The Very Reverend Robert Grimley

Doctor of Laws

15 July 2009 - Orator: John Bailey

Madam Chancellor, Robert Grimley

The finest reward for any act of giving is the knowledge that the gift is gratefully received.  The University of Bristol should know that this congregation’s honorary graduand, the Very Reverend Robert William Grimley, Dean of Bristol, is truly delighted to be thus honoured by this secular university.  Today is the University’s opportunity to let Robert know the gratitude we, as a community, feel for his selfless work as Dean of Bristol. 

Many of those present in this congregation may have had indirect contact with senior figures in the Church of England through the writings of Anthony Trollope in his Barchester Chronicles.  Trollope’s impression of the tasks facing a Dean emerges when  Mr Harding is offered the position of Dean of Barchester but politely declines it, saying, ‘I cannot accept it – I do not find myself fit for new duties – every day of my life increases my wish for peace and rest.’  His daughter responds, ‘nothing can be easier than what a Dean has to do’, and the Archdeacon says, ‘Where can a man have peace and rest if not in a deanery?’

Robert Grimley has most certainly not had such peace and rest in his 12 years as Dean, by his own deliberate choice. In his installation sermon in the Cathedral on the 19th April 1997 he quoted from the Papal Encyclical of 1971, Redemptoris missio, ‘A missionary must be a contemplative in action’. He continued, ‘I would gladly take this as the motto for my ministry as Dean, and to define the mission of the Cathedral while I lead it’.  He has been true to this motto and the City of Bristol has benefited from 12 years of action by Robert, devoted as he has been to the Cathedral and to the people of the city and diocese which it serves.

A graphic demonstration of the Dean’s proclivity for action, and the extent to which he is in tune with the people of the City, was provided by the major role he played in actively opposing the nature of proposed developments in the Harbourside area of the City.  The issues associated with the early proposals were that the buildings would be too tall and obstructive of fine city views from the City Docks, such as those of the Cathedral and University.  Fearing that the scale of the threat was not immediately clear to all, from the drawings and models, Dean Robert, wearing his full clerical attire of cassock and bands with the unusual addition of a yellow hard-hat was raised more than 60ft above the ground on the tiny platform of a cherry-picker to provide the clearest visual statement of just what a monstrous edifice was in store for the City if planning permission were to be granted.  However Dean Robert is not only a man of physical action, but also one of very great intellectual energy.  At the formal planning hearing his arguments were so well formed and articulated as to be a major factor in ensuring that the proposal was not approved.  Only months later was a much modified and moderated proposal granted planning permission.

The Dean’s intellectual vigour is fuelled by his voracious appetite for reading.  His scholarship is formally represented by not just one MA degree but two, the first from Cambridge where he read Mathematics for his Part 1A, and then transferred to Theology for his final two years, and the second from Oxford in Oriental Studies, gained while training at Ripon Hall for the ministry.  Furthermore, the Dean is an accomplished linguist.  His fluent German has been valuable in strengthening the City’s links with its twin city of Hanover.  However German is only one of his languages.  When, as a parent of young children he was repeatedly woken at 5am, rather than begrudge the loss of sleep as many parents might, he devoted the extra ‘awake’ time to learning Dutch from linguaphone tapes.  His scholarship extends beyond languages and theology to the arts, and music. His sermons are so rich in references to these cultural areas that it has been whispered that members of his congregation have made bets amongst themselves as to how many seconds it will be into a sermon before such a reference is made.  I suspect that many graduates in this congregation today will identify with this, having bet, at some time or other, on how often a lecturer will perform a particular idiosyncrasy or use a particular expression.

 Madame Chancellor, this formidable intellect does not come without some cost however.  For example, those giving public lectures in the City or lecturing to such bodies as the Bristol Society expect, having concluded the lecture, to field a few gentle questions before adjourning for the post-lecture meal. Not infrequently such speakers find themselves faced with rapier like questions from the Dean raising issues they had not considered but suddenly wish that they had.

The Dean’s commitment to education is whole-hearted and serves to link the university and cathedral worlds.  This link is a close one: it was after all the University’s Fire Brigade that saved the Cathedral from destruction in the Second World War.  The Dean is firmly of the view that the University and the Cathedral both have a commitment to the common good, to humane values and to serving the Bristol community.  The Dean’s contribution to education has been evident in his commitment to Bristol Cathedral School, playing an important role in guiding its transition from an independent school to an academy, as Bristol Cathedral Choir School.  He has always supported the vision of providing what the school can offer in a manner that ensures the widest possible participation. 

While the Dean is truly a person of intellect and action, focussed on improving our community, he is also loved for his warmth and kindness.  In all he does he has Joan, his wife, whom we welcome today, as his loyal supporter and critical friend.  Of Joan’s many contributions to the life of the Cathedral the ‘Happy Hippos’ must be mentioned: the Sunday School group named after St Augustine of Hippo, Bristol Cathedral having its roots in the twelfth-century foundation of an Augustinian Abbey, and reflecting both Robert and Joan’s view that children should very much be seen and heard.  Indeed, Madame Chancellor, in these days when job-shares are widespread it may seem strange that we do not offer shared Honorary Degrees.  Were we to do so no recipient would be more worthy than Joan.  Robert is first and foremost a family man and he is no stranger to the travails the parents and supporters in this congregation will have endured helping their charges along their degree paths.  At one time Robert and Joan had all three of their children at Oxford, and their son Matthew is now a Fellow there.  Matthew reports that one of his abiding memories of childhood is being taken around French cathedrals by his father, and having the architecture and decoration explained to him.  Disconcertingly for Matthew, his father would sometimes lie on his back in the middle of a busy cathedral nave in order to examine some particularly interesting roof carving.  The Dean’s appreciation of the finer points of architecture goes with an appreciation of finer culinary points and Matthew adds that his father has conducted a life-long search for the perfect pork pie.  Robert would acknowledge that his family have ensured that he never becomes pompous, citing the example of the occasion when he was ascending the steps to his pulpit only to hear his Grandson call out loudly, ‘Why do we have to listen to Grandad?’

Robert has managed somehow, to deliver in the highest profile areas while still maintaining his pastoral role.  In his time the Cathedral has provided all that is needed – and more –  for the great and grand services of the City, and he has filled an important national position in recent years as a Church Commissioner, one of a group of 33 with responsibility for the Church of England’s £4,300m assets.  Throughout this time, Robert and Joan have continued to provide pastoral support and practical help for all those in need of it.  This is nowhere more so than in their support of the bereaved.  At least one member of the Cathedral’s congregation has expressed annoyance that he has not managed to die during Robert’s time in office.

The Dean is very much a team-builder and he acknowledges that little could be achieved without the Cathedral Chapter, his team, pulling together.  He proudly acknowledges that the current Chapter, whom we welcome to this congregation, are his dream team.  This provides him with satisfaction and regret in equal measure.  Satisfaction at building this team, and regret that he must leave it. Robert and Joan now go to live in Oxford where he may read in the University’s libraries, practise the contemplation that his action-packed workload here has limited, and certainly continue the hunt for the perfect pork pie. Before this, however, he will be working in a pastoral role in a parish in Germany for three months.

While it is good to award an honorary degree to a man who has proved himself to be a great Dean, it is wonderful to make an award to a man who is truly good. Madame Chancellor, I commend to you Robert William Grimley as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of  Laws, honoris causa. 

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