Graham was born near Chester on the 5th March, 1926 to Percy and Alice Phillips. He, and his older brother and sister Denys and Joyce, were brought up under a very formal, proper and disciplined regime. Denys and Graham were particularly close and shared a love of aircraft. Later in life, the sound of a Merlin engine was the only known way to stop Graham in mid sentence.
A natural performer, chose to play the role of “principal girl” in several stage productions at his boys-only boarding school. His flare for drama was apparent and helped in his later role as a parish priest to bring his preaching and speaking to life.
At school he played rugby, boxed and also loved cycling, which he equated to freedom. He said of rugby that he “didn’t care about the ball, but just loved to tackle”. This fearlessness remained with him throughout his working life
He once witnessed a dog fight over the school resulting in a German plane crash landing nearby. Without hesitation, Graham stole a bike from the Masters room and pedalled over as fast as he could to see what had happened. His rebellious nature never wained
At the age of 16, Graham received his first sign of what the future held. Standing in a teacher’s study he saw a picture on the wall of the crucifixion and knew he had found what he had been looking for in his life.
Graham had a strong sense of design and at 18 years old started studying Architecture at Liverpool University. He also joined a Christian fellowship group who regularly invited speakers to talk about aspects of the Christian life. A particular speaker deeply affected his thinking. Pastor Alf Schultes, who had escaped a concentration camp, described his complete trust in the guidance and provision of God. This man’s total and sincere faith became a lifetime inspiration to Graham, and he also introduced him to the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, which became fundamental to his life and ministry.
On Christmas Day, 1945 Graham received some devastating news. Denys, his brother, had been killed in a flying accident near Hungerford where he worked. Shortly before his death, Denys gave Graham a piece of advice which stayed with him all his life – ‘Lead, don’t push’. This traumatic event deeply affected the Phillips family and triggered an ultimatum from his Father of continuing his study of Architecture and abandoning his “religious nonsense” or leaving University to “practice his religion”. Graham took this as his first test and chose to follow his faith, unaware of where that would take him.
Whilst Graham had no desire to become a priest, a local Bishop suggested he joined St Aidan’s theological college, where he studied for three years. During this time, his study of the teachings of St Francis of Assisi, thereafter known as Frank, became central to Graham’s philosophy. Frank represented themes that included love and respect to all, freedom from conformity and trusting in God’s provision.
St. Francis remained an inspiration throughout Graham’s life, and visitors to Pat and Graham’s home in Cranleigh may have spotted his statue in the garden where others may have placed a garden gnome.
Meeting Pat and marriage
Life changed forever for Graham in 1946 when, on a summer holiday in Wales, he met a young lady called Pat. They both wore ‘Young Crusaders’ badges, which opened the topic of conversation. Both shared the same deep faith and hope to become missionaries. Both also fell deeply in love.
When Pat and her family left the next day Graham turned to God and prayed – “either bring her back and I will marry her – if she’ll take me, or don’t and I will become a monk!!”. His response was quick as Pat returned a day later. The two were engaged within a year and married in 1950. Their love and commitment to each other has been an inspiring example to all that have met them in the 64 years since.
After working together as Master and Matron in a boarding school, Graham was ordained as a Deacon in 1951 and his life ministry started with learning the ropes in Wallasey, near Liverpool. He was subsequently ordained as a priest in 1952. From then on the family grew with two sons in 2 years.
In 1954 Pat and Graham re-located to South Yorkshire, and a small, coal-mining village near Rotherham. The pattern of “a new parish, a new baby” was firmly established with the birth of the first daughter.
Thrybergh was a rough, dirty and heavily industrialised place, but Graham fondly remembers the close community. He regularly visited the coal mine, sitting amongst the men on their break. It was here that he started his missionary outreach work.
It was deep underground in the mine that Graham witnessed “Six men grouped around a coal-cutter: each with a particular individual function, related closely in the working of the machine for extracting coal. It was a task that brought benefit to us all. In it I saw a vision of the visible Church of Jesus Christ, “a congregation of faithful men”.
Sadly Pat contracted Polio in 1957 and after being released from isolation hospital, the family moved again – this time to the sea, air and sand of Guernsey, where Graham took a Curate’s role in a strongly traditional parish. A third son was born, but after two years Graham felt he was ready for the challenge of a parish of his own.
The family landed in the village of Heytesbury, Wiltshire where Graham’s parish responsibilities covered three villages. Despite the large area to cover, there was time for another addition to the family, daughter two.
The vicarage had a large garden and it wasn’t long before Graham and Pat added livestock in the form of Petunia the donkey, and Judy the goat, to the incumbent dogs and cat.
However, despite the idyllic setting, a country pastor’s role was not enough of a challenge – the opportunity for missionary activity was limited and Graham had a message that he wanted more people to hear.
Stonebridge Park, London
The size of the family meant that Graham and Pat’s desire to work overseas as missionaries could not be fulfilled. However, another opportunity to proclaim God’s message presented itself and in 1965 Graham, as Vicar, took on a challenging parish in Stonebridge Park, North West London, with the additional role of Chaplain for the Central Middlesex Hospital.
Here Graham’s pastoral role developed, in a large multi-cultural environment. From this time forward, his work within the community took priority, and he is remembered mostly for his care and compassion with the people he visited.
Pat’s role also grew as she became involved in local groups such as the Mothers’ Union. She also established her position as editor-in-chief for the Saturday sermon-writing activity.
Graham inspired and nurtured his lay staff, two of whom would go forward for ordination. Several years later he was proud to invite one to his new parish to preach. He also started writing as a new way to reach more people.
The final addition of daughter 3 to the family, made the final score 3-all.
However, there was also significant resistance to Graham’s attempts to revise the forms of worship, and conflict was something he took very personally.
Vernham Dean, Hampshire
The redevelopment of much of his parish, and consequential moving of his parishioners, as well as the planned demolition of the vicarage prompted Graham and Pat to move again in 1970, this time to a Hampshire village, Vernham Dean.
As before, it wasn’t long before the grounds were filled with geese, ducks, chickens and a goat, and Graham developed an interest in living off the land, whilst also managing two village churches. He could often be seen in his cassock simultaneously taking both dog and goat for a daily walk.
Even with the smaller congregation and community, Graham put as much passion and energy into his work. He took this as the opportunity to “sort out” where he stood in all the changes within the Church of England, and spent much of his time mapping out a ”missionary approach” with the aid of a hand-operated printer.
Farnham and Cove
It would be fair to say that Graham’s regular parish moves were partly through the restlessness of a missionary. A further contributing factor would be his rebellious nature, and lack of respect for authority. When he said “I’ll have to ask The Boss”, he was never referring to his Bishop.
In 1978, when the parish of Vernham Dean was amalgamated with that next door, Graham and Pat moved to a parish in Farnham, and three years later to a team ministry in Cove, Farnborough. Here Graham took on a very new role for him – that of Team Vicar. Used to working on his own, this was a big change and, although he didn’t manage to develop all of his missionary related ideas, he developed a ‘Pram Service’ for mums, toddlers and babies which became a real means of outreach to the growing housing estates. Although keeping very busy, Graham found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his mission with changes in the Church itself and decided it was best to ‘retire from the fray’.
At his retirement party in 1989, his colleague Michael described him with three words:
Subsequently, Graham and Pat moved to Cranleigh – to a ‘dapper house surrounded by trees’ (as predicted many years before by one of his parishioners in Stonebridge Park) – and here they started a long and very happy retirement. But that didn’t stop him working! Here he became, in his own words, the “Reverend Joe Bloggs”. It was a chance to take off the dog collar and meet people in his community, still spreading his message but freed from parochial duties.
Pat and Graham would stop and chat to anyone – from mothers with babies to Big Issue sellers and dog walkers – this was their new mission! Graham loved to tell anyone and everyone “The Good News”. He had the most incredible talent to turn any conversation about any subject toward Jesus. They also took various Christian foreign students, from the University of Surrey under their wing.
The couple became a Cranleigh institution with their beige Campervan known as Gertie, and would often get a wave from passer bys whilst other drivers learnt to just keep well out of his way. Their dog Angie became renowned in the village. A poster advertising “Open gardens in Cranleigh” once had a footnote stating – “No dogs, except Angie”.
He continued throughout this period to think, discuss and write about his fundamental beliefs. With his family’s help, this work has culminated in a book, entitled ‘Beacon’, which encapsulates his philosophy, guiding principles, and fundamental belief in God. The family hope to publish this as a fitting testament to his life’s work and endeavours. Thus his ministry, which he pursued until the very end of his life, will continue still.
Graham Phillips – minister, husband, father and grandfather
– will be dearly remembered for his endless love and commitment to his wife and family, his deep, sincere devotion and trust in God, his passion for life, his spirit of adventure, his sense of humour and sense of mission. A man who never felt that his work was done, and never truly realised how deeply he affected so many people throughout his life.
Finally, Graham’s own words about his life’s journey:
‘You will see that the theme of ‘guidance, protection, and provision” run through this story. Sometimes things have been ‘difficult’, sometimes easy, but we who Believe and Trust in the Living Lord have His Word to rely upon and to guide our thoughts. This is true, isn’t it?’
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