Morris Gelsthorpe was born in 1892, in Nottinghamshire, England into a family of 13 children. His father, a farmer, died when Morris was only four years old. Morris’s mother then struggled to bring up this large family alone. Morris went to the famous King’s School at Canterbury. Before joining the University of Durham to begin his training for the ordained ministry, the first World War broke out and Morris had to join the Royal Army. His served well in the army and was awarded one of the highest honors, the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
When the war was over, Morris pursued his studies for ordination, and became a curate in Sunderland under Rev. Lasbrey who was the vicar. In 1922, Rev. Lasbrey was appointed bishop of Niger in southern Nigeria. A year later, Rev. Lasbrey asked Gelsthorpe to join him in Africa, and Gelsthorpe agreed. Gelsthorpe was first appointed to the teaching staff of Awka College, and in 1928 became the principal of the college. This college trained both teachers and pastors for the church, an approach that Gelsthorpe valued and applied later in the Sudan. He was appointed assistant bishop of Niger in 1932. It is worth mentioning that Gelsthorpe’s missionary service in Nigeria prepared him to be a suitable candidate for his appointment as assistant bishop for the Diocese of the Sudan after the death of Bishop Guy Bullen.
When Bishop Guy Bullen died in 1938 in a plane crash in the Sudan, the Archbishop of Canterbury asked Gelsthorpe to take his place as assistant bishop to Bishop Gwynne in Egypt and the Sudan. In December 1938, Gelsthorpe left Nigeria and arrived in Khartoum on January 22, 1939. After a meeting with colonial government officials, he flew to Juba to attend a meeting of the missionaries of the CMS Gordon Memorial Sudan Mission (GMSM).
Immediately after this meeting, he embarked on an extensive tour of the mission stations in South Sudan. Like Guy Bullen, he found himself immersed in the life and struggles of the mission. Life was not easy for him. As a single man, he was lonely and often felt unable to cope with the demands of the job and of life itself. He felt insecure and discouraged, to the extent that decision-making was not easy for him. This weakness made him a man of prayer and personal humility to whom people responded positively and warmly. As he lacked confidence in his own decisions, he always consulted widely before making a major decision,–a habit which won Gelsthorpe many friends, among the Sudanese as well as the missionaries and in colonial government circles. His health was perpetually poor and he was plagued by weariness; his “tired eyes” became a well-known feature of his public life.
Like his predecessor, he worked very hard to build bridges of trust and understanding between the mission and the colonial government, particularly in the field of education where he worked very hard to establish good cooperation. He promoted and developed the vision of having professional missionary teachers in the Sudan, in order to shape the Christian national leadership for the future. He foresaw early enough that the colonial era would soon come to an end and that, consequently, Christian Sudanese urgently needed to be prepared for participation in national life in the future.
Gelsthorpe also committed himself to developing Sudanese church leadership and ordained Daniel Deng Atong and Andrea Apaya as the first Sudanese priests of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan at Lui in 1941. His commitment to the development of the Sudanese church leadership was also manifest in the closing words of his sermon at his enthronement as bishop of the Sudan when he said:
Gradually British institutions will become Sudanized until few traces of them remain. But one institution will go on. Slowly it will come under the care of African leaders, African clergy, African laymen. It is the Church of Christ.
Bishop Gelsthorpe was, however, committed to high educational, pastoral, and personal standards for Sudanese clergy, a vision which brought him into direct conflict with missionaries in South Sudan who, in the face of the urgent pastoral needs, would ordain devout elders in the villages with minimal education. As a result, this approach prevailed over Gelsthorpe’s, thus perpetuating poor leadership in the Episcopal Church of the Sudan even up to the present day. If Gelsthorpe’s plan had been followed, the Episcopal Church would not have the leadership problems now facing it.
To achieve this noble goal of developing a well-educated and spiritually mature clergy, Yei Divinity School (YDS) and Bishop Gwynne College (BGC) were established. From his experience in Nigeria, he knew that the church and the society would richly benefit from having teachers and pastors trained alongside each other. But to his disappointment, the Teachers Training Institute in Mundri did not come under full church control like Bishop Gwynne College.
Gelsthorpe’s deep concern to develop Sudanese leadership and nurture mature spiritual life in the church led him to hold the revival movements that sprang up in 1938 - 1939 within the church and, by so doing, to prevent the eminent breaking away of these movements due to frustration. Instead he harnessed the energy of the revivals in order to advance the spiritual development of the church in the Sudan.
During the war years from 1939 to 1945, Bishop Gelsthorpe was mostly engaged in political and international issues, and pastoral responsibilities toward British soldiers and staff in Khartoum and Cairo. At the end of the war in 1945, it was decided that the Sudan would become a separate diocese from Egypt, and that Gelsthorpe would be its first bishop. The new independent Diocese of the Sudan was declared on October 1, 1945. As Gelsthorpe’s main task was the development of the church in northern Sudan, he appointed Oliver C. Allison to be his assistant bishop to oversee the churches in South Sudan.
In 1945 at age 57, Bishop Gelsthorpe married Elfrida Whidbourne, a long serving CMS missionary in the Sudan and one of the pioneers who had worked in the Nuba Mountains since 1935. His marriage relieved him of his loneliness and his tendency towards discouragement. Thus began the happiest years of his life both in the Sudan and in England. He retired as bishop of the Diocese of the Sudan in 1952 and returned to England where he served for some years as assistant bishop in the Diocese of Southwell. He died on August 22, 1968.
James Lomole Simeon
Samuel L. Kayanga & Andrew Wheeler, eds., But God Is Not Defeated, Celebrating the Centenary of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, 1899 - 1999 (Nairobi, Kenya: Pauline Publications Africa, 1999).
This article, received in 2003, was researched and written by Mr. James Lomole Simeon, Esq., Chancellor of the Diocese of Khartoum, Sudan, 2002-03 Project Luke Fellow.