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Chad Varah; Priest's Suicide Hotline Grew Into the Samaritans Movement

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2007

Chad Varah, 95, an Anglican priest and sex therapist who started the Samaritans movement, an early telephone help line credited with making significant contributions to suicide prevention, died Nov. 8 at the Basingstoke hospital near London.

A spokeswoman for the organization said that she did not know the immediate cause of death but that he had been in ill health.

Rev. Varah started the Samaritans in 1953 with a newspaper advertisement pleading for volunteers who would come to his historic London church and use "active listening therapy" to help the hundreds of people who contemplated suicide every day.

He once said he thought of his Samaritans as "fire-spotters" who "keep watch for the conflagrations that break out in human lives."

The organization became a massive volunteer force with 202 branches in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and includes a system of drop-in centers and home visit services. It operates in more than 40 countries as the Befrienders Worldwide.

Rev. Varah was widely recognized as having pioneered the phone help line for those threatening suicide, and he received honors from the American Association of Suicidology as well as from Queen Elizabeth II.

But the volunteer organization was also criticized at times for being too passive with callers in the name of nonjudgment. One of the movement's founding principles was that a caller "does not lose the freedom to make his own decision, including the decision to take his own life."

Rev. Varah considered the Samaritans a "spiritual alternative" to the police emergency line, especially in its early years, when attempting suicide was criminalized.

Volunteers, armed with sympathy and the basics of psychotherapy, fielded anonymous calls from across the psychological spectrum. As Rev. Varah explained, some people phoned up after midnight to complain they were unloved. Others expressed suicidal thoughts or violent urges against their unfaithful spouses.

Like the callers, volunteer staffers -- doctors, stockbrokers and secretaries -- are also anonymous, a step meant to underscore the mission over individual personality. Diana Churchill, daughter of former prime minister Winston Churchill, was a volunteer, and Rev. Varah revealed that fact only after she took her own life in 1963.

Edward Chad Varah was born Nov. 12, 1911, in Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire, where his father, a Church of England minister, was vicar.

At Oxford University's Keble College, he was in the Russian and Slavonic clubs and founded the Scandinavian club before graduating with honors in 1933. He studied at a Lincolnshire theological college and was ordained in 1936.

A year earlier, while working as a church assistant, he had presided over the funeral of a 13-year-old who killed herself because she mistook menstruation for a symptom of venereal disease.

As he repeated often, the funeral proved a pivotal experience. He railed constantly at the ignorance and isolation that resulted from poor sex education and a repressive society.

In subsequent parish work, he emphasized sex counseling and remained current on developments in psychology. More controversially, he talked openly about the pleasures of masturbation and what he considered the usefulness of pornography to help impotent men. He also contributed articles titled "Let Them Be Gay," "The Right to Abortion" and "Is Marriage Still Valid?" to a British pornographic magazine.

The gusto with which he enjoyed breaking stigmas landed him in trouble with his church, but he always seemed to prevail. Rev. Varah spoke of a vital need for the church to address sexual problems, because his parish experience showed many were driven to contemplate suicide as a result.

He told the London Independent in 2003: "I thought what a good idea it would be if there was a special number on the telephone if you needed information about sex or why you shouldn't commit suicide. I said: 'God, don't look at me, I'm too busy.' It would need someone in the city, where there are 40 Anglican churches in a square mile, and it had to be someone's specialty."

He had the opportunity when, in 1953, he began his 50-year posting as rector of St. Stephen Walbrook, a London church designed by Christopher Wren.

Rev. Varah found himself overwhelmed by cries for help, and he enlisted parishioners to aid him with calls. After formalizing the organization, he became a public spokesman for the movement in interviews and by writing a Samaritans guidebook. He said he considered it a myth that those who speak about committing suicide never do; two of his early "clients" did indeed kill themselves.

After stepping down from the Samaritans in 1986, he campaigned against genital mutilation among East African immigrants to England.

His wife, D. Susan Whanslaw Varah, whom he married in 1940, died in 1993. A son, one of triplets, died in April.

Survivors include four children; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Rev. Varah wrote a memoir, "Before I Die Again" (1992), whose title referred to his belief in reincarnation.

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