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Sir Godfray Le Quesne, QC

The address from Sir Godfray's funeral on 9 October 2013. By Professor Paul Fiddes

Friends, I would like to celebrate Sir Godfray’s life in its wholeness and its integrity. In many different contexts he was the same person, and his consistent witness to truth was something we valued deeply in him.

GodfrayI am proud to say that I knew him in some of these contexts. He was the chairman of the Council of Regent’s Park College in the University of Oxford for 30 years from 1957 to 1987, and I was on the teaching staff of the college for 15 of those years. After that, while I was Principal, he returned frequently to College as a life member of the Council. I caught glimpses of his professional life as Queen’s Counsel at the bar over those years, and I occasionally saw him in the midst of his family For a decade we were also fellow members of a theological dining club called the ‘All Souls Club’, a club to which his father had also belonged, where we regularly talked theology over the table.

I want to tell you that wherever I met him he was the same person, with strong values, generous attitudes and a deep faith in God that shaped who he was. His life was integrated, all of one piece, a remarkable wholeness.
In the first place there was a sharp, incisive mind at work, able to sort the wheat from the chaff, seeing the way ahead while others stumbled about. He brought order into chaos, putting things in their proper place with sound judgement and with precision.

Obviously, this won him the highest distinction in his profession as a barrister in civil law. It made him the obvious choice to be Chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission for 12 years, to serve as a Recorder, to deal with appeals to the Privy Council, and especially to be  a member of the Court of Appeal of Jersey for 33 years.

Recently, a new member elected to the Court asked ‘where does one begin?’ and answered: ‘The starting point now, as always since the Jersey Court of Appeal came into existence in 1964, is to consult Sir Godfray Le Quesne QC, whose advice, crisp, to the point and accurate, has unfailingly sustained several generations of non-Jersey members of the Court of Appeal.’

We valued the same incisiveness on the Council of my college. The minutes are full of his judicious statements, from which I take one: following the suggestion that a certain person should be appointed as member of staff, the following was recorded:

‘After discussion, the Chairman let it be known that, although he was not presenting another name, he did not think that the best candidate was being considered.’

I will not disclose the final outcome, and am only grateful it was not me.

I must tell you here of a remarkable gift that Godfray possessed. He could appear to be asleep during a meeting he was chairing, and then at the end he would sum up all the discussion with superb accuracy and clarity. Perhaps he was just closing his eyes to concentrate better. Perhaps he was drifting in and out of consciousness – for he could take a micro-sleep anywhere, at the bat of an eyelid – but even his semiconscious state was more acute and aware than most other people’s more obvious wakefulness. I observed this over many years, and have tried to imitate it myself. But it was only recently that others have told me that this would sometimes happen in court, and that it once happened while Godfray was waiting during a sermon to play the final hymn on the organ. He got to the stool just in time and played with aplomb.

Now, some people who have the gift of a precise mind are distant, detached from others, wrapped up in their own exactness. Not so Godfray. Another part of his consistency was his love of collegiality – we might say companionship, fellowship, friendship – or using a Baptist word, covenant. In all the parts of his life he wanted to be in community with others.

Early in life this was shown in his being elected as President of the Oxford Union in 1943, while he was at Exeter. He was the ideal college man with us in Regent’s, and I recently came across a letter he wrote in 1955, accepting membership of the College Council, and remarking wistfully, ‘I sometimes feel envious of the holders of residential posts’.

He enjoyed this collegiality in the Inner Temple, and his fellow-benchers obviously recognized this, doing him the great honour of electing him as Master Treasurer. It was such a pleasure to have him at table in the All Souls’ Club, as a convivial conversation partner, lamenting the most recent lunacies of church and government.

But he took the same love of friendship into the Contact Club at this church, which every Sunday evening gives hospitality to the homeless, those under care in the community who are suffering mental illnesses, the needy and the lonely who live on their own.  Godfray was not just there out of duty: he enjoyed being with those who came. The club is well named: Godfray always made contact with people. 

The two dimensions – the exact mind and the sociable spirit came together in a wonderful unity. Respect flowed from his mastery of the situation, which could sometimes seem intimidating (his was always a presence to be felt) while affection flowed from the way he inspired friendship.

This ability to empathize with others is perhaps why he was so encouraging and supportive of Susan in her own vocation of working with people as a psychotherapist  Although it was on the face of it quite different from his own profession in the law, there was a deep underlying connection in the way that he practised the law.

And blended with these aspects was a generosity and kindness of spirit. An interview with Edwin Robertson published in The Baptist Times in 1990 carries the banner headline, ‘Unselfishness – the key word for life says Sir Godfray’.  The interview explores his concerns about a society in Britain which seems to be becoming more divided, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. He tells Edwin, his minister here at Heath Street for many years, that he is worried we are becoming an increasingly individualistic and selfish kind of society. He doesn’t hold back in criticizing the increasing cost of access to the law, which puts it (he thinks) out of reach to many who need its help. He expresses his conviction that people who exercisecompassion, self-forgetfulness and even self-sacrifice advance the Kingdom of God, whether or not they do this in the name of Christ, and whether or not they are inside the church.

The same breadth of mind was evident in his concern for the ecumenical fellowship of the church. Though a faithful Baptist all his life, standing in a succession of Baptists, serving as church secretary in this church as his father had done before him, he nevertheless had a vision of the Church Universal. Indeed, his father, CT Le Quesne, QC, had played a significant part in the early stages of the World Council of Churches. Like his father, he saw loyalty to his own denomination as perfectly consistent with movement towards the unity of the church.

Here in Hampstead, Godfray had close relations with members of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, especially through the Lent Group which meant a great deal to him, but also through his work earlier in the Hampstead Concil of Churches, and then in Churches Together. He was a Catholic Baptist in the best sense, counting himself a member of the Great Church. He was increasingly troubled, he told me, by the way that Baptist churches seemed to be turning in on themselves and their personal concerns, as well as with what seemed to him to be a loss of direction on the ecumenical path. We would do well to heed his warnings.

Perhaps this generosity of spirit and sheer kindliness was most clearly displayed in the family. I know it is hard to believe, seeing his sons and daughter today, but when I knew them at their age of 10 and under, they were a rumbustious and noisy crew. Coming to lunch with the family after preaching at Heath Street in the 1970s, I was full of admiration for the kindness and patience of their father, which was of course founded in his sheer enjoyment of them and their liveliness.

That’s the final aspect I want to mention about this wholeness of personality. I mean a sheer enjoyment of life, a simple relishing of what life – and the God of life – had to givehim  each day. My colleague, Dr Larry Kreitzer tells the story of leaving the National Archives after doing some research there, and saw that Godfray had also been working there and had just left. He followed Sir Godfray along the street, intending to catch him up, and noticed that his walk was being interrupted. He pulled a small branch of a tree towards him to sniff at the blossom, and stopped to stroke a cat on a wall. He was clearly delighting in what the day had to offer, and I’m reminded of some lines from a poem that was a favourite of his youth, Houseman’s ‘Shropshire Lad’:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
         Is hung with bloom along the bough.
And since to look at things in bloom
    Fifty springs are little room,
    About the woodlands I will go
          To see the cherry hung with snow.

In the integrity of his life, Sir Godfray seems to me exactly to fit the picture of Mr Valiant-For-Truth in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a book from the Baptist heritage. Truth in the biblical sense is not just accuracy of propositions, but trust – trustfulness and trustworthiness in relations with others. This is the integrity of truth in Sir Godfray’s life, and so I salute him with the words with which Bunyan describes the crossing of the river of death by Mr Valiant for Truth:

When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river side, into which as he went, he said, “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over, and [all] the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

The Revd Professor Paul Fiddes is Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Oxford, and Director of Research, Regent's Park College, Oxford

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