The son of a former Bishop of Durham has helped write a book about his father, dubbed The Improbable Bishop. Mark Tallentire reports.

IAN Ramsey was an unexpected choice as Bishop of Durham, when he succeeded Maurice Harland in 1966.

Ordained in 1940, Dr Ian Thomas Ramsey had spent 23 years in academia: serving as a lecturer and chaplain at his beloved Cambridge University and later as a professor at Oxford.

But with his northern roots – he was born in Kearsley, near Bolton, in Lancashire, in January 1915, compassion for his fellow man and strong work ethic, he was soon embraced by the people of the diocese, and was even called “Everybody’s Bishop”.

Perhaps his flaw was an inability to say no. A predecessor, the unrelated Michael Ramsey, by then Archbishop of Canterbury, described it – at one of six memorial services – as a “deep and inseparable part of his character”.

Some even say it led to his death, following a heart attack, while still in office at the premature age of 57, on October 6, 1972.

Now, 39 years on, his son, Paul, has contributed to a John S Peart-Binns biography, titled The Improbable Bishop.

The phrase was coined at another memorial service, by a successor in Oxford, Prof Basil Mitchell, Paul, now 65, explained.

“He never really saw himself as being a bishop,” he recalled.

“During our childhood, he was certainly very much involved in the Church. But he was unusual as a bishop.”

At the 1968 Lambeth Conference, an African bishop described him as “someone we can talk to – a normal person”.

On another occasion, having had tea at a vicarage ahead of a church service, he was to be found sitting on the floor, playing with a young child.

“He managed to bridge the gap between everyone – whether it was a miner or a small child,” his son said.

“He was able to speak as easily to a small child, the Queen or anyone else.”

One particular encounter with Her Majesty came in 1967, when the traditional Maundy Thursday service was held in Durham.

His father hosted the service and a lunch afterwards, attended by the Queen, Paul recalled.

Another highlight was his father’s enthronement service, on December 15, 1966. And his consecration service, held in York Minster on November 1, was “incredible”, he recalled – “very inspiring”.

When his father moved to Durham, Paul had effectively left home – back to Cambridge to study engineering.

However, he did briefly live with him at Auckland Castle, in Bishop Auckland, in 1970, when working, during a career spent as a mechanical engineer on the railways, as assistant manager at Tyne Yard.

The Church of England Commissioners recently announced they had no plans to sell Auckland Castle but were planning to sell the £15m Zurburan paintings which hang within.

Paul, who now lives in Nantwich, Cheshire, believes his father, whose ashes are buried in an Auckland Castle chapel, would have wanted both to remain in church ownership.

“He loved Auckland Castle and although there were some pressing him to go and live in a three-bedroom house, he saw the inheritance of Auckland as being vital to the place of the Church in the North-East,” he said.

“He and Michael Ramsey fought against the Church Commissioners to keep Auckland and at that stage had an agreement it would be kept.

“He also opened up Auckland far more – the beginning of trying to make better use of Auckland Castle for the whole of the community.”

He allowed it to be used for flower festivals, brought the diocesan office across from Durham City and organised annual Chorister School sports days on its bowling green.

“He would certainly have wanted the church to keep it. He saw it as an inheritance of the past but also very important to the people of Durham.

“Although obviously there’s finance involved, he would have tried to find other means of keeping the Zurburan paintings there.”

He also understood the region’s people and industries.

“He was born in Lancashire and never lost his love of the North of England.

Durham was a way of bringing out his love of the North and of people.

“He felt the church should be engaged in all aspects of life. He tried to put that into practice in all he did.

“He tried to see what could be done with the industry that was around. He felt very strongly about the decline of shipbuilding and coal mining and argued very strongly in the House of Lords for a greater view of the whole industry and energy.”

And in many ways, he was a forward-looking man. As well as his contributions to philosophy, theology and science, he was an early campaigner for the environment, holding talks with famed Durham botanist David Bellamy on how young people could be involved protecting in the great outdoors.

“I think that’s why there are so many parts of Durham now that are green,” Paul said. “The pit heaps have been changed into hills and there are walks around the county as well. I think my father would have been delighted with the progress that’s been made.”

For the biography, which had been mooted for nearly 30 years before it was finally published, Paul looked into his family history and researched his father’s House of Lords speeches, before handing the information to Mr Peart-Binns.

The Improbable Bishop is published by The Memoir Club, priced £8.95 plus postage and packing. For more information, call 0191-373-5660 or email