Canon Ralph Stevens

Parish priest devoted to Birmingham
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The Independent Online

Ralph Stevens was one of the Church of England's great parish priests, and belonged to Birmingham all his life.

Ralph Samuel Osborn Stevens, priest: born Birmingham 6 November 1913; ordained deacon 1936, priest 1937; Vicar, St Paul's Church, Birmingham 1950-83; Honorary Canon, Birmingham Cathedral 1952-83; Rural Dean, Birmingham City 1958-83; Chaplain to the Queen 1967-83; married 1940 Gwen Jones (died 2003; one son deceased); died Birmingham 12 March 2005.

Ralph Stevens was one of the Church of England's great parish priests, and belonged to Birmingham all his life.

His father had had a butcher's business in Smethwick. Ralph Stevens was a science graduate of Birmingham University. In 1940 - to the sound of air-raid sirens - he married Gwen Jones, who was teaching in Birmingham and later became head of a school in Handsworth. He was ordained deacon, and then priest, in Birmingham. After a nine-year curacy in Aston, including five years of wartime, he became priest-in-charge of St Paul's, Birmingham, and later became its vicar, staying there in all for 33 years, for 27 of which he was also Rural Dean of the centre of the city.

Stevens loved St Paul's Church, an 18th-century gem in Birmingham's jewellery quarter. It had been badly damaged during the Second World War and then, much due to Stevens's advocacy and care, splendidly restored. When, in 1983, he retired he stayed in Birmingham. And it was in a care home in Birmingham that he died.

He was a devoted member of the Church of England. (He was not accustomed to use the word "Anglican" of himself.) He loved the Book of Common Prayer and he loved his parish. He appreciated too what it was to belong to an episcopal church, believing that episcopacy could curb bureaucracy. Among bishops he greatly venerated were Ernest W. Barnes, Leonard Wilson and Robert Runcie. Is there a common thread in their courage and humanity?

In 1967 Stevens was appointed one of the Chaplains of the Royal Household. That meant a great deal to him, radical though he saw himself as being. Indeed there was always a certain tension between his reverence for tradition and his desire to find God at work in the interstices of a science-based society.

Some might ask why Ralph Stevens was never given preferment (or promotion). Certainly, various attempts were made to winkle him out of St Paul's. The truth is that his idea of preferment was to stay where he was. His rootedness in Birmingham, his love for the Church of England, and his long and wonderfully happy marriage gave him the confidence and assurance he needed for a very remarkable ministry based in the centre of the city. The one great sadness, which he never quite got over, was the death of his only child, Andrew, from leukaemia, while still a boy at Solihull School. After this it seemed as if the whole of Birmingham somehow became his family.

Stevens was perhaps best known, at least outside Birmingham, as an industrial chaplain, a responsibility given him by Bishop Wilson in 1954. He was one of the early pioneers in this field and widely acknowledged for his skill. He set up no institutions and wrote no tome setting out the theories on which he operated. He had no office or secretary. He was always reluctant to put pen to paper. The telephone was his favourite means of communication with those not actually in the room with him. A would-be biographer would need to study a list of his telephone calls, the cost of which must have been astronomic. His ministry in industry was all a matter of listening to, and of building trust with, whoever it might be - shop stewards, canteen staff, directors. He never deliberately took on other engagements during the annual congress of the TUC, which he attended year after year.

Yet he never grandstanded as an industrial chaplain. He thought it was an obviously suitable way for a vicar at that period of history, especially one who had the care of what had been the parish church of James Watt and Matthew Boulton, to spend a great deal of his time. And he saw it as an important part of his work to play back into the Church insights derived from what goes on in industry as well as bringing Christian values to bear on industrial life.

Much more could be said about Stevens's many-sided ministry, especially in the area of social responsibility - discharged prisoners, the aged, the Birmingham Council of Christian Churches, music in Birmingham and the work of William Temple College, which was then at Rugby under its forward-looking and pipe-smoking Principal, Mollie Batten. Around all that grew a simply amazing circle of friends to whom he gave himself with extraordinary generosity. He seemed to know everyone in Birmingham and everyone seemed to know him.

He was not a great church-filler, except on special occasions, such as his legendary five-minute service each Good Friday. He could be very critical of the Church, certainly of ecclesiasticism which he thought so often obscured the message and example of Jesus of Nazareth. "The Church is not an end in itself," Stevens would say endlessly.

His greatness was simply that he had the ability to set people free. He took people as they were, whatever their social, religious or ethnic background, and then gently indicated how they might move on from where they stood. He enjoyed life: a good book, the latest gizmo, a social meal and a glass of wine. He was a model of courtesy and graciousness; and he had a wicked sense of humour.

It was once asked of a little-known but much-loved country parson in Norfolk what had been the secret he had of exercising influence. "Never to do it," came the answer. "Be everyone's friend, and leave the rest to God" was his practice. Such words might have been spoken of Ralph Stevens.

Ronald Gordon