Fleming was born in Edinburgh, the youngest of four sons (the second of whom died at the age of five months) and fifth of five children of Robert Alexander Fleming (a surgeon in Edinburgh) and Eleanor Mary, the daughter of the Revd William Lyall Holland, rector of Cornhill-on-Tweed. He was educated at Rugby School.
Early adult life
Fleming went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1925, graduating in geology in 1928, followed by two years as a Commonwealth Fund Fellow at Yale University. He studied for Holy Orders at Westcott House, Cambridge and was ordained deacon in 1933 and priest 1934. His early years were spent as chaplain to successive Antarctic expeditions, for which he was awarded the Polar Medal in 1937.
Fleming pursued an academic career, acting as an examining chaplain to a number of bishops while retaining a base at Trinity Hall, eventually becoming its dean in 1937 and an honorary fellow in 1956. At the outbreak of World War II he became a chaplain in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) and served on the Battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth. After the war, he returned to Cambridge as director of the Scott Polar Research Institute.
Episcopates and parliament
In July 1949, Fleming's name was put forward to become the Bishop of Portsmouth and he was consecrated later that year, although he did not take his place in the House of Lords for another seven years. In 1959 he transferred sees, becoming the Bishop of Norwich, the first occupant to use the ancient throne for 400 years. Although he became a bishop without parochial experience or any great gift for preaching, his unassuming friendliness and humility won over clergy and laity. Portsmouth became an exceptionally well-run diocese, with more than its share of young clergy and ordinands. Norwich, with 650 churches and a shortage of clergy, presented greater problems; he tackled them resolutely and imaginatively, developing rural group ministries and again attracting good clergy. He also played a significant part in planning the University of East Anglia (which, unusually, has its own university chapel). He was an uncanny judge of character, excellent in one-to-one situations. His desk might have looked chaotic, but he was a shrewd administrator with a clear grasp of priorities. A remarkable rapport with young people led to his being made chairman of the Church of England Youth Council (1950–61). Struck by a rare spinal disorder, which seriously affected both legs, he resigned the see in 1971.
An eternally enthusiastic man, in 1960 he realised a lifetimes ambition to ride on the footplate of a train and in 1965, at the comparatively advanced age of 58, married Jane Agutter, the widow of Anthony Agutter and daughter of Henry Machen. It was a happy marriage which lasted for twenty-five years but produced no children.
In 1968, unusually for a bishop, Fleming piloted a bill (the Antarctic treaty) through the House of Lords. Well informed on environmental and ecological issues (he was a pre-war glaciologist of repute), he constantly urged responsible stewardship of the world (his maiden speech in the House of Lords was about cruelty to whales), and the need for international co-operation. He became vice-chairman (1969–71) of the parliamentary group for world government, and a member of the government Standing Advisory Committee on Environmental Pollution (1970–73). At Windsor, he consolidated the reputation of St George's House. His influence on church policy would have been greater but for synodical government: off-the-cuff debate was not his forte.
On resigning his bishopric, Fleming was appointed the Queen's domestic chaplain and Dean of Windsor, in which capacity he officiated at the funeral of the Duke of Windsor. In 1976 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of East Anglia for his work with young people. He retired to Dorset and died in Sherborne on 30 July 1990. He was cremated and his ashes were interred in the churchyard of All Saints' Church in Poyntington.
- Who’s Who 1971, p2339, ISBN 0-7136-1140-5
- Who's Who (ibid)
- The Times, 23 July 1949, p4.
- The Times, 19 October 1949, p7.
- The Times, 25 October 1956, p. 4.
- The Times, 12 October 1959, p. 10.
- The Times, 29 January 1960, p. 9.
- The Times, 30 September 1960, p. 5.
- The Times, 6 January 1965, p. 12.
- The Times, 5 June 1972, p2
- Governor of Portsmouth Grammar School, Chairman of Church of England Youth Council and a Trustee of The Prince's Trust Who’s Who (Ibid)
|Church of England titles|
William Louis Anderson
|Bishop of Portsmouth
John Henry Lawrence Phillips
Percy Mark Herbert
|Bishop of Norwich
Maurice Arthur Ponsonby Wood
Robert Wylmer Woods
|Dean of Windsor