Obituary: Canon James Owen
Friday 13 August 1993
JAMES OWEN was a remarkable priest in many ways. The open bon viveur with the Anglo-Catholic mannerisms in no way obscured the devout, caring pastor that he was.
His early education at St George's, Windsor, and Clifton did not seem to have the same influence as did his time at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and Ely Theological College. At the Hall, his mentors included Owen Chadwick, the historian and theologian, and, a powerfully pastoral influence, Tony Tremlett, the then Chaplain, who later became Bishop of Dover.
He had two curacies, one in Kensington, the other in Bristol, before returning to Cambridge in 1961, as Chaplain of Jesus College. Here he entered fully into the duties of his role - running the chapel in happy tandem with the Dean, Peter Baelz, and being available to all and sundry: often talking and counselling until the small hours. He coxed in bumping races, shared in the life of numerous societies, graced the high table and observed the idiosyncrasies of those around him.
This observation was put to great use in his wholly convincing mimicry of various college worthies - Dr Frederick Brittain, the Rev Percival Gardner-Smith and the Master, Sir Denys Page. Hearing Owen over the telephone one could never be wholly sure whether or not it was the genuine article on the end of the line. In later years, other beloved characters would be added to the cast-list - especially Owen's great friend and inspiration, Archbishop Michael Ramsay.
After a brief spell at Repton - which served to show he was not best suited to school life - Owen became Chaplain to Nottingham University in 1967. In a very different setting from Cambridge, he developed a multi-faceted ministry which is recalled by friends with gratitude and pleasure a quarter of a century later. As always he gave time to those that needed it, and many came to recognise his real talent in listening and advising those in any sort of trouble.
Seven years after his arrival in Nottingham he was offered the living of Little St Mary's, back in Cambridge. This was an ideal situation for a priest of his gifts. The Anglo-Catholicism of the parish was clear but unassertive and Owen practised his beliefs without rigidity. The parish was a splendid mixture of town and gown, and the worship - at High Mass on Sundays, or in the daily offices - was conducted with solemnity and dignity. Owen attracted a number of outstanding preachers, and the Lenten addresses of Michael Ramsay are still remembered. Owen was happy to share the church altars which he oversaw with those without their own parish, which included Meredith Dewey, Dean of Pembroke, and, latterly, Father Richard Masheder.
It was at this period that Owen was invited to become Steward of the Union Society, a post which afforded him great pleasure. As Steward, he was the responsible adult in touch with the undergraduate committee, and this provided another springboard for pastoral and social interaction. Indeed James Owen's Rectory, in Newnham Terrace, was a focal point for friends from town and gown, don and undergraduate. He opened his door to friends from every walk of Cambridge life, where dinner parties were often reduced to fits of giggles by the appearance of Owen in a Canterbury Cap, pulled well down over his ears.
As a counterbalance to his parish and university commitments, Owen had a house at Whisonsett in Norfolk to which he escaped when he could. There, in a simpler fashion than was possible in Cambridge, he spent relaxed periods when he would read and walk and rest. He was also typically generous in lending his house to any who needed a time of repose.
His last illness was faced with courage and cheerfulness, and within 10 days of his death he would speak on the telephone drawing even then on his talents as a mimic to remind colleagues and friends of earlier days. It is a measure of the reciprocal appreciation of his parishioners that his room in the Evelyn Hospital was constantly teeming with visitors. They will miss him at Little St Mary's, as will his many friends. If his timing in life was near-perfect, so it was in his death - as one friend remarked, he would never have died during Henley.
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