Obituary: The Rev Percy Coleman

FEW priests of the Church of England have had the distinction of being seized by the lapels and shaken by Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher in the corridors of Church House but such was the fate of Frederick Philip (known to his friends as Percy) Coleman soon after he was elected to the Church Assembly as General Secretary of the Church Union in 1955.

Coleman had a formidable reputation as an ecclesiastical politician working for the Anglo-Catholic cause. He became an eminence grise during a period of profound change in the Church but he was also conspicuous for pastoral gifts as a parish priest and was a much sought confessor and spiritual director.

Educated at Ealing County School, he read economics under Lionel Robbins at the London School of Economics where he failed to obtain a First because of his difficult handwriting. It did not subsequently improve. From early life Coleman was a strong churchman and as a layman was active in the parish of Holy Cross, Greenford, where he trained the choir.

In the early Thirties he went to France where he was keenly influenced by the organised association of factory workers in the Roman Catholic Church known as the Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne (Jocists), or in English- speaking countries as the Young Christian Workers. His interest in the analysis of contemporary society found fulfilment in the Christian Socialist Anglo-Catholic summer school of Sociology. After a period working in university administration he went up to St Stephen's House, Oxford, in 1938 to read for holy orders and was ordained in 1940.

Two curacies followed, one at St Alphege, Southwark, until 1942 where he was noticed for his courage during the blitz, followed by six years at St Stephen's, Lewisham. Then came four years as vicar of St Antholin's, Nunhead, which he rebuilt after the war, and three years as a member of the Company of Mission Priests in the immense urban parish of Ellesmere Fort, in Cheshire.

His career seemed set fair for the parochial ministry and it was a subject of grief to some of his friends when his life took an unexpected turn. Coleman was a man of considerable intellectual ability and it was for this reason, as much as for his Anglo-Catholic convictions, that he was persuaded to become the General Secretary of the Church Union in 1955. The Church Union represented the organised political wing of the Anglo- Catholic Movement.

The membership consisted of progressive and conservative elements. Coleman was of a far higher mental ability than the rank and file and this frequently led to misunderstanding and sometimes mistrust. He had a speculative mind and was deeply influenced by the French Catholic Theological Revival. At a time when Liberal Protestantism began to assume prominence in the Church of England he maintained a reasoned Liberal Catholic position. He welcomed the election of Pope John XXIII in 1958 and eagerly embraced the positive results of the Second Vatican Council and saw their implications for Anglicanism.

But Coleman was not merely a radical who applied change for its own sake. He was firmly grounded in scripture and tradition and believed that to be truly radical you had to have strong doctrinal foundations. With Yves Congar he saw tradition as a dynamic rather than static force and recognised the developmont of Christian doctrine. His annual journeys to France and connections with the University of Louvain and the Archdiocese of Malines, in Belgium, forged serious ecumenical bonds; but he was disappointed that his experience was not needed in official ecumenical activities.

Coleman's francophile sympathies nevertheless presented problems. He tended to think that the Church of England started from the same position as the French Church, which it did not, and neither did the then enclosed position of the Roman Catholic Church in England.

This led him to look at the gains of the Anglo-Catholic Movement with an element of complacency. He thought that most of the battles had been won and despaired of a defensive mentality that was unwilling to recognise that Catholicism had to a great extent sunk into the bones of Anglicanism, a view shared by some Roman Catholic ecumenists. He wanted Anglo-Catholicism to cease to be a campaign and deepen the gains on a normative basis in the parishes of England. He did not make allowances for the diversity of much Anglican eucharistic belief. His support of social justice put him at variance with the President of the Union, the Earl of Lauderdale, a staunch Conservative.

Second to Pope John XXIII (at whose death in 1963 he wept) Coleman's hero was Archbishop Michael Ramsay. It was in the wake of Ramsay's ecumenical objectives that he supported the Anglican-Methodist Conversations and was distressed that the Convocations failed to produce the 75 per cent majority needed to pass a scheme of union.

His views were sharply at variance with the majority of members of the Church Union. He saw no theological objections to the ordination of women and in later life came to regard the presidency of a woman at the altar as the most natural thing in the world.

Coleman left the Church Union in 1968 and became Warden of the Community of St John the Baptist, Clewar, a religious order for women. Many convents had used him for retreats and spiritual direction and valued his mastery of the spiritual life. During this time he established close connections with the enclosed orders at Fairacres, Oxford, and Burnham Abbey. He undertook the direction of the Society of the Hidden Life, a body of devout laywomen fostered by the Society of the Sisters of Bethany. Many remained devoted to him for the rest of his life. Coleman retained the Wardenship of Clawar until 1979 but in 1971 he accepted the living of St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, Blackfriars, and held both in plurality.

It was in the City that Coleman exercised a varied and distinctive ministry. Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, a churchwarden, wanted him because of the adult educational work of the Advanced Sunday school that met on Sunday afternoons and attracted distinguished speakers and people from far and wide.

But Coleman was not willing to exercise a purely intellectual apostolate. He ran a Bible class for the telephonists and engineers of the Farringdon telephone exchange, worked pastorally in the institutions within the parish, took an interest in the Mermaid Theatre and was active in Sion College. St Andrew's became the base for a ministry of preaching, lecturing, the confessional and retreat-conducting that took him all over the country.

Coleman was an elegant writer and edited the influential theological periodical, Faith and Unity, from 1955 until it ceased publication in 1978. In 1979 he was appointed Area Dean of the City of London, a post he held until 1982.

Coleman was cultivated, well-read and sang in the London Bach Choir. He had a great gift for friendship, generosity of spirit, a Gallic appreciation of food (he could entice the most delicious meals from simple ingredients), a ready (if sometimes derisive) sense of humour and remained a champion of the underdog.

Although at the height of his powers many were perplexed and sometimes made indignant by his stance, subsequent events demonstrated that essentially he had kept his finger on the pulse of the Church and his standpoint was vindicated. But some of his critics who did not share his optimism about the future of a Catholic expression of Anglicanism felt that he was the Edward Heath of the movement and had misjudged the political moment that led to a weakening of the Catholic position.

For the last 14 years of his life Coleman lived contentedly at the Charterhouse and acted as honorary curate of St Botolph's, Aldgate. He continued to act as a confessor and spiritual director until prevented from doing so by Parkinsonism. When he was asked what he would leave behind him when he died he said, quite accurately, "A number of distraught ladies."

Frederick Philip (Percy) Coleman, priest: born Greenford, Middlesex 11 September 1911; ordained deacon 1940, priest 1941; Vicar of St Antholin's, Nunhead 1948-52, Ellesmere Port 1952-55; General Secretary, Church Union 1955-68; Warden, Community of St John the Baptist, Clewar 1968-79; Rector, St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, Blackfriars 1971-84; died London 14 April 1998.

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