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Colin Stephenson (2) – Eccentric clerics

2009 June 23
by Gordon Reid

Colin loved eccentric priests and had a host of stories about such. He rather regretted the standardization of the Church of England and the phasing out of its eccentrics and the mediaeval rules and regulations which made their existence possible. But at the same time, he saw that, however amusing some of them were, they often did harm to the Church and their ministry.

In “Merrily on High” Colin writes:

“Not long ago a friend speaking of an elderly priest who had died said: “He epitomised everything which is wrong with the Catholic Movement in the C of E. He was a snob, constantly saying: “Things aren’t what they were. There used to be Princess Marie Louise, Lord Halifax” etc, counting out distinguished names like beads on a rosary. He was a gossip, always passing on malicious bits of information about fellow clergy and denigrating any who seemed successful. He was quarrelsome with his parishioners, even sending solicitor’s letters to several before he arrived in a parish. They retaliated in good measure and he was a famous emptier of churches. In one parish they even hired a bus to take them to the next village. Of all these things he was completely unconscious of any fault on his side and would say peevishly in his old age: “These young priests today have no love of souls”.

How lucky we are that there is not a single priest like that in today’s Brave New Church!

Being himself the sharpest of wits and a priest of great breadth of vision and tolerance, Colin collected characters and loved to tell of their more outrageous deeds and words. For example:

“(Fr Bruce Cornford) was always a stormy petrel, for when he was a curate in Southampton he was so angered by his vicar’s long and frequent holidays that he put the vicarage up for sale while he was away. The vicar returned very rapidly and gave him the sack for his pains.

“When Archbishop Lang was appointed to Canterbury, Bruce Cornford wrote in his magazine: “I do not think he is a fit and proper person to be Archbishop; as for leadership, he couldn’t lead the Mothers’ Union across Southsea Common”.


“Fr Pat Shaw of York, when asked to supply the ages of his confirmation candidates, added their weight and height, implying that this information seemed to him as relevant to the administration of the sacrament as their age. It was he who, when showing Queen Mary the marvellous mediaeval glass in his church, said as they passed in front of the tabernacle: “This is where we bob, ma’am”, and she did.”

“Some of the clergy I knew in my youth were very intense about celibacy and Fr Percy Maryon-Wilson would always behave as if the wives of priests were not there – mercifully they usually thought him either deaf or absent-minded as he would wear a beatific smile while looking right through them. He adopted the same tactics  if anyone tried to speak to him before he had said Mass.

“Fr Bristowe of Bagborough, one of the great country parish priest, even went so far as to try and persuade clergy-wives to leave their husbands and boasted as a virtue  of the separations he had caused. If one was a married clergyman it was very unwise to let one’s wife go to one of his retreats!”

“(Fr de Waal) hated all things Sarum but particularly Gothic vestments and if he went into a church where they were used he  would produce a card of safety pins and turn them into the Latin shape, as like as not ruining them completely. He used to go round saying Mass at different churches, but he would take a small bell which he could hold between  his fingers and ring as he elevated the Host if there was no server, and a book which had “Cash” on the front, but which he called “My Missal” and had written himself. As he never said anything but a Votive Mass of St Joseph, except on the very greatest feasts, there had not been much to write. ”I can’t think why people will try to join in when one is saying Mass,” he would remark plaintively, “if they try it with me I go first fast and then slow and they don’t keep it up.” He came twice a week and said a late Mass at Ss Mary & John where he was discovered by one of the sisters dragging a clean alb around the sacristy floor. When he saw he was observed he said guiltily: “Oh dear, I do so hate clean linen!”

“I asked him to be my confessor and I found him very  comforting as he always went through my sins and made an excuse for each one. Should I confess to having murdered my aunt he would say: “Of course aunts are notoriously tiresome; I can’t think why more of them don’t get themselves killed, in fact it can hardly be counted as a sin at all.” If he could think of no other excuse he would put it down to the daylight saving which he hated, saying: “With these ridiculous times and absurd arrangements one can’t be surprised at any fall from grace.”

“During his last illness I went to see him in bed and with some hesitation asked if he felt well enough to hear my confession. He at once took a purple stole from under the pillow and put it on. When we had finished he said contentedly: “God bless my soul, I have enjoyed that.”

2 Responses leave one →
  1. July 19, 2009

    I just finished Merrily on High and enjoyed it immensely.

  2. John Rettger permalink
    August 10, 2010

    We need to have Fr Colin in our next edition of Holy Women, Holy Men.

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