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03 January, 2012

(Photo: David Channer)
(Photo: David Channer)
Garth Lean was, by his own description, a fisher of men. The Glasgow Hunger Marchers of 1932, camped overnight in Oxford where Lean was a student, were the springboard for his own conversion but the world of journalism was initially his chosen hunting ground. He believed the media would be more likely to be objective if their practitioners themselves attempted to live by high moral standards.

Drawn early in manhood into the Oxford Group, later known as Moral Re-Armament or MRA, Lean made his biggest ‘catch’ with Peter Howard, the Fleet Street journalist and England rugby player who succeeded MRA’s founder, the American minister Frank Buchman, as world leader of the group.

By far the greatest part of Lean’s life was devoted to working for MRA as administrator, conference leader, speechmaker and conciliator but he was also a biographer and author of considerable ability. He had that rare gift of being able to write flowing prose in an unpretentious style and so hold the reader’s attention. Had he been a thriller-writer he would have been described as a ‘page-turner’. His style was ideal for getting across to large numbers of people the relevance to their everyday lives the moral standards in which he believed so strongly.

Although much of his writing skill was devoted to works of witness, most successfully in Good God, It Works! (1974) and three topical books on the New Morality, which he co-authored with Arnold Lunn, Lean was also the author of two popular biographies of well-known public figures, John Wesley and William Wilberforce, figures who had themselves stood up for their beliefs in initially unsympathetic circumstances.

But his greatest writing achievement was undoubtedly his definitive biography of the MRA founder, Frank Buchman: a life (1985). Though not his last, this book occupied many years of his later life, including his final visit to the United States to help launch the American edition. It ranks with the best post-war biographies and is particularly commendable, given that Lean was so close to his subject for most of his life, for its detachment and objectivity even about the occasionally controversial affairs of MRA.

To an extent this detachment reflected his own standing with Frank Buchman. Although Lean did travel widely for MRA to most continents, spending up to a year in both India and Scandinavia for example, and was a regular visitor to summer conferences at Caux, in Switzerland, his health after a heart attack at the age of 44 prevented him from accompanying Buchman on many of MRA’s overseas missions. He was also one of the few of MRA’s inner circle who stood up to Buchman’s forceful personality. Buchman probably respected this, once even forecasting that Lean would indeed be his biographer.

Writing was not the whole of Lean’s life, however; he set out to touch the lives of as many people as possible, making his home for the last 35 years in Oxford, where he opened his doors to generations of students. He participated in many attempts, often successful and thus material for his books, to bring opposing sides together in disputes by appealing to their sense of honesty. He was successful during the Second World War in helping to improve working relations in the docks in his native Cardiff, with consequent implications for the war effort, and in the 1950s he helped to settle the long-running Schleswig-Holstein dispute between Denmark and Germany. As late as 1979 he was organising working breakfasts between management and union representatives in the 11-month lay-off at Times Newspapers.

Just after the war, Lean married Margot Appleyard, who had also been working for MRA for some years. Thereafter, they were inseparable both in their work and at home, where they entertained simply but generously. Despite his firm independence of mind, Lean was modest and had a twinkling sense of humour that endeared him to a wide circle of people around the world. His Christianity was a matter of faith rather than easy certainty but even his last few weeks of painful illness he spoke of learning from it about Jesus.

Peter Harland

Garth Dickinson Lean, writer and religious worker: born Cardiff 26 December 1912; married 1946 Margot Appleyard (one son, one daughter); died Oxford 17 October 1993.

This obituary was first published in The Independent, 29 October 1993.

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