The Rev. Chad Varah, an outspoken Anglican priest who started a telephone hot line for the suicidal after concluding that loneliness is the most heart-rending anguish, died Thursday in Basingstoke, England. He was 95.
His death was announced by Samaritans, the suicide-prevention charity he founded.
From his initial rush to the aid of a despairing mother in November 1953, Father Varah’s mission to give hope to the perhaps fatally depressed grew to 200 branches in Britain and Ireland and 200 more in 38 other countries. It became a model for crisis hot lines.
Father Varah’s vision began in 1935, when he brooded bitterly after the first burial service he conducted for a girl, who, by varying accounts, was 13 or 14. She had killed herself because she wrongly feared that the onset of menstruation meant she had a venereal disease. Varah was a 23-year-old deacon at the time.
“Here was a life that could have been saved if only there had been an intelligent person she could bring herself to talk to,” he said in an interview with Church Illustrated magazine in 1959.
As he moved from parish to parish, Father Varah found that many people he helped with sexual problems, his emerging interest, were suicidal. He learned that in the London area, an average of three people killed themselves each day. He began to dream of an emergency telephone line where those in despair might “get some love from a stranger.”
The opportunity came in 1953, when he became the rector of St. Stephen Walbrook, a church in London built by Christopher Wren. The church is just behind the Mansion House, where the lord mayor, the church’s only parishioner, lives. That meant that Father Varah could largely devote himself to what he called “the parish of despair.”
As Father Varah told the story, he was digging through the church’s rubble-choked vestry when he found a telephone that had survived bombing by the Germans and still worked. He called to ask for a new number, suggesting “Mansion House 9000.” It turned out that that was already the number.
“I took it as a sign that God wanted me to go ahead,” he told Church Illustrated for an article that was condensed in The Reader’s Digest in 1960.
The first call to the number came from a woman who, with her four children by three fathers, was about to be evicted. As reported by The Independent in 1992, Father Varah left his post, something he later never allowed. He found the woman with two of her children in a hotel room.
He placed one child with his wife and rushed around London in a taxi scrambling to find someone to take the baby. Eventually, the taxi driver and his wife did.
There was one more call that day, but soon they were coming in at the rate of 100 a day. Clients ranged from paupers to millionaires, teenagers to elderly, and people in all sorts of occupations and professions.
Samaritans got its name from a headline in The Daily Mirror. The reference to the biblical story did not please Father Varah, who was adamant that all religious teaching should be avoided when helping the desperate. Nor could the police be informed of anything that clients discussed confidentially.
Edward Chad Varah was born on November 12th, 1911, at Barton upon Humber, Lincolnshire, England, the eldest of nine children of Canon William Edward Varah, vicar of St. Chad’s Church there. He graduated from Oxford with a degree in politics, philosophy and economics, then from Lincoln Theological College. He served in a string of parishes before St. Stephen.
Father Varah added to his income by writing scripts for comic strips and became known for the liberality of his views on sex. He refused to condemn adultery in all cases, promoted abortion and gay rights, and served on the board of a sexually frank magazine. He said he was called “a dirty old man by the time he was 25,” and, years later, “Britain’s oldest sex therapist.”
When he was summoned as a witness in the obscenity trial of Linda Lovelace, the star of “Deep Throat,” a famous pornographic movie, he was asked about the Seventh Commandment, on adultery. “Why are you quoting this ancient desert lore at me?” The Times of London said he answered.
Almost from the beginning, Father Varah fought with others in Samaritans. He left the organization in its second year, but served as director of its London branch. He became very active in the international efforts of the organization, which, after several permutations, is now called Befrienders Worldwide.
Father Varah’s wife, the former Doris Susan Whanslaw, died in 1993. She was president of the Mothers’ Union, the Anglican Church’s principal women’s organization. He is survived by their daughter and three of their four sons.
In 1963, Father Varah conducted the funeral service of Diana Churchill, Winston Churchill ’s daughter. She had worked as a volunteer for Samaritans before she committed suicide herself. In 1994, he officiated at the marriage of Lady Sarah Chatto, the only daughter of Princess Margaret. Until he retired in 2003 at 92, Father Varah commuted by public transportation.
His penchant for incendiary statements was evident in 1993, when in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph he castigated Pope John Paul II for his opposition to contraception. “It was a great mistake to make an ignorant Polish peasant into a pope,” he said.
Father Varah, who was said to be able to recite every poem he had ever heard, was more curious than concerned about death, because of his belief in reincarnation. His favorite three words of advice were intended to provide a sense of proportion: “It doesn’t matter.” NY Times