The Protestant And The Priest
Gary Priest, a semi-retired Anglican priest currently living in Adelaide, was an illiterate schoolboy living in Gunnedah when a Mr John Chapman became his Manual Arts teacher in 1954.
One of Chappo’s favourite dining-out or after dinner stories tells of Gary’s famous victory in the impromptu public speaking competition that secured the Littleton Cup for Gunnedah High in the fierce competition of the schools of North West NSW in 1955
This story is the sequel to that article.
I met with Gary just before Christmas at a cafe in suburban Adelaide when I was in the city for some meetings. He was shorter and less clerically dressed than I imagined he would be. I asked him about his childhood and the reasons for his illiteracy:
My father was a POW in Changi prison and returned to Australia with high levels of unidentified and unresolved trauma. He suffered terrible nightmares and was often violent. My mother owned a hairdressing salon in Gunnedah and my father had a small booth in the back of the salon where he repaired watches. Our family lived in a flat behind the shop.
I had quite severe dyslexia and in the forties and fifties little was known about this problem so it was just never diagnosed. I recall on one occasion being locked in my bedroom until I could write out and spell correctly the days of the week. But the task was well beyond me.
Gary recalls the depth of the sectarian divide that existed in Gunnedah in those post-WW2 years. With some relish, he recites the ditties being sung on the school bus carrying students to both the public and convent schools. The convent students would sing:
Convent convent ring the bell
While the public march to hell.
The public school students riposte is not repeatable.
Despite his illiteracy, and perhaps because of it, Gary quickly became a fast, funny and inveterate storyteller. He loved the opportunity that the impromptu public speaking gave him to stand and deliver off the cuff.
He had already won the admiration of Mr Chapman when the great day of the Littleton Cup came around. His stunning victory just cemented their unlikely friendship. Gary goes on to say:
During those junior years at high school, my parents despaired for my education and the year that Mr Chapman went back to Sydney (1956) I was sent to Knox Grammar as a boarder and would stay with an aunt at Mosman on the weekends. I only lasted a year at Knox. Nobody there knew how to help me in those days. I learnt a lot about community in that year, but couldn’t progress academically
During the next few years in Sydney I was drawn, because of my illiteracy, to Anglo-Catholicism where I could make sense of the symbolism, icons and ritualistic nature of the mass. I was a regular attender at St James Kings Street and Christ Church St Laurence. I kept my illiteracy well hidden.
I applied to the Bishop of Riverina, because I heard he would ordain anything that moved, and he sent me to St John’s Morpeth with a view to ordaining me in his diocese. Again, I only lasted a term at Morpeth as it was next to impossible for me to complete assignments.
Gary vowed to remedy the situation, so returned to Sydney and spent two years studying matriculation English at TAFE and a further year studying Prayer Book by correspondence. He was given a part-time job as verger at Christ Church St Laurence and lived in the small flat on site. During this year he also joined the Moore College Society so that he could, “convert the members from the evils of Protestantism to the light of Anglo-Catholicism.” He remembers having some lively debates during this time with the likes of Neil Flower, among others.
Gary returned to Morpeth in 1969 two weeks after his marriage to Robyn. He spent two years studying for his Licentiate in Theology and was ordained in the Diocese of Riverina, ministering in Leeton, Balranald and Broken Hill before becoming the Dean of the Bunbury Cathedral for 12 years and then Rector of the parishes of Kingscliff and Byron Bay. He retired in 2010 and he and Robyn settled in Adelaide where he serves as a locum whenever and wherever asked, successfully helping to regrow a number of parishes.
Throughout the 1960’s, and even later, he loved to cross paths with Chappo who started him on his, “faith journey” way back in the mid-fifties at St Andrew’s Gunnedah and Gunnedah High.
A couple of years ago I asked Paul Harrington, the Rector of Holy Trinity Adelaide, if he had come across Gary and Paul’s face lit up as he said:
Whenever I am at clergy functions I always make the point of having a chat with him. He is always talking about the Lord Jesus and those who have come to Christ and others he is praying for and working on. He is such an encouragement.
As for Gary’s latest project, he is in a parish that isn’t currently viable, preaching the word with great enthusiasm (yes, the sacraments are big on his agenda too) and seeking to re-engage the parish in its mission to reach the lost. He hastens to add:
I’ve been reading up on the English Reformation realising there was, and still is a great need for reformation. In the early days I was a real pain with my Anglo-Catholic obsession but now I understand that when Jesus is honoured as Lord, he is working through his Word and Spirit in many who are unlike me - even Presbyterians!
Gary chuckles at the prospect that the priest has come to have such a respect for protestants and non-conformists!