau, from a cupboard at home. Cars were an abiding passion and he may have been the only College principal to drive a Jag (racing green).
Walking back from the parish church when he was 12 John had an experience of God in the Spirit, a warming of the heart, which he remembered always and in which there was the dawning of a priestly vocation. He had a fine mind and could see a number of moves ahead in situations and with human beings.
At 13 he went as a day boy to the Westminster school, travelling by bus and tube in his school uniform - top hat and tails. John enjoyed Westminster, the daily worship at the Abbey, his contacts, classical education, scout group and above all rowing in his pink Westminster jacket. His powers of leadership emerged as he became 'Head of the water'. But racing toward Henley one day he collapsed in the boat with what was then called 'rowers heart'. At 18 he could row no more. Yet that same heart beat for him till he was 98. But he was always dogged with periods of physical exhaustion.
On the brink of the Second World War he went up to St John's College Oxford to read theology. Surprisingly, he was also passed fit for the Fleet Air Arm but in a chance meeting with Archbishop William Temple he was advised to continue with ordination training. We thank God for that. John studied conscientiously and lecture notes still exist in his clear attractive hand. But he found time to be head of the Junior Common Room, to lead the Oxford Student Christian Movement for a year, as well as doing war-time fire watching and leading groups of men to chop timber in Bagley wood.
The years of austerity continued at Lincoln Theological College where leadership qualities continued to develop and where his physical and nervous frailty/sensitivity was also evident together with a notable spiritual maturity. Ordained in '43 and '44 in Durham Cathedral, he served his title in the parish of the Good Shepherd in Sunderland. This was an impoverished estate where he shared a council house with two other members of the company of mission priests. It was a far cry from the leafy avenues of Hampstead and his loved Grandmother's gracious home in Dedham where he spent much time. But he retained a great affection for the place and the people. It was a street-wise and rather gaunt young man who emerged from those immediate post-war years.
His intention was to continue work among the poor but in '48 he was called, no other word for it, to be chaplain to the new venture here in Warminster. Ordinands from King's College London were to have a fourth year of experience in preaching, pastoralia, mission, devotional discipline and community living. John spent six years living in the college and then, on becoming warden, moved across the drive where he became affectionately known as Blessed John of the Lodge. This was humorous but there was a true perception here. People often commented that there was 'something about John', something indefinable. It was his God-centredness, a holiness, a purity of heart. His was a dedicated life, from an early age, given to God who was his All and to other people. His life was centred in the eternal; his feet incarnationally on the ground.
His gifts were exactly suited to the college work; the teaching, the spiritual leadership of a community and an extraordinary perception about human beings. He had a quiet authority about him. He could also be funny, which not all discovered, and he loved his students. 1005 men came under his influence in his 21 years. It was hard work for him and three times in his life John's health broke under the strains of ministry. There was a loneliness. From these times of suffering came his empathy, compassion, strength and wisdom for others.
The closure of the college in '69 was a wounding, traumatic time but, mercifully for many of us, there opened a wider and specialised ministry as a speaker, retreat giver and spiritual director. And not just in England. John went for three extended periods as visiting 'professor' to St Bernard's seminary in Rochester New York where he was greatly appreciated and loved and abiding friendships were made. He refused the offer of a full-time job, however, as his allegiance was to the Anglican church which he loved and the best of which he somehow epitomised.
When in '75 he gave a seven-day retreat in my own community I recognised a spiritual master, in the great tradition but with contemporary relevance. The addresses were profound, lucid, pragmatic, life-changing and so clearly under the authority of the Lord the Spirit. And all in that lovely voice and delivery which any actor might envy. To the end of his life John could still speak off the cuff, to the point and with unusual insight.
The number of people coming to him for help and counsel increased. He was director to the SSF in Dorset and to the SSJE in Oxford and London. His work as director was marked by the same quiet authority, listening attentiveness, truthful clarity, empathetic imagination and pragmatism; and risk. He worked to liberate people as children of God. Human behaviour did not surprise him. He was a true father in God with a most affectionate heart; a sweetness of disposition. If he said he would pray for you he really did so. I think there are a lot of people who would testify that he rescued them in times of crisis or distress. As one said, 'it will be difficult to be in a world without John'. And so, for some of us it will be.
John lived at risk on many levels. Growing up in the period between two wars he experienced a prevailing cynicism and practised his faith against the odds. He risked not having a paid full-time job after the college closed, and God saw him through. He spent little on himself (Jaguars apart) and took little thought for his future … and God saw him through. He had a great discipline of mind and practice. He disliked gossip and trained himself to go with the goodnesses in people and around him as an act of faith in God's redemptive work. He pursued the affirmative way. Despite a keen critical faculty he did not disparage. I have almost never heard him speak negatively. As one said, he made people better by who he was.
John's last years (and more especially last months) were marked by ill health, and very real pain, suffering and limitation - but his sweetness of disposition came through increasingly. He did not complain but was patient, if occasionally wistful. He longed to get out and walk again. It was a privilege to look after him. We owe a debt of gratitude to the band of carers who loved and respected him. He was deeply affectionate and sensitive, highly imaginative … a dear dear man as some have said, a most loving and loveable man. One of my religious sisters hoped this service would be full of thanksgiving for a beautiful life. It was a beautiful life. He was/is a beautiful person, a rare bird. Oh, we will miss you John and we thank you for all you gave us. An era passes with you and we may not see your like again.
Time to end with the tale of the two trees. Two chestnut trees were planted when John came to the college. Then a great storm, a Sou-Wester, blew up and almost destroyed one of the two saplings. A decision was made to leave it, give it a chance, and in due course that tree recovered. The trunk grew around the wound where it had been snapped and in fact it became bigger, stronger and finer than the tree that had suffered no damage. This is a parable for all our lives as it certainly was for John's. God's transfiguring spirit and love in Christ always and everywhere at work … until the gates of death open and we know the reality of the resurrection in fullness of joy. May dearest John's joy abound. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
(The above can be viewed or downloaded as a PDF using the link Sister Carol's eulogy.)
John 14:1-14 and 20:30-21:2
We come to give thanks for the life of Fr John Townroe, UJ Uncle John to family, a kindly formidable holy priest, teacher, counsellor and guide to many.
I am under instruction. John did not want me to preach about John Townroe. I was told to preach about the resurrection.
So here is what I want to say, said so eloquently by St Paul in Romans chapter 8, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. The Warminster venture, and Fr John Townroe’s life, were testimony to this.
The Gospel was that familiar passage from John 14, the beginning of the long farewell discourse in which Jesus said he is going to the Father and the disciples don't understand him.
Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going so how can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
It is followed by Philip asking, "Lord show us the Father and we shall be satisfied." You can hear the weariness of Jesus as he replies, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?"
The disciples could be remarkably dense or wilful.
The last chapter of John's Gospel reads like an afterthought. The Gospel clearly ends at the end of chapter 20: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name." (John 20.30,31)
And then off we go again with chapter 21, the epilogue of a Gospel which also has a prologue.
"After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius: and he showed Himself in this way. Gathered there together with Simon Peter, Thomas called the twin, Nathanial of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples." (John 21.1,2)
They were back where it all started - "In my end is my beginning" - but only seven not twelve. These seven had not covered themselves with glory, not unlike students from King's. Three times Simon Peter denied he knew Jesus. Nathaniel had asked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" James and John the sons of Zebedee, the sons of thunder - what a pair! - who asked to sit one on his right and the other on his left, a question so embarrassing that Matthew tried to soften it and say it was their mother who asked. Mothers! Two are not named. And Thomas called the twin, 'Doubting Thomas', which is a bit unfair because he believed the resurrection at first sight, exclaiming "My Lord and my God!" without the need to touch the wounds of the risen Lord.
It's as if John in his gospel is making a point that this community of the resurrection is made up of disciples who got things wrong, who know their need to be restored, and Jesus came among them. "I am the way, the truth and the life". This is a love that will not let us go. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
John knew that people would say nice things about him. He was wise, sharp eyed, a perceptive guide.
He knew his need of God and he found God here in this Eucharist where Christ meets us and where we touch his body and blood as Thomas wanted but did not need to do.
John knew himself and his own needs. It was the human condition, the disciples' condition. Sr Carol has spoken a eulogy which will have evoked particular memories for all of us.
One who benefitted from knowing him as their spiritual director said he was, "The only person whom I knew to be in Full Union with Jesus Christ … . He lifted one up to God as no other could."
He continued to care for those remarkable men who trained at King's and came to Warminster. Some thought John was looking forward to their annual reunion and retreat which ended on the Friday before he died; that he was hanging on until it had happened and then just let go.
I trained at King's and knew Eric Abbot and Sydney Evans quite well, though truthfully they knew me much better. I had not met John Townroe until I became Bishop of Salisbury. All three were great men, great priests and great teachers and trainers of clergy. Fr John was a wise and insightful guide to me as bishop. He was honest before God, which is a quality rarer than you might think. It was a privilege to be with him and with Fr John you knew you were in the presence of God.
In the lovely notes from the family, Mimi recalls visiting him in hospital, about 5 years ago. He was keen to share a prayer that he had been meditating on, and asked her to repeat these words of Bishop Joseph Hall in 1601.
O Thou who has prepared a place for my soul. Prepare my soul for that place.
It is what he wanted, what his life was about. He might almost have been too anxious, though it was undoubtedly what gave his life edge and made him special.
In Christ God who made us, loves us and redeems us. God knows our frailties and makes us new. We are here not because we are good but because we are loved. In this Eucharist we meet Christ here.
O Thou who has prepared a place for my soul. Prepare my soul for that place.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus to whom be glory now and for ever. Amen
Compiled by Mary Stott, John’s niece and goddaughter
Edward John Townroe was born in Hampstead on 14th January 1920 to Bernard and Marjory, and was the youngest of four children. Stephen, Elaine and Michael were his older siblings. He grew up in a comfortable household, with four staff to run the house, and older siblings leaving home long before him. He was particularly close to Elaine, as her daughter Lorna (Mayon-White) recalled from letters between them, calling each other affectionately 'Gog' and 'Magog'. He often visited his Townroe grandparents in Nottingham, and Collingwood grandparents in Dedham, Essex during the holidays, and regaled us with his memories of those happy days. His Grandpa Collingwood had a great love of all things mechanical, locomotives, steam and early cars, which influenced the young John greatly! He went to Westminster School, which he enjoyed as a day boy, and, like his father, enjoyed the School Rowing Club.
The duo Flanders and Swann began their famous partnership acting in the Westminster (School) Revues during John's time. When 'At the Drop of a Hat' was later performed in the West End in 1956, after a much enjoyed performance, John went to the stage door, to be led to Donald (Swann's) dressing room. To his great amusement when meeting Donald again, Donald bowed and bowed to John, saying 'Head of the River!' 'Head of the River!' We presume John had been Captain of the Rowing Club!
John moved on to St. John's College, Oxford, where his father had been. His University years were interrupted by the War, and he recalled, as President of the Junior Common Room, that he had to organise fellow students to go to Bagley Woods in order for them to cut down small trees, to be used as pit props in the mines as part of the war effort.
As John developed his career, as curate in Sunderland, then chaplain to St Boniface College, then Warden, his siblings married and started their own families. Stephen had 3 children, Elaine had 5, and Michael 3.
He meantime often joined his parents on holidays in Menton, Dinard, and Ventnor. They had moved from London, to become settled in Yateley, near Camberley.
John developed a great love of cars, especially Jaguars, which really impressed us all. Bill and Peter both recall being wildly excited by the shiny Mk2 Jaguar and British racing green, with wire wheels and tan leather interior!
In 1961 his beloved sister Elaine died; he managed to officiate at her funeral, a sad task indeed for him. But soon, as now Uncle John (which we eventually shortened to UJ) became much in demand by many of his 11 nieces and nephews to officiate at their weddings. We had all grown into adulthood with many memories of him joining in family celebrations and events, and each of us grew in love and respect for him. Peter remembers him giving them marriage advice, sitting them down, with two pertinent questions which they each had to answer: 1) 'Is there love?' and 2) 'can the love grow?'.
He successfully married them 52 years ago, and they remain happily married! Janet recalls her marriage into a Catholic family. Mike's grandmother was not sure that the Anglican ceremony meant it was 'properly done'. So, to reassure her, UJ and brother Michael donned the best ceremonial robes, one usually used at Christmas, and the other in Easter attire. Apparently, the grandmother was satisfied. Janet, as a vicar's daughter, recalls 9 priests at her reception - quite some feat!
As the years went by, he continued his close contact with each of us, and many special meals remembered. Bill put it succinctly 'those long lazy lunches, with John as principal raconteur, taking us back to prewar and postwar days in Hampstead'.
He was much loved by his family of all ages. As Roe recalls - if ever one was in a crisis or going through a rocky patch, UJ had an uncanny knack of knowing. He would send a card just to say thinking of you. He was an exceptionally good listener and treated all he heard with utmost confidentiality. When you hadn't seen him for a while, he would still remember exactly where your previous conversation had got to, and how things were in your life. Judi remembers when her marriage broke down, that UJ remained that loving concerned uncle, and his calm wisdom anchored her in the storm of turbulent emotions at that time.
He was a great correspondent. So many letters and cards were answered until his later years, but he still had an intense interest in our families when we visited him at the Lodge. We all remember his gentle humour and twinkling wit. As Chris also put it: "in conversation UJ seemed to be half smiling, with a humorous glint in his eye!".
Nigel and UJ had many long deep conversations during driving him to and fro when he holidayed at Nigel and Mimi's home in Gower by the sea, times remembered fondly on both sides.
Ice creams were a theme - Peter remembers a visit to their home in Norfolk, with a photo of him eating ice-creams with Peter's family in the dunes, UJ also had a treasured memory of his Grandpa Townroe, when visiting his family on holiday, ordering 'double' ice-cream cornets!
A precious moment recalled by Mimi was while visiting him in hospital, about 5 years ago. He was keen to share a prayer that he had been meditating on and asked her to repeat these words.
O Thou who has prepared a place for my soul.
Prepare my soul for that place.
Not only then, but half an hour later, as Mimi was leaving, he asked her again to repeat these words, AND remember them, looking very intently at Mimi.
O Thou who has prepared a place for my soul,
Prepare my soul for that place …
(From The Art of Divine Meditation, by Bishop Joseph Hall, of Norwich, 1601.)
He was a special man indeed. And we were ALL made to feel 'special' and loved by him at different times of our lives. As the last of his generation and for being the wonderful uncle and friend that he was, he will be greatly missed.
The Rt Revd George Hacker writes:
IT WAS the early 1980s, and I had invited John Townroe to lead a workshop on prayer at a major conference for lay people, which we were holding in Ripon. Soon after, I received a letter from a senior Mothers' Union member. She said that John's was the best workshop of its kind that she had ever attended and enclosed a copy of the notes that she had taken. These included seven "Signs of Growth" in the Christian life, which immediately aroused my interest. Later, I asked John about these, hoping that he had a paper on them. But all he said was that he had been sitting quietly one evening at home, and had scribbled the headings on the back of an old envelope and stuck them in the file marked "Ripon".
That was so typical of John's self-effacing nature — hiding the depths of his wisdom and experience behind a casual remark. Whenever I have introduced anyone to his "Signs of Growth", they have always been received with the greatest of interest.
Edward John Townroe was born on 14 January 1920. His father was a well-known London Conservative and Mayor of Hampstead, and John was educated at Westminster School. Then, at the age of 12, he had a quite unexpected experience of the presence of God, while walking down a street in London; it had a lasting impact on his life. With it came the certainty that he must be a priest.
John went up to Oxford in 1938, and read theology at St John's College. After graduation, he went on to Lincoln Theological College. It was at Lincoln that he came under the influence of Eric Abbott, who was the Warden there. From Lincoln, John moved north to serve his title at the Church of the Good Shepherd, a slum clearance parish situated on a council estate in Sunderland. In March 1947, he received a letter from Abbott offering him the position of Chaplain at St Boniface Missionary College, Warminster. The leasing of the college was the final step in Eric's project to provide a postgraduate fourth year for ordinands at King's College, London, where they could prepare for ministry both practically and spiritually, freed from the worry of having exams to pass. John accepted the offer, after spending time on retreat to consider it.
This was a decision which was to determine the whole course of his ministry. From the start, he felt happy with his decision, and he remained in post for 21 years, until the fourth-year students moved to Canterbury in 1969.
John became Warden in 1956. I arrived as Chaplain in 1959, and, over five years, I observed how John lived and worked. I admired much about him, in particular the amount of thought and thoroughness with which he approached everything that he did. He was attractive, too, in his humanness, shown especially in his liking for fast cars, a subject on which he could wax lyrical.
He set a wonderful example to his colleagues, on managing students for whom the move from London had been a shock. He knew instinctively when to be gentle and when to be tough. He was quick, too, to spot the first signs of trouble. The members of staff sat at the back of the chapel, and he taught us the importance of looking out for warning signs. "Men and women unconsciously send up distress signals when they are in trouble. An accumulation of such small signs may, in time, build up into a very fair indication of what is wrong."
John did not follow the fourth-year students to St Augustine's, Canterbury. He had as his model, Reginald Somerset Ward, who, after ten years in parish ministry, gave up his work as a parish priest to devote himself to spiritual direction. Somerset Ward until his death in 1962 had been John’s spiritual director, and his example influenced John in determining the form his future ministry should take.
Requests for his ministry were not slow in coming, but the first was something of a surprise. He was asked by the American Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen to go to his diocesan seminary as visiting professor of ascetical theology. He was there for several months and found it a wonderful experience, especially being allowed to enter so deeply into the lives of some 300 young men, some straight back from the Vietnam War. Other requests quickly followed. Within a short time, he had taken part in five university missions, worked with the Armed Forces in retreats and chaplains' conferences, and had further visits to the United States. So his work continued down the years — teaching and lecturing on prayer and spirituality, and being a spiritual director to a wide variety of individuals and groups.
I last saw John in 2015. By then, he was receiving round-the-clock care, masterminded by Sister Carol from the Community of the Holy Name, whom he had known for many years. But he was as alert mentally as ever. When we got home, I reminded him of an elderly monk whom we both knew from Warminster days, who on one occasion said to me as he struggled to get in and out of my tiny Austin A30: "My engine is OK. All I need is a new chassis." John's reply: "Yes … I can say the same, except that my engine stutters sometimes." It was so good to know that, after what we both knew was our last farewell, neither his love of cars nor his sense of humour had deserted him.
The burden of John's last years was lightened by Sister Carol's care for him, a role-reversal in their relationship. For many years, she had looked to John for spiritual advice and counsel: now she had provided and organised the physical care for him. He died at one in the morning on 17 July, with Carol and his main carer at his bedside. As she said when giving me the news: "So passes a very rare soul."
Although not mentioned in the Telegraph, the following obituary was written by The Very Reverend Trevor Beeson who trained at King's College London and St Boniface College Warminster.
Canon John Townroe
Churchman greatly valued for his wise spiritual counselling
CANON JOHN TOWNROE, who has died aged 98, was a self-effacing Church of England priest who exercised a largely hidden ministry of considerable influence. He was chaplain, then Warden of St Boniface College, Warminster, from 1948-69, and, following a breakdown in health, devoted the remainder of his life to spiritual counselling, in which he was unusually skilled.
His own spiritual depth was nurtured by an acute theological mind, while his wisdom and sensitivity to others gave him a wide circle of penitents and others in need of counsel. He always appeared to have as much time available as anyone might need.
Edward John Townroe was born on January 14 1920. His father was a well-known London Conservative and Mayor of Hampstead. At Westminster School he was Head of Water (rowing) and went from there to St John's College, Oxford, to read Classics and Theology. He completed his preparation for Holy Orders at Lincoln Theological College, where he came under the lasting influence of its Warden, Eric Abbott - a renowned trainer of priests and a spiritual director.
Townroe was ordained in Durham Cathedral in 1943 and spent the next five years on a new housing estate in Sunderland, working with a small group of unmarried clergy who constituted a branch of the Company of Mission Priests. This experience of serving in one of the toughest parishes in the North East ensured that his future ministry would always be firmly rooted in the realities of ordinary life.
In l948 Eric Abbott, by now Dean of King's College, London, appointed Townroe as chaplain of a former missionary training college at Warminster that was about to become a fourth-year college for students who had completed their academic work in London and needed a year of more relaxed and reflective preparation for ordination.
With Sydney Evans, later to succeed Abbott at King's, as its first Warden and Townroe as chaplain, the 40-50 strong college became an immediate success. During its early days many of the students were ex-servicemen anxious to get to ordination without much further delay, but Evans and Townroe kept them purposefully occupied, with an emphasis on their spiritual development and the requirements of pastoral ministry. Any chafing at the semi-monastic regime was later replaced in most by a grateful recognition of the importance of the foundations laid during that year.
When Evans moved to London in 1956 it was natural that Townroe should succeed him as Warden and the college continued to flourish until 1969, when an overall decline in the number of Church of England ordinands led to the re-organisation of the theological colleges and, in the face of strenuous opposition, the re-location of the King's fourth-year course at Canterbury.
Townroe had by now serious heart problems and, assisted by a legacy, decided to remain in Warminster, using it as a base from which to travel to various parts of the country and overseas to undertake counselling.
Among other appointments he spent several months, at the invitation of the American Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen, as visiting professor of ascetical theology at his diocesan seminary. He was made a Fellow of King's College, London, in 1959 and an Honorary Canon of Salisbury Cathedral in 1969.
Although there was no doubting Townroe's seriousness of purpose, he had a strong sense of humour, was always good company and a constant encourager of others. His own single indulgence was a devotion to fast cars.
He was unmarried.
Canon John Townroe, born January 14 1920, died July 17 2018
Canon Michael Long writes:
AS A student at St Boniface College, Warminster, from 1955 to 1956, I would like to add a personal tribute to the excellent obituary of Canon John Townroe from the Rt Revd George Hacker (Gazette, 3 August).
At King's College, London, the three years in the Strand with a concentrated academic programme were very profitable but demanding, and the compulsory living in the hostel at Vincent Square for the last of those years was quite an intense experience. Then came the year at Warminster, the inspired idea of Eric Abbott. Here, with examinations behind us, there was a time of pastoral and practical learning, with its background of spiritual devotion. This was under the guidance of the clerical staff.
It so happened that I was there, and was college president, at the time of the move around, as the Dean, Abbott, left to become Warden of Keble College, Oxford, the Warden, Sydney Evans, became Dean, and, John, the chaplain, was appointed Warden. All very in-house; it worked well for most of us.
John had the responsibility of our formation, leading up to ordination. As has been said, he had the gift of knowing us, "warts and all". He had those piercing penetrating eyes, and that could be a little uncomfortable at times. If he saw you privately, he would offer sensible advice and, if needed, a gentle rebuke. He had an appreciation of modern psychiatry in its earlier days, using this on occasions to help his students in their personal lives. You knew, also, that he had your well-being at heart, and that he prayed for you.
His addresses at Friday compline were profound and moving. There was a non-negotiable routine: attendance at chapel for morning prayer; attendance at the eucharist was voluntary; compulsory meditation for 25 minutes before lectures or private study; a brief office before lunch; evensong at 5 p.m.; and compline at 10 p.m., after which silence was kept, or that was the intention. Saturday was a free day and a welcome opportunity for personal leisure and enjoyment until compline. On Sunday, the College attended the 8 a.m. eucharist at the Minster, and then we were let loose on the parishes in and around Warminster to inflict our preaching skills on the congregations. The Warden kept his ears open to comments from the incumbents. All this gave a framework of discipline which remains with me.
John was a person of great integrity and courage. One example of this was the decision he made not to move with the college to Canterbury. This was made after listening to all the reasons for the change, weighing it up, and much prayer. He never made a public issue of this. It was the shutting of a door, but it opened another for a wider personal ministry here and abroad.
I saw him on several occasions over the years, and he was a man in whom I had absolute trust. I discussed with him my personal mantra, and he was the only person who knew this: I do not reveal it to anybody (remember what happened to Samson when he told his secret). Last year, when I celebrated my diamond jubilee of ordination to the priesthood, I sent him an order of the service. Back came a postcard of thanks saying "Well done."
In the Gospels, the apostle John is described as "the beloved disciple". John Townroe was such: beloved by God, seeing us as beloved, and encouraging us to treat those who crossed our paths as beloved by God.
Warminster as a location will never be quite the same without him. Many of us are grateful for the loving care that he received in recent times, and are glad that he died in the house that had been his home since 1956.