Colin Slee: I Wish I’d Known Ye

The Very Revd Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark Cathedral in London, died last week and his funeral service was today in the cathedral. The sermon was given by Dr Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, who was formerly the Theologian at Southwark, was nominated as Bishop, and in a scandalous turn, the nomination was rescinded because conservatives objected to John’s homosexuality.

He noted that Slee said to him in the weeks before his death how “surprisingly un-scared” he was.

I wish I’d known him; on my recent visit to London with David we actually walked past his house, where I spotted the Archbishop of Canterbury casually knocking on the bright yellow front door and waiting to be admitted in that stooping posture that he has. The ABC is unmistakable; I spotted him from behind, even though he was wearing an ordinary black suit with a priest’s collar. The house, called the Provost’s Lodging, is a couple of doors down from the Globe Theater, where David and I were about to take a tour. ++Rowan must have been making a pastoral care visit, as Slee passed away at home the next week. It’s a kind gesture, and as much as I wish Archbishop Rowan were less accomodating to the conservative faction that wishes to bar the door to some of Christ’s people, I am glad he was able to “be there” for his friend (in spite of their differences over the “Jeffrey Johns affair,” they remained friends).

From Johns’ funeral homily on Colin Slee:

Other people had said to him ‘It’s not fair: you’ve led a good life’. Colin replied, ‘How do you know? And anyway, whatever goodness I have is God’s gift. We rely on mercy, not fairness’.

It’s that confidence in God’s goodness that is the key to all the rest. What upset Colin about the Church was that in over his time as a priest it seemed to have grown narrower and meaner and less loveable, making God look narrow and mean and unloveable too; which for Colin was a sort of ultimate blasphemy. He wanted the Church to be big-hearted and warm and generous and kind because that’s how God is, and if we don’t reflect that, how are we going to show God to the world?

The papers and his detractors always portrayed Colin as an arch-Liberal, as if he were the leader of a faction obsessed with a secular agenda. It was never true, and it misses the whole point. For Colin it began and ended with God. The truth is that he was a traditional Catholic Anglican, thoroughly disciplined and orthodox in his faith, a man of profound prayer and penitence. His idea of inclusiveness was not that ‘anything goes’, but that we are all equally in need of healing, and therefore the Church must equally be a home for all. Colin welcomed people because Jesus did.

And that didn’t just mean welcoming gay people and women bishops, important as that was and is. He welcomed everybody. The first thing he did in Southwark was to take down the notice that said ‘Worship in progress – Cathedral closed’.

via The Lead.

Slee once jumped up and down, in full canonicals, on the Millennium Bridge in order to demonstrate to all and sundry that it wasn’t safe and had a dangerous wobble. Meanwhile, the hereditary ruler of all and sundry, the Queen of England was standing right there next to him ready to dedicate the thing, and Slee was taking part in the blessing of it. He must have been an amazing person to know – the comments at Thinking Anglicans were full of personal anecdotes and only one slightly acidulated comment from someone who probably had poor taste in shirts.

The BBC has a short synopsis here from their programme The Last Word, it will be playable via the iPlayer plugin for just a few days, but the introductory synopsis should remain visible.

I agree with Colin’s assessment that the ABC was “much too accomodating” to the conservatives, as the Archbishop himself noted in his careful, scholarly way. The rest of the audio portion goes on to note how Slee hosted a speech by Zimbabwean prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, which was later disrupted by exiles who accused the politician of selling out in the aftermath of the controversial elections there.

He also hosted our own Bishop Katharine and gave her a place to preach during the lively times that came to be known as “Mitregate.” Many celebrated people came to preach, preside, and pray at Southwark during his time.

During Slee’s 16 years at Southwark, visitors included Nelson Mandela and all four prime ministers. Last year he allowed the beleaguered Zimbabwe premier Morgan Tsvangirai to use the cathedral for a rally of exiles. Slee, who had visited and studied in South Africa, was unfazed when protests caused the address to be curtailed. During the 400th anniversary of John Harvard’s baptism in Southwark he could not resist suggesting that it was the narrow religious view of such emigrants which gave rise to the US’s neocon right.

A low point for Slee was when it fell to him to announce that one of his canons, Jeffrey John, was to be denied the Bishopric of Reading to which he had been appointed. He had been opposed by evangelicals fearful of a gay person being a prelate. Slee believed in an inclusive church and said so when it was not fashionable. He was always pleased to welcome disenchanted evangelicals to his confident congregation.

As with Jeffrey John, there was a sense of anticipation when Slee was due to preach. Although there might be a good soundbite, his discourse was always strongly Bible-based. His robust humour could be misunderstood. On leaving Winchester Cathedral, his host said, “Do come again.” “I shall,” Slee replied. “I am looking forward to attending your bishop’s funeral.” The astonished canon was unaware the bishop had just presided at a hearing which had gone against Slee’s strong views.

He was a trustee of Borough Market, where he took pleasure in buying “Stinking Bishop” cheese. Looking to the future, he struck a deal with Network Rail to protect the cathedral from the Thameslink plans. “Being dean feels like being on the footplate of a runaway express train,” he once said. “It is exciting as the church should be.”

Following heart surgery last year he was again on his bicycle. He criticised George Carey’s call to limit immigration as “utterly extraordinary”. At Easter he persuaded many to miss lunch and demonstrate against President Mugabe. In June he triggered what became known as “Mitregate” by welcoming Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first Anglican woman primate. In October he was diagnosed with cancer following a fall. Death came swiftly at home.

We walked completely around Southwark Cathedral trying to find the right door to enter; they’re having the “front” renovated, which butts up against a National Railway bridge and overlooks a tiny little Italian coffee garden that’s tucked under the arch. The “main door” at the back was full of students from the London School of Economics and from another college, about to have some sort of baccalaureate service (or possibly a fall graduation ceremony). Just up the road, we passed by the Borough Market and saw a sign for Stinking Bishop cheese at a cheerfully grubby little pub. I’d like to return to Southwark another time and see how they’re getting on without their “liberal-conservative” Dean someday, it struck me as a lively, interesting area full of interesting little corners and diverse entertainments.

I just wish I’d known him, although I’d known OF him for years. He sounds like a wonderful person.

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