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In Appreciation of Philip John Thirlwell tssf, Priest

ABM gives thanks to the God of Jesus Christ for the life and witness of Philip Thirlwell (1934-2021) whose Life was celebrated in the Eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral Newcastle on 2 June 2021.  ABM extends condolences to his wife, Margaret, and their family.  

The trajectory of Philip’s priestly and ministerial life passed through the matrix of the ABM in key ways. As was so often the case in the time when ABM called, sponsored and sent Australian Anglicans into a global mission field, the House of the Epiphany in Stanmore was at hand.

Philip and Margaret were there for the 1961 program. Margaret said of their time there, “One of the many things that ABM’s House of the Epiphany did was enable adults to begin to learn to live in close proximity with those who were initially strangers…  Philip and I were given the opportunity to complete a Graduate Diploma in Anthropology at Sydney University – helping to form a life-long mindset towards people in general, and in the short term, readiness for respectful and fruitful contact with the Indian and Fijian cultures of Fiji.”

They had married at St Luke’s Mosman in 1956 and Philip completed a Law degree at the University of Sydney in 1957. In the same year, following studies at St John’s Morpeth, he was ordained deacon and following further Theological studies was ordained priest in 1959. After initial ministry in St Matthew’s Albury, the drive to mission took them through the House of the Epiphany and then (with some post graduate anthropology added) to eleven fruitful years as missionaries in Fiji (1962-1973).  

Reflections on those times were given in eulogies by family members and the depths within them were also reflected in correspondence from Fiji that is imbued with the reality of Philip and Margaret’s ministry from forty to fifty years ago.  Archbishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Polynesia, Winston Halapua, wrote this:

As a young man in my last year of training at St John’s. I was sent to Ba for ministry formation. I am very grateful for [Philip’s] contribution in shaping my ministry.  I saw firsthand the integrity of his whole life – the balance of worship, ministry and family life.  Later I witnessed his powerful evangelistic ministry . . .

ABM acknowledged Philip and Margaret’s service to mission with the 2018 award of the Coaldrake Medal.  Frank Coaldrake was prime mover in the establishment of the House of the Epiphany. His time in Japan may have in part inspired the Thirlwells in further service, this time with the Mission to Seamen in Kobe, Japan (1989-1992).

Standing clear as a thread within Fr Philip’s life was a love of languages and of learning in general. In Fiji his mastery of Hindi was part of his enmeshing with the world in which he ministered. Before his time in Japan, he completed an Arts degree at the University of Newcastle in Japanese and French. He was an accomplished poet and a musician – and all these graces were brought into the personal sphere of his primary vocation.

Amongst the eulogies is a remark that when Philip and Margaret returned to Australia in 1973, they felt they had returned to a country very different from the one they had left eleven years before.  Perhaps it is too easy for me to quote Newman’s famous dictum: ”To live is to change and to change often is to be made perfect”. It is clear to me, as I collate and form appreciations of the lives of ABM missionaries, just how much the life of faith changed in many ways in the Australia of the 1960s.  

May lives that witnessed to Christ in their day continue to provoke and inspire in succeeding decades.

Philip on the 60th anniversary of his priesthood.
Philip on the 60th anniversary of his priesthood. © Margaret Thirlwell. Used with permission.


Philip relaxing on Newcastle’s Bar Beach.Philip relaxing on Newcastle’s Bar Beach. © Margaret Thirlwell. Used with permission.