Obituary: Very Rev Dean Emeritus John Rymer

By Arnold Pickmere

By ARNOLD PICKMERE

Churchman. Died aged 78.

John Oliver Rymer, an Australian noted for his forthright views, had an extraordinary affinity with Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Had it not been for this man, so strong in his beliefs and convictions, the building with its two distinctive - and some would say unrelated - halves might still be far from its present state of completion.

John Rymer arrived from Christchurch to become Dean of Auckland in 1970.

By 1975, with a gothic cathedral still only half finished despite being started in 1959 (after countless years of delay), his thoughts on completing it were developing.

The gothic building, plugged at its unfinished end with corrugated iron and known by some as Rymer's Hen House, had had no structural additions for a decade.

"Six out of every hundred New Zealanders go to church," the dean told the Herald.

"That means that 94 per cent of the population is living as though the church were dead."

His growing notion was that the completed cathedral could be used for arts, music, drama, dialogue, artistic shows and other community activities, as well as worship.

The difficulty of finishing the cathedral to its present state should not be underestimated. It was only in 1980 that the Auckland Diocesan Synod passed Rymer's motion to complete the cathedral using a cluster concept.

That included the half-finished gothic cathedral joined to a modern nave designed by Dr R.H. Toy and moving the historic wooden Cathedral Church of St Mary across Parnell Rd from its original sloping site.

Opposition to this move was so strong that two years later the dean warned parishioners that it came mostly from critics outside the church, who saw it as a monument rather than an active church building.

In the event, moving the church was an undoubted success.

And its new position also helped Aucklanders to shed the perception that the Anglican church had a fine church it did not want to use on one side of the road and a half-finished cathedral on the other which had already cost too much.

In 1986, as part of the centenary celebrations marking the laying of the foundation stone of St Mary's in 1886, Rymer launched an organisation that became known as Friends of Holy Trinity Cathedral.

In the event, the 1990s arrived before Rymer, as director of the Auckland Cathedral Completion Project, gained real momentum with his work - cajoling the Auckland business community into helping.

Auckland architects, engineers and quantity surveyors donated about $1 million in labour to complete final working drawings, based on the original plans for a nave with a Polynesian influence.

Rymer convinced the great and the good to open their pockets and contribute to the $16 million needed to get the cathedral finished.

He did not, however, put that down to skill in fundraising. His success is perhaps better explained as stemming from a lifetime of helping thousands in time of need, grief or happiness with simple, direct words of kindness and comfort and guidance.

As he explained it in 1997: "You start off young and think theoretically. Over the years you realise that people matter more than anything and that the greatest problem you've got is how to communicate.

"People think we were great fundraisers. We were not ... we'd been able to infiltrate the life of the city and the schools and we knew the people.

"It's all about valuing people. And it was because I was involved in so many births and deaths and marriages ... that was how this cathedral was built."

John Rymer was born in Townsville, Australia, and educated at the University of Queensland and St Francis' Theological College, being ordained in 1946. He reached Auckland after being Canon Rymer, principal of Christchurch College, Ilam and honorary canon of Christchurch Cathedral.

Throughout his life and in his many positions in church and charities he was a forthright man.

If an emerging attitude or trend in society did not fit with his beliefs or ideals, the public of Auckland soon found out.

In 1971, within a year of his arrival, he attacked the "propaganda" undermining the importance of motherhood.

"We are told what the material results of employment may be, but not the casualties to womanhood itself, to motherhood and to the family."

He was worried about society becoming increasingly permissive.

And in 1985 he thought the nuclear deterrent was not a Christian way to bring peace, but that abandonment of nuclear warheads could lead to a godless tyranny of the world.

"My heart longs for the New Zealand policy [on nuclear ship visits] to be right and yet my head warns of caution," he said.

In 1989 he spoke out against using Sundays for business purposes after the advent of seven-day trading in Parnell. He declared that forcing Christians to work on Sunday was unjust, because people would threaten their livelihoods by refusing to work on the Sabbath.

Rymer's hope was that the accessibility of the cathedrals' Pacific architecture would draw people in.

But asked how the building affected him, he said: "I don't think that matters very much. When you're finished as a dean you've got to leave it. And you haven't got all the answers yourself, about how it's going to be used in the next generation."

John Rymer is survived by Joyce, his wife of 52 years and a former Australian international tennis player, and two daughters, Judy and Janice.

* A service of thanksgiving and remembrance will be held at Holy Trinity Cathedral on Monday at 2pm

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