The Right Reverend Michael Fisher
(Filed: 09/12/2003)
 

The Right Reverend Michael Fisher, who died on Friday aged 85, was, unusually, both a Franciscan friar and an Anglican bishop.

Although the greater part of his life was devoted to the Franciscan Order, he was a highly effective Suffragan Bishop of St Germans, in Cornwall, from 1979 until 1985. He was then elected Minister General of the Society of St Francis, serving in this international office until ill-health forced his retirement in 1991.

Fisher was best known, however, as a mission preacher and for many years was in great demand for sermons in schools and for missions in universities. Young people responded enthusiastically to a style which combined profundity and simplicity, and he travelled to most parts of the world, accumulating a multitude of friends and devotees as well as winning the high regard and gratitude of local church leaders.

Reginald Lindsay Fisher was born in Clapham, South London, on April 6 1918. His Scottish mother, by whom he was deeply influenced, was a lady's maid and his father, who was also in domestic service, later worked in London pubs. Young Reginald was educated at Clapham Central School and attended St Peter's, Clapham - an Anglo-Catholic Church which had an extensive ministry among the poor.

When he was 14 he enrolled in the school of Printing and Allied Crafts in Fleet Street and later found employment as a magazine printer there. He also became much involved in the trades union movement, helping to found the Combined Apprentice Chapel, of which he was the first chairman.

About this time he stopped going to church and joined the Young Communist League, whose activities taught him the art of public speaking - a skill that was to stand him in good stead later. With war looming in Europe, he joined the Territorial Army and in 1939 was mobilised with the 5th East Surreys - an anti-tank regiment stationed in the South of England. Soon after, however, he became ill, and was diagnosed with tuberculosis; after a year in Papworth Hospital he was invalided out of the Army.

When he was sufficiently recovered and had said goodbye to the Communist Party he went to live with the Franciscans in Cambridge. In 1942 he was admitted as a Novice and became secretary to the legendary Algy Robertson, the then Father Guardian of the Order. A close relationship developed between them and Robertson, himself a remarkable mission preacher, had a considerable influence on Fisher.

In 1948 Fisher was professed as a Friar, taking the name Michael, and began the preaching ministry for which he was to become noted. Returning to the Cambridge friary, he was well placed for work among students and soon became a welcome visitor in the colleges. In 1951 it was decided that he should become a priest and, having had no formal theological education, he spent two years at Wescott House, Cambridge.

He was ordained in 1953 and began to work closely with the Student Christian Movement, at that time an influential force in British universities. He also began a series of missions to universities overseas and spent a great deal of time travelling. The rapid expansion of the Franciscan movement in the 1960s required him, however, to accept greater responsibility within the Order, and he founded and became the first Guardian of an important new friary at Alnmouth in Northumberland.

Here he had five very happy years from 1961 until 1966 and, with his encouragement, the friars became much involved in the life of the local community and of Newcastle diocese. In 1967 he was elected Minister Provincial, or Head, of the Anglican Franciscans in England. The Order was still growing, at a time when most other religious communities were in decline, but the turbulence of the 1960s did not leave it untouched, and Fisher's leadership proved vital in maintaining the stability of the English friaries.

He continued to travel around the world conducting missions and this led in 1970 to his surprise appointment as General Secretary of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel - the leading Church of England missionary society. He had taken much advice before accepting this important post and the Society was keen to have him, but at the last moment he withdrew; it came to be acknowledged that this had been a wise decision.

Fisher remained Provincial until 1979 when the then Bishop of Truro, Graham Leonard, invited him to become Bishop of St Germans. The Franciscan style suited Cornwall and he became a much-loved pastor and teacher in the parishes, holding a number of key posts in the diocese. The wider church claimed him for the sensitive position of Bishop to the Prisons - a post for which he was ideally suited - and he was also chairman of the Social Policy Committee of the General Synod Board for Social Responsibility.

When Bishop Leonard was translated to London in 1981 Fisher took charge of Truro until Bishop Peter Mumford arrived and then worked happily with him until 1985. By this time age and ill-health had taken their toll, so he retired to the Cambridge friary.

Before long, however, he was strong enough to be elected Minister General of the whole Order and spent the next six years travelling once again to friaries in England and overseas. He also became an Assistant Bishop in Ely diocese.

But the TB was reactivated and a lung operation became necessary. With characteristic enthusiasm and courage he bounced back, but thereafter his ministry became more limited, though he maintained contact with his friends, did some preaching and conducted retreats.

He was awarded a Lambeth MA in 1978 and published some autobiographical reflections, entitled For the Time Being, in 1993.