Another chapter in my ‘Friends and Parishioners’ series. The Most Reverend Brother John-Charles Vockler, FODC, was consecrated as a bishop in Australia in 1959 (Anglican Church of Australia).
John-Charles Vockler, as he was known to his parents; His Grace Archbishop John-Charles, as he was to the Anglican Catholic Church, Brother John-Charles, as he preferred to be called in religion and his chosen Franciscan life, J-C as he was often to his pals, was the fifth Acting Primate of the Anglican Catholic Church. I am the sixth, so he was my immediate predecessor. He was born and died in New South Wales, Australia, but in between lived a peripatetic life. At various times after his consecration as a bishop he served in episcopal offices in five Churches. In Australia he was consecrated as Bishop of Mount Gambier, a suffragan see of Adelaide. In Polynesia, which was then attached to the Church of New Zealand, he was Ordinary of Polynesia, with cathedrals in Fiji and Tonga. In England at various times he held three suffragan titles in the Church of England, including Chelmsford. In the United States he was a suffragan or assistant bishop in the Diocese of Quincy in the Episcopal Church. Later in the Anglican Catholic Church was ordinary of New Orleans. He was a product of the post-war glory days of Anglicanism, when Anglican bishops might be intimate with monarchs and prime ministers, celebrities and academics and titans of industry, when the New York Times ran in full the Easter sermon of the bishop of New York, and the opinion of bishops could have public consequences.
I have never known anyone else whose seemingly endless fund of stories could so reduce a room to helpless laughter. John-Charles seemed to have met everyone and to be friends with a huge number of astonishingly varied folk: the Queen Mother and Prince Charles and the Earl of Lauderdale, Archbishops of Canterbury, Mae West, a Jewish shirt maker in Atlanta, New York socialites, the German restaurant owner around the corner here in Athens, Georgia, the driver who took him to the airport. And usually there was a hilarious story attached. Consider this one about Mae West from John-Charles’s time teaching at General Theological Seminary in New York:
Miss West met me with some seminarians. She was a churchwoman you know. [No, I didn’t know. Did you? Was she?] Now the seminarians were allowed to invite an occasional guest to dinner. One young fellow was so bowled over that he invited Miss West to dinner at the seminary. She declined. Her reply was, ‘Sonny, you can’t be too careful about your reputation.’
Once John-Charles was taken in Athens to a barbeque joint. He was wearing his brown Franciscan habit, with its white cord and its three knots representing the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The owner, a curious African-American Baptist, asked about the rope and the knots. John-Charles explained the Franciscan vows and interpreted them more colloquially as meaning ‘No Money, No Honey, No Funny’.
Or again, when John-Charles was Bishop of Polynesia in the 1960s he did a fundraising tour of Canada for his diocese. In British Columbia Archbishop Harold Eustace Sexton was his host. Archbishop Sexton had a young priest in the far north where there were only two churches, the Anglican and the Presbyterian. The Presbyterian minister was on an extended holiday when a prominent member of his congregation died. The Anglican priest was asked to take the funeral. Sexton was known for being rather prickly, so the Anglican priest decided to play it safe and ask his archbishop what to do. The telegram of enquiry from the north went something like this: ‘John Smith, Presby banker dead. Presby minister gone. May do funeral, query?’ The telegraphic reply was swift in coming: ‘Bury all the Presbyterians you can!’
There were two other Sexton stories. Archbishop Sexton and his wife were quite old, so they put John-Charles up in a hotel. The two bishops had lunch together daily, however, and then people would pick John-Charles up at his hotel for his speaking and other engagements. One day at lunch in the archbishop’s club a man walked by of whom Archbishop Sexton evidently disapproved. The archbishop, it should be added, was very deaf. As the man walked by the archbishop said, in an unfortunately loud voice, ‘Money! Money, money, money! This used to be a gentleman’s club. Now it’s nothing but filthy money. Why just the other day,’ the archbishop boomed, ‘I was having a nice quiet conversation here with someone, much as you and I are having now. Someone walked by and said, “Be quiet, you silly fool.” Imagine that! Telling an archbishop to be quiet!’
John-Charles visited British Columbia in December, then continued on eastward into Canada and other speaking engagements on his fundraising tour. At the end of his stay in Vancouver both of the Sextons accompanied him to the train station. At the platform several brightly wrapped Christmas presents appeared. This was rather puzzling to John-Charles, but was quickly explained by Archbishop Sexton: ‘The next diocese is dry as a bone. Scotch!’
Before John-Charles was a bishop, however, he had that stint teaching at General Theological Seminary in New York. The dean of the day was a rather severe man popularly known as Old Persimmon Face. A student would go to the dean and say, ‘Dean, my grandfather has died. May I go to the funeral?’ The dean would contort his face and suck in his cheeks and seem to ponder and then say, ‘Nnnnnnnnooooo.’ The dean and John-Charles were sitting together in choir at a function involving a procession that included the bishop of Long Island, whom the dean detested. The bishop had begun to affect an umbrellino – a little canopy held above the bishop in processions, at least in some pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic dioceses on some occasions. The dean leaned over to John-Charles said, ‘Who does that ass think he is now? The Blessed Sacrament?’
People liked to lean over to whisper things to John-Charles. At the Franciscan friary in London there was a brother with a significant limp who always showed up at the offices late. Prayers would have begun, the doors would fling open, the brother would look startled as if there were something unusual about the fact that things had begun on time while he was late, and in he would limp. One day as this common scene unfolded a brother leaned over to John-Charles and said, ‘Oh, look. At last, here comes Stump Along Chastity!’
And so, on and on the stories would pour forth. (The only person I ever encountered who did not enjoy dinner with John-Charles was a man who himself liked to hold center stage and, in consequence, felt repressed by a more impressive guest.) Then just when everyone was about to burst from the laughter there would come something very touching or sobering. For example, while in Polynesia John-Charles became a favorite with Queen Sālote, of Tonga. In 1965 when the queen was dying she asked to see John-Charles. (She was really a Methodist, but became an Anglican when he was in her capital.) He was ushered into her chamber, and they had their final talk. As he was leaving he said, ‘Goodbye, Your Majesty.’ To which she replied, faithfully and correctly, ‘Do not say “Goodbye”, John-Charles, for we shall see each other again.’
John-Charles first met the queen a few years earlier when he became bishop of Polynesia. In those days the Anglican bishop came near the top of the tables of precedence, and he was presented at court quite early in his episcopate. One of the first things the queen said to him was, ‘What was that Noel Coward said about me at Elizabeth’s coronation?’ This was a trick question. Queen Sālote was one of the great sensations of Elizabeth II’s coronation. The Tongan queen, like most Polynesian royals and nobles, was very tall – well over six feet. She was taken to Westminster Abbey in a carriage with the high commissioner of Pakistan, who was exceptionally short. Noel Coward provided commentary on the occasion for the BBC in one of the first great televised events. The BBC man asked Coward who was in that particular carriage. Coward said that it was Queen Sālote of Tonga. Who then, the BCC man continued, was the other person? That, Coward said, was the queen’s lunch. In later years when Europeans were presented at court the queen usually asked about this incident. If the European repeated Coward’s comment, that was the end of his or her court career. John-Charles, of course, had been told the story and warned about his answer. He answered the queen’s question, therefore, by saying, ‘I have no idea, your Majesty.’ She smiled, because of course she knew perfectly well that he did have an idea. He smiled back. From then on they were friends. In that final meeting described above John-Charles was touched to see that his own photograph was on a table in her chamber.
John-Charles spent seven years in Polynesia, then headed to London to try his vocation as a Franciscan friar. Because a bishop was assumed to be terribly proud, the Franciscans put him in the kitchen for a year to peel potatoes and do other such chores. After the year he was allowed out, at which point he was invited to one of the large royal garden parties that are held in nice weather. John-Charles was one of the few dozen people presented to Queen Elizabeth personally. The queen was told that John-Charles had retired as Bishop of Polynesia to become a Franciscan friar. The queen, to this, asked if there were anything John-Charles missed about being a bishop. He answered, ‘Well, Ma’am, I don’t miss the administrative work.’ To that the queen observed that surely administrative work is an important part of a bishop’s job. John-Charles answered with a question: ‘Ma’am, have you read the Ordinal?’ The queen turned her back on this question and the one who placed it, and John-Charles slunk off in disgrace.
A year or so later John-Charles happened to be in Scotland visiting his friend, Patrick Maitland, the earl of Lauderdale, whose estate was near to Balmoral Castle, one of the queen’s main Scottish residences. The queen one day was at the Maitlands’ for some business that did not involve any of the company, but as she left the guests and the staff were lined up on two sides of the front entrance to bow and curtsey as the queen went down to her car. As the queen walked down the steps her eye lighted upon John-Charles. She walked right up to him and said, ‘I’ve read it!’, then carried on her way. John-Charles speculates that after his earlier encounter, the queen perhaps realized that she had not closely read the Form for the Consecrating of Bishops in the Ordinal and decided that, as Supreme Governour of the Church of England, she should. So she did. As John-Charles observed, ‘She’s no dummy.’
Despite these two encounters with the queen, John-Charles was more familiar with Prince Charles. When the prince was doing his time in the Royal Navy, as part of his service in all of the military branches, John-Charles did a school of prayer or retreat at the prince’s naval base. The prince came to the meditations and sought John-Charles out for conversation. Thereafter they maintained an occasional correspondence that continued until John-Charles’s death. Letters from the prince would arrive in plain brown envelopes with no indication of their source.
John-Charles hoped to write it all down, and he had a good title picked out: Tears and Laughter in the Church of God. Alas, by the time he had sufficient leisure for the project, age and infirmity kept him from writing the book.
When I was a parish priest John-Charles came several years in a row to lead a school of prayer and parish missions at Saint Stephen’s. For some laymen the school of prayer in particular was a life-changing experience. Through this ministry as a teacher of prayer and of the Christian life to parishes and retreats, and through more individual ministries as a confessor and spiritual director, John-Charles helped to build strong Christians on several continents over many decades. Those whom he counselled stretched quite literally from poor students to princes. He always seemed willing to make time and to acknowledge the Christian or potential Christian in each face that he met.
During his visits to Athens John-Charles usually divided his time between my house and the grand house of Tom and Ann Wilkins. Ann put him in a main floor room whose bed looked, John-Charles would say, like something suitable for Peter the Great. His hosts always learned his tastes quickly. He very much enjoyed his scotch, always in the same way: ‘Two fingers of scotch, two fingers of water, two ice cubes.’
Our final meeting occurred in Maitland, New South Wales, where J-C retired to an assisted living place called Benhome. Canon Matthew Kirby would either take him Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament, if he did not feel up to going to Sunday Mass, or would fetch him for Mass if he had more energy. When I visited John-Charles felt up to attending Mass, after which we went to the neighborhood pub for lunch. I went to the bar to order drinks and asked the bartender for two fingers of scotch, two fingers of water, and two ice cubes. The bartender said, ‘Oh, Brother John-Charles must be here!’ I was very happy to see that my friend was in a nice home, cared for by a good priest, and known to staff and neighbors and bartenders and all the sundry folk he always attracted.
For a time John-Charles fought the losing ‘battle from within’ the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. Finally he had enough, when yet another big ‘traditionalist’ pow-wow (the Episcopal Synod of America, perhaps it was, or Forward-in-Faith) produced yet another grand statement and no action. He departed the meeting saying, ‘Ichabod, Ichabod, Ichabod!’ and joined the ACC forthwith. He was by no means perfect or infallible, and Lord knows his handwriting was all-but-indecipherable, but he added episcopal experience, perspective, and stability to a rather inexperienced College of Bishops. At various times he was dean of Holyrood Seminary, Minister General of the Franciscan Order of the Divine Compassion, Bishop Ordinary of New Orleans, Bishop Ordinary of Australia, and Metropolitan of the Original Province. He was always willing to do what the Church asked of him, and was always a supportive friend and advisor to me.