Martin Gloster Sullivan was born in Auckland on 30 March 1910, the son of Dennis Sullivan, a stationer, and his wife, Ellen Connell. Both parents were from County Kerry, Ireland. After attending Auckland Grammar School, Sullivan was a probationary teacher for one year. He then trained for the Anglican priesthood, holding a Marsh scholarship at the College of St John the Evangelist between 1929 and 1932. He completed a BA in 1931 and an MA in 1932 at Auckland University College, where he served two terms as president of the college students’ association and one as president of the national student union. Following the 1932 Queen Street riots he enlisted as a special constable – a decision he later regretted, along with his ‘unthinking and rigid’ moral, theological and political attitudes at that time.
Sullivan was made deacon in 1932. As curate at St Matthew’s Church, Auckland, his family’s parish church, responsibility was thrust on him because of the vicar’s illness. On 1 September 1934, in Auckland, he married Doris Rosie Grant Cowen, who had studied the piano at the Royal Academy of Music, London. After ordination as a priest the following month, he was appointed to St Columba Church, Grey Lynn. Faced by the demands of the depression, he responded with compassion and protest; the concern he showed for the welfare of individuals and his willingness to challenge what he saw as injustices in society were to become hallmarks of his career.
Sullivan moved to Te Awamutu in 1936 and was released for army chaplaincy between 1941 and 1945. He served in North Africa and Italy in 1944–45, and with the repatriation unit in England. After almost six months at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, he returned to Te Awamutu in 1946. Later that year he began a pioneering ministry as the New Zealand Student Christian Movement chaplain at Victoria University College, Wellington.
In 1950 he moved to Christchurch, where he was principal of College House (1950–58) and dean of Christchurch and vicar general (1951–61); on taking up the latter appointments he held the principalship in an honorary capacity. An energetic and innovative dean, he had a widespread impact through his public speaking, writing, broadcasting, lunchtime services and missions. An active ecumenist, he attended the World Council of Churches’ assembly in 1954 and served on the executive of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand. He was a member of the Canterbury University College Council and the Senate of the University of New Zealand.
Sullivan was appointed by the Crown as rector of St Mary, Bryanston Square, London, in 1962. The following year he became archdeacon of London and a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1967 he broke new ground with his appointment as dean of St Paul’s, the highest preferment gained by a New Zealander in the Church of England. While he was criticised by some as unconventional, organising a youth festival called Pop in St Paul’s and supporting a service attended by the cast of the musical Hair , he had great respect for the traditions and history of the cathedral, actively supporting a successful restoration appeal. His successor described him as ‘the least clerical of ecclesiastics – often more at home with the laity than the clergy’.
In 1965 Sullivan was made a Freeman of the City of London. He was dean of both the Order of the British Empire (1967–77) and the Order of St Michael and St George (1968–77), and chaplain and sub-prelate of the Order of St John. He served on many organisations in London, becoming dean emeritus in 1977.
Doris Sullivan died in 1972, and on 11 April 1973 Sullivan married Elizabeth Roberton in St Paul’s Cathedral. She had been headmistress of several church schools for girls in New Zealand, including the Diocesan High School for Girls, Auckland.
Small in stature, Sullivan commanded great respect as a popular communicator. A powerful, compelling preacher with an open approach to theology, biblical criticism and social issues, he was also a popular public speaker with a reputation for wit, humanity and effectiveness in talking to a wide diversity of audiences, including young people. Although a liberal in some matters – he supported the ordination of women – he was conservative in others: he disliked the new Anglican liturgy, much preferring the Book of common prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible.
The Sullivans were always very accessible to visitors and extended hospitality to many. While he was disappointed at being passed over as a bishop in New Zealand, Sullivan reached many people both within and outside the church. He recorded his distinctive, sometimes acerbic, autobiographical impressions in Watch how you go (1975). In retirement in Auckland Sullivan wrote a column for the New Zealand Herald and served on the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. The University of Auckland awarded him a LittD in 1976 and he was created a KCVO in 1979. He died suddenly while speaking at the Auckland University rugby club annual dinner on 5 September 1980. He had had no children and was survived by his wife.