A farewell to John and Sue Innes

At the beginning of this month we said a sad but hugely affectionate goodbye to John and Sue Innes who have moved to Somerset for what John calls “the next stage of retirement”.

John and Sue retired to the parish in 1997 though in truth they had had their house on the Upper Hale Road since the 1970s and had also spent a year as interim priest-in-charge of St George’s, Badshot Lea. Since then they have both continued to be active in the parish in so many ways, from organising distribution of the church magazine, to baking cakes, to preaching and presiding at services. John preached his last sermon for the parish on August 30 (https://badshotleaandhale.org/2020/08/30/sunday-worship-30th-august/). 

This ‘next stage of retirement’ comes after 64 years of John’s ordained ministry. Brought up in the Scottish Episcopalian Church – the family lived for many years in St Andrew’s where his father was a university lecturer – John was ordained a deacon in 1956 after studying theology in Cambridge, and a priest the following year. He has spent his ministry in the south-east, in London first, then Walton on Thames, at Moor Park College where he was chaplain, at St George’s, Badshot Lea, and in Tilford, while also teaching at Farnham Grammar School. Since retiring from the school in 1996 and Tilford in 1997, he has ministered in Hale and in Badshot Lea.

But this is not the half of it. A huge part of John’s ministry was behind the Iron Curtain in the then Soviet Union, and then, when his visa was denied, in other parts of Easter Europe including Poland and what was Czechoslovakia. In fact he was in Prague when Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ rebellion in 1968. “There was an extraordinary feeling in the air,” he recalls. “You felt you could throw yourself in front of a tank.”

John’s interest in Eastern Europe and in Eastern Orthodox faith was sparked as a school boy when an art teacher showed the class on a screen some examples of Christian iconography. John was hooked and began looking into the spiritual teaching of icons.

He learned Russian at Marlborough College, taught by a World War One veteran who had picked it up when on minesweepers in the White Sea, but he went on to study history at Oxford University. However, he picked up Russian again while doing his national service in the Tank Corps in the early 1950s, as he was able to take Army evening classes in the language. But it was at Oxford that he began a life-long association with the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, an Anglican-Orthodox fellowship in which the Orthodox members were mostly Russian refugees. “They were highly academic,” he says, “and some of them were probably pushed out of the country by Lenin. They were in one sense the lucky ones as he killed many.”

The Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius has been responsible for continuing dialogue between the Orthodox and Anglican churches and has also played a part in bringing Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers together. “It creates a space in which discussion and argument is possible,” says John. “Political tensions don’t upset the relationships and it has a continuing influence today.”

This part of John’s life has been vital to him and has run alongside his calling to ordained ministry. In fact, he has realised that his vocation was “to be a servant of God, not necessarily to be a priest in the Church of England.”.

A series of promptings pushed him in the direction of ordination. ”My company commander [during National Service] and my mother and one of the lecturers at university all said ‘have you thought of the ministry?’. He pursued the interest and enrolled at theological college in Cambridge in 1954. While here he was introduced to another dimension of understanding faith, not thanks to his studies so much as to a Billy Graham crusade. Here he heard the message that ‘what matters before God the Father is not what you have done but what Christ has done’. “It was something to do with pride and as with St Paul, this has remained a perpetual battle,” he reflects.

Though a parish priest he was able to visit Russia – “because I saw my vocation as being to be a servant of God, I never saw any tension between my work in Russia and Eastern Europe and my parish work” – and in 1960 had what he describes as a “life-changing” experience while travelling there. “I had some Bible commentaries to take to a monastery in Russia. I arrived there and went to the office where I said ‘I have gifts for you’. The monk smiled at me and said ‘for the library?’. I said yes and started to take them from my bag and pile them up on the table – there were about 40 of them – and the monk said nothing the whole time. When I had finished he said ‘would you like to see the monastery?’. It was when we were on our own he suddenly said ‘now we can talk. It is not wise to talk where there are more than two people’. It was a complete culture shock for me.”

He wasn’t exactly doing anything illegal during his visits behind the Iron Curtain but he did collect information about what church buildings were in use for services and he would then feed information back to Keston College at Oxford (which studied faith and communist countries) and to other mission organisations, and then tourists were able to go to the countries and take Bibles to those churches. He published a little handbook of open churches in Leningrad (St Petersburg) and Moscow, and it was probably his knowledge of these churches which led to him being denied a visa in 1976. “I was with a school group and had a sketch on me of a town with the churches on it and a border guard saw it. He was very courteous and shrewd but the next time I applied for a visa it was denied. I didn’t blame them.”

During his decade or so of visiting the Soviet Union John saw a lot of the country. “I belonged to the Pushkin Club in London which was made up mostly of elderly Russian refugees and their offspring. They arranged a bus tour staying in campsites in the 1960s. It was very primitive – especially the toilets – but we had our tents on Russian campsites alongside the Russians and we had our own guides. People could slip away if they wanted. Later on, tourists were kept isolated from most Russians.

“But we could talk to the ordinary people and I particularly remember a group of students who said ‘tell us about your country. We want to hear from you, not what we read in the papers’. It was a world of contrasts.”

When he was denied his visa, John switched his attention to other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, a place he had visited the previous decade during the Prague Spring. “I was in Prague with a group from France, sharing a room with a wise old Jesuit who was a wonderful support and encouragement.” Meanwhile at home Sue was patiently waiting and did not welcome a phone call from a friend on the day when the tanks rolled in telling her to watch the news about Prague as “I think John is there”.

Alongside this John was chaplain at Moor Park College, Farnham, from 1967-76, a non-stipendiary post which he funded by part-time teaching at Farnham Grammar School, during which time he finally got round to taking a Russian A-level. He also filled a vacancy at St George’s before being appointed Priest-in-Charge at Tilford. It was in the 1970s that he and Sue acquired the house on the Upper Hale Road which they vacated last weekend.

John’s faith has been deeply influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy as well as Anglicanism, Scottish Episcopalianism, and Presbyterianism. “I was brought up in the Episcopalian Church and sometimes on holiday we would go to the Church of Scotland. I enjoyed the scholarly and challenging sermons. It forced me to develop my intellect in a spiritual way, something that is often lacking in England. The Orthodox Church introduced me to a mystical theology and showed me that there is a link between prayer and theology. Theology has often been seen as an intellectual pursuit but you can’t divide doctrine from devotion.”

John has continued both intellectual pursuits, pastoral work and prayer throughout his time serving this parish in his retirement and will no doubt continue to do so in his new home in Wiltshire. His lively mind, gentleness, curiosity, friendship, enthusiasm, wide knowledge, faith and prayerfulness have given so much to the parish. John is fond of quoting one of the early church fathers who said: “He is a good theologian who prays truly”.  He may not appreciate how much we see this lived out in him.

The Tuesday before they left Alan Crawley presented him with a gift from the parish, a book which John described as a foundation classic on the study of icons: The Meaning of Icons by Vladimir Lossky, Leonid Ouspensky. Alan said: “Thank you so much for all you have done for the parish. There are so many things that I know both of you have done – the pastoral visiting, the magazine, the church cleaning, the sermons, the groups, and I suspect I don’t know the half of it. From Lesley’s and my point of view, we value all of those but the thing we value the most is the support you have given us over all that time.”

Goodbye John and Sue – we will miss you, but we wish you every blessing in your next stage of retirement.

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