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Canon Colin Stephenson (1)

2009 June 21
by Gordon Reid

StephensonColin350Yep, here’s another interminable series, like my passion for George MacDonald, which I hope some of you have caught.

This time, I want to bring you some of the wise (as well as hilarious) things Colin Stephenson wrote in his two published books, “Merrily on High” and “Walsingham Way”. Colin was one of my closest friends from about 1967 until he died in 1973 (though we met long before that) and every time I read these books I can hear his voice, full of laughter and good spirits, but also capable of the deepest and most sensitive thoughts.

Here is a first installment, showing early impressions from his childhood, which remained with him for the rest of his life.

Colin did everything with aplomb and panache. As he says of himself “The small boy … had been taught to say his prayers – mostly about lambs and shepherds – and to make the sign of the cross, which he did with such gusto and at such very inappropriate moments that I think his mother rather regretted showing him how”.

He was also a keen observer of quaint Anglican customs, with very little rationale, such as that of calling the clergy “Father”. As he says: “The mystique of why the names of some clergy in the Church of England are prefixed with the word “Father” and others are not, is never easy to explain, not where the exact dividing line comes. A certain section of the laity adopt it with great enthusiasm and some almost put it between words saying, Good Father, night Father”. It is, however, easier to explain than the popular use of the term “Padre” which is the same thing in Spanish, but often used by those who think “Father” too high church.”

One of Colin’s greatest gifts was to build word-pictures which, by juxtaposing odd things, gave a vivid impression of what he was describing. For example:

“Thus I first pushed open the door of the church of St Bartholomew (Brighton) and was quite overcome by its size and magnificence. There was a whole altar made of silver, like something off my mother’s dressing table, and the high altar was so vast that I imagined elephants might come in from either side and look like poodles. Along the side were great confessional boxes which seemed as if the Royal Pavilion had had puppies, and the Stations of the Cross were half life-size.”

He loved ritual and ceremonial, but could see the funny side of them too. As a little boy he reacted with wonder and amazement to High Mass at St Bart’s:

“There was a dramatic silence, only broken by the clank of the censer chains as incense was put on and a column of blue smoke began to rise. Then a rather cracked voice intoned: “Let us proceed in peace”, but peace was not to be the order of the day, for the tympani began to roll and then with a crash of full organ and orchestra the procession set off singing “Hail thee, festival day” in a tumult of sound … There was a smug little boy even younger than I was who was carrying the incense boat, and I envied him very much and determined that I would get his job if I could …My attention was not long held by the boat boy for I was riveted by the thurifer and the censer. Every now and then he would swing it in a complete cartwheel which I thought wildly exciting, and great clouds of smoke gushed forth. To my great delight as he passed us the whole thing burst into flames as a result of his over-vigorous swinging. I had no idea that this was unintentional and was deeply disappointed when it did not happen during the next procession I saw.

“At the end were the priests in their richly embroidered vestments and looking rather bored, which was the Anglo-Catholic liturgical face par excellence. But perhaps they were bored, for Fr Cyril Tompkinson once said to me: “I know, my dear, that one ought to have elevated thoughts during these long functions, but I cannot keep my mind off what I’m going to have for luncheon”. 

Knowing Colin’s love of good food, I am sure that must have remained an abiding temptation for him!

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