Simms, George Otto (1910–91), Church of Ireland archbishop, was born 4 July 1910 in Dublin, third son of John Francis Arthur Simms, crown solicitor for Co. Tyrone, and his wife Ottilie Sophie, daughter of Otto Georg Christian Stange, born in Australia, her parents having moved there from Germany on Stange's appointment to a teaching post in music. George Simms grew up at the family home in Lifford, Co. Donegal. After attending Prior Endowed School in Lifford (1915‒20) he was sent to St Edmund's School, Hindhead, Surrey (1920-24), and Cheltenham College (1924–9). He entered TCD in 1929, was elected foundation scholar in classics in 1930, and graduated with double moderatorship (classics and ancient history and political science) in 1932. He obtained the divinity testimonium in 1934 and BD in 1935, subsequently being awarded Ph.D. (1950) and DD jure dignitatis (1952).
Ordained deacon in 1934 and priest 1936, he was first appointed to the assistant curacy of St Bartholomew's, Dublin, under W. C. Simpson, a noted ‘catholic evangelical’ and Christian socialist. He was appointed chaplain of Lincoln Theological College in 1938, and though his stay there was short, he formed close relationships with the warden, Eric Abbott (later dean of Westminster), and A. M. Ramsey (a future archbishop of Canterbury), and forged links with the Church of England that were to prove valuable for the Church of Ireland in later years.
He returned to Dublin in 1940 to be dean of residence (chaplain) at Trinity, a position that was soon combined with that of chaplain-secretary (in reality, acting principal) of the Church of Ireland Training College for primary teachers in Kildare Place. In 1941 he married Mercy Felicia, daughter of Brian James Gwynn and Mary Gwynn (née Weldon). George Simms's years at Trinity and Kildare Place enabled him to touch the lives of many students in both colleges, and to form lifelong relationships, not least with generations of teachers. He felt no inclination to move to other work (claiming never to have applied for a position in his entire ministry). In 1951, under some moral pressure from Archbishop John Gregg (qv) of Armagh, he allowed his name to be considered for the deanery of Cork, and was appointed to St Fin Barre's in that year, only to be elected bishop of Cork, Cloyne, and Ross in 1952. In 1956 he was elected archbishop of Dublin and in 1969 archbishop of Armagh.
Simms's episcopal ministry was characterised by his zeal for the gospel, his love of people, and his devotion to Ireland, which was coloured by his understanding of the early Irish church. When in 1970 he formally accepted a commemorative disestablishment volume of essays edited by Fr Michael Hurley, SJ, he did so on behalf of ‘the church that I love’. He was acutely aware of the rapidly changing times in which he ministered, and sought to lead the Church of Ireland to an acceptance that it too must change. His wide experience of the Anglican communion (he was Archbishop Ramsey's right-hand man at the Lambeth conference of 1967) brought an awareness that the Church of Ireland had much to learn from other provinces. This was particularly true in the matter of liturgical revision. Despite his love of the Book of Common Prayer (and few clergy matched the accomplished manner in which he conducted its services), as chairman of the liturgical advisory committee, he steered the church to the Alternative Prayer Book of 1984.
As archbishop of Dublin he encouraged the Church of Ireland community to participate fully in the life of the Republic of Ireland. His predecessors had also done so, but in his case, being of a different generation, there was no conflict of loyalties. His positive attitude to the Irish language, which he could use to judicious effect, was influential. His term in Dublin coincided with a period of rationalisation of parishes and schools, and while the closing of churches could be painful, there was joy in the opening of new school buildings, for these were years when educational planning in the Republic was moving rapidly out of a period of inertia, and the archbishop recognised that the Church of Ireland must not lag behind and that institutions had sometimes to be disturbed in the interests of the children. In retirement, at the invitation of Archbishop Robert Eames, he chaired a committee to devise new religious education curricula for schools in the Republic, and so his commitment to education, his theological learning, and his familiarity with the schools and their teachers converged. His empathy with things Irish did not go unnoticed in certain circles in the north, where to appreciate things Gaelic amounted to an affinity with Fenianism; yet while it would be untrue to label him ‘apolitical’, his politics, like his churchmanship, were not partisan.
His election to Armagh, when the political and social turmoil of the 1960s was reaching a peak, was greeted with opprobrium in certain circles, and many hurtful things were said and done to him by those who also deplored his courageous ecumenism – which, contrary to the assertions of his critics, reached out to protestant and catholic alike. He served on the central committee of the World Council of Churches, and as co-chairman (while in Dublin) of the Anglican–Roman Catholic commission on the theology of marriage and its application to mixed marriage. Through pastoral experience he was aware of the causes of tension between churches. Yet there were many in the protestant community in the north who valued his calm yet deliberate leadership, and the catholic and nationalist population saw in him a face of the Church of Ireland that was unfamiliar to them. His compassion was drawn to those who suffered from the conflict whatever their religious background, nor was it confined to Ireland: he was an active president of the World Leprosy Mission, which had its origins in Dublin, and with his wife (whose commitment to the alleviation of social problems was evident during her stays in Cork, Dublin, and Armagh) undertook a world tour to visit the Mission's areas of activity.
Simms's biographer rightly states that devoting the time and effort demanded by a major piece of academic writing was never a priority: ‘ministry was always more compelling for him’ (Whiteside, 171), and his many relatively short publications were all pastoral in intent, whether For better, for worse (1946), a reflection on marriage, Christ within me (1975), meditations on the ‘Breastplate of St Patrick’, or In my understanding (1982), meditations on the ‘Sarum Primer’. His name came to be particularly associated with the Book of Kells, and his The Book of Kells: a short description (first published 1949) ran to three editions and was several times reprinted. It introduced a wide readership to the riches of that great illuminated manuscript, as did his award-winning Exploring the Book of Kells (1988), written with children in mind but equally popular with their parents. He lectured widely on the subject, in Ireland and abroad, and scripted and presented television programmes. He likewise reached a wide audience through his ‘Thinking aloud’ column in the Irish Times, which he contributed weekly for thirty-eight years. He played a major part at the inception of New Divinity, renamed Search, ‘a Church of Ireland journal’, and continued to chair the editorial meetings while archbishop of Dublin and of Armagh and in retirement. George Simms died in Dublin on 15 November 1991 and was survived by his wife, Mercy (died 1998) and their five children, Nicholas, Christopher, Katharine, Hilary, and John. His personal papers are deposited in the Library of the Representative Church Body, Dublin (MS 238), and TCD (MS 10557). At the time of writing, neither collection is available for consultation. MS 9308/563–83 in TCD, particularly relating to the Book of Kells, is available for consulation. A portrait by Basil Blackmore (1969) hangs in the synod hall, Armagh, and another by Peter Fitzgerald (1993) in the Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin. There is a studio photograph in the chapter room, Christ Church cathedral, Dublin.