Monsignor Canon John Humphreys
1918-1988 Died 21 May 1988
The following appreciation was written by Monsignor David Cousins: 30 July 1988.
With the death on 21st May of Monsignor John Humphreys, the Canon Law Society has lost one of its Founding Fathers. From those beginnings in 1957, John remained a keen and faithful member of the Society. His clear analytical mind cut through to the heart of any problem being discussed. His capacity for hard work enabled him to master and order material, whether it be a scheme for Regional Tribunals or draft Canons from Rome. With his chin out and his shock of hair, he was a familiar figure at Conferences. His questions and comments on papers were always pertinent. His chesty laugh made him an easy companion..
A Birmingham man, John Humphreys was born on 3rd October 1918 and grew up in the Cathedral Parish of St Chad. From an early age he took part in the great pontifical ceremonies, a love which never left him. After secondary education at St Philip’s Grammar School, Edgbaston, he was sent to St Mary’s, Oscott. At Oscott his intellectual gifts were quickly discerned by professors and fellow students. He was ordained priest on 29th June 1942. The World War then raging precluded the possibility of higher ecclesiastical studies abroad. For two years Fr Humphreys served as a Curate at Our Lady and St Peter, Stoke-on-Trent, then ruled by the formidable Canon Leo Twiney. He enjoyed these two years and often spoke of them.
In 1944, he was appointed to the teaching staff at St Mary’s, Oscott. First he lectured in sociology and elocution, later he was promoted to Moral Theology and Canon law. In those days the two disciplines of Moral Theology and Canon Law combined and constituted a major course to be followed by all the students. John proved a fine teacher, clear, lively and down to earth. His examples became legendary. A generation of clergy still recall their young professor and his vivid examples. Europe was returning to normal, in 1950, Fr. Humphreys was sent by the Archbishop of Birmingham to Rome to study for a Canon Law degree. He immediately negotiated with the Faculty of the Gregorian University to complete his Licentiate in less than two years in view of his teaching experience and to present a doctoral thesis at the end of his second year. He kept to the time-scale, first obtaining his Licentiate and at the end of his second year successfully defending his doctoral thesis on “The Juridical Status of British Military Chaplains”.
Returning to England in 1952, John Humphreys began a 26-year association with the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal, 18 of them as Officialis. When he began there, there was a backlog of six cases. John used to steal a case out of the file of the Officialis, work on it, gathering the evidence, before returning it to the file. He would then suggest a meeting of the Tribunal to consider the case. Under his leadership the Tribunal earned an enviable reputation. His procedures and texts were copied widely. Cases were fully but speedily instructed. For many years he did all the typing himself. He was an outstanding ecclesiastical Judge. As new thinking on marriage on the Second Vatican Council began
to affect the Tribunal, the recently promoted Monsignor Humphreys was a strong influence in the formation of new jurisprudence. Much of this work was done within the ranks of the Canon Law Society and John’s interventions were clear and precise. In later years he served on the Working Parties scrutinising the draft Canons of the new Code of Canon Law. One recalls the draft on Procedures. The assembled brethren were dissatisfied and were urging a separate Procedure for Nullity of Marriage cases. John went off with two assessors, found a typewriter and by evening a new draft Procedure was ready. The brethren liked it; Rome did not. He took part in the important meeting held in Ottawa of English-speaking Bishops and Canonists which was influential in the present shape of the Chapter De Populo Dei of the new Code.
During these years Monsignor Humphreys served first as parish priest of Wootton Wawen and then as a Convent Chaplain to give him time for his increasing administrative duties. For many years he compiled the Diocesan Ordo, a duty needing a detailed knowledge of liturgy and rubrics. In the 1960s this flowered when he assisted Archbishops Grimshaw and Dwyer in their work on the Conciliar Commission for the Liturgy, and earlier the pre-Conciliar Commission for the Liturgy. For a time he acted as Secretary of the newly formed National Liturgical Commission for England and Wales.
He checked the flood of newly printed texts. He was part of the team which produced the English Breviary. In 1975 he persuaded Archbishop Dwyer to allow him to undertake again the direct care of souls in the Parish of St Mary’s, Brierley Hill. He soon became absorbed in the life of the parish and the locality, in ecumenical and educational questions. One of his greatest treasures was his election to the Old Brotherhood of the English secular Clergy in 1979.
The health of John Humphreys had never been robust. He suffered from asthma and was prone to chest infections. This never impeded an enormous workload, although in the last years it was causing concern.
In the death of Monsignor John Humphreys the people of Brierley Hill lost a loving pastor; the Diocese of Birmingham a loyal and hard-working priest who knew and loved his tradition; the Canon Law Society a fine and influential Canonist. At a panegyric preached to Brierley Hill, John was compared to the scribe in St Matthew’s gospel who brought from his storeroom things both new and old. Indeed, he was a scribe of the Kingdom of Heaven, an expert in the old ways canonical, liturgical and parochial; he also taught us the new way. May he rest in Peace. [Edited from CLSN 75, September 1988]