Derek Rawcliffe

BISHOP Derek Alec Rawcliffe, a priest who always thought of others before himself, but who controversially announced on TV that he was gay, has died aged 89.

A quiet, kind and caring man who was a poet and an author, he spent much of his priestly life overseas in the South Pacific, and it was only after retiring to Yorkshire where his wife's family lived, that he found himself in the middle of controversy following his TV disclosure in 1995.

It was a disclosure that brought him a mixed response ranging from a minority of the virulently cruel to 90 per cent support, and for a while it overshadowed much of his work in retirement caring for asylum seekers and those in poverty, in Leeds.

But it also freed him to speak out on the role of homosexual clergy in the Church of England, and he became an assiduous letter writer to publications varying from the Church Times to Gay News, as well as the Yorkshire Post.

In a frank interview with this newspaper three weeks later Bishop Rawcliffe, who at that time was the most senior member of the Anglican church to declare his homosexuality, spoke of his time in Southern Melanesia when a young man made approaches to him and he realised he loved him. He broke down and was in turmoil but having accepted and come to terms with himself it changed his whole outlook. "I began to love everybody in a new way and to see that in spite of our sins and failings, God loves us and it was the work of the Holy Spirit".

But, a few years later he met his future wife, Susan Speight, at a conference in France. She had been a teacher of ballet and domestic science but was then confined to a wheelchair with diabetic neuropathy.

They wrote to each other and she had a "miraculous healing" and he found himself asking: "God, do you want me to marry her?" He proposed and they were married in 1977, she was 36 and he was 56. But 12 years later she had a cardiac arrest and died.

Derek Rawcliffe was born in Manchester the son of a tobacconist, but brought up in Gloucester. He was a quiet, poetic and literary child who was attracted to music in Gloucester Cathedral, and realised by the time he was 17 that he wanted to be a priest.

He trained for the priesthood at the College of the Resurrection, at Mirfield gaining his degree from Leeds University, and was ordained in 1944. His first parish was in the Worcester diocese where he served his curacy before going to be a teacher in the Solomon Islands in 1947.

Six years later, he became Archdeacon of Southern Melanesia and the New Hebrides, and in 1975 was appointed the first bishop of the New Hebrides staying until 1980 when he was translated to Glasgow and Galloway.

He retired in 1991 and moved to West Yorkshire, where he was soon appointed an assistant bishop in the Ripon diocese by the then bishop, David Young, only to be dismissed from the role five years after blessing a same sex union.

The widowed Bishop Rawcliffe lived at first in Bardsey, near Wetherby, with his father-in-law, but later moved to Harehills, Leeds making St Aidan's Church, Roundhay, Road his home parish.

It was there he spent much time working with asylum seekers, as well as helping people in poverty and being involved with ecumenical relations in the city and the work of Leeds Churches Together in Mission.

Bishop Rawcliffe who was the longest serving Oblate of the Anglican Benedictine Community at Nashdom and Elmore Abbeys, having made his Oblation in 1947, remained active in ministry until his death. On the day he died he had attended a service at St Aidan's, where he read the lesson.

The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, John Packer, paid tribute to his work saying he had contributed substantially to worship and to helping others in Leeds.

In 1971, Bishop Rawcliffe was awarded the OBE.

A Requiem Mass will be held at St Aidan's at a date to be announced.