ON FIRST acquaintance - and we met when I was an ordinand in search of a curacy parish - Norry McCurry seemed slightly larger than life. He was tall, it is true, but he had large brown eyes and the gift of giving you his whole attention. If he was the driver of the car in which you were travelling, this could be disconcerting; but mostly it signalled a single- minded attention to whatever he was concerned with at the moment, which was usually other people or God.
With almost anything else he would lose interest after a bit. It was not that he was bored: it was that he was always eager for what was to happen next, and longing to meet your friends or read your new books. This restlessness (as it would appear) manifested itself in sudden enthusiasms and some impatience. Unlike many people who accept the world as it is and wring their hands over it, Mc=Curry, when he found the world not as it should be, set out to put it to rights. Surprised by the response to a Lonely Hearts advertisement in his parish magazine, McCurry founded a club; taken aback by the absence of what he regarded as good RE teaching in the schools, he organised withdrawal classes in every school in the parish.
Norry McCurry was born in Belfast in 1919. Brought up in pre-war Oxford by his mother, the widow of an extremely Protestant Ulster clergyman, Norry went to St Edward's, and later to St Edmund Hall. His mother had taken to the delights of High Church Cowley, and Norry's past always sounded exactly like Brideshead Revisited. After a tough spell as a sailor on the North Atlantic convoys, first as a seaman and later as an officer, he went to Chichester Theological College and served a first curacy in Staveley and a second with Fr Peter Mayhew at St Aidan's, Leeds. Moving to be priest-in-charge of St George's, Sands, near High Wycombe, and then as Vicar to St Edward's, Holbeck, Leeds, he fitted naturally into a celibate company of merry young Anglo- Catholic priests.
On a holiday in Greece with his friend Fr Gerard Irvine and his sister, McCurry met a young Cambridge undergraduate, Ruth Hawker. After some hesitations on both their parts - 'a simple gospel service' is how Norry had described Benediction to Ruth before she had come to it for the first time - they were married and soon after moved to a new parish in Leeds, St Bartholomew's, Armley, where the great blackened church rose above the streets of back-to-back houses, and the McCurrys found themselves with a young family and several curates to train. The move to Armley and the stirrings of the Second Vatican Council were factors; but the mainspring in Norry's development was his marriage to Ruth. To Norry's flamboyant energy was now harnessed Ruth's critical eye, analytical skill and practical common sense. The enthusiasms and insights were harnessed and put into practical projects.
There were the great Stations of the Cross through the streets in Passiontide in both Armley and Stepney, with casts of hundreds and watched by thousands of spectators. And - always looking for ways to communicate with the parish - the parish magazines, the Armley Messenger and, in Stepney, Kindle. (Like Queen Victoria, McCurry wrote short, vivid sentences, and used a lot of underlining.)
In Stepney, more demands were made on him; there was the historic building to care for, and the Deanery to organise. But McCurry's skills as both a trainer and a spiritual director were becoming recognised, and he began to serve on the Advisory Council for the Church's Ministry and the governing bodies of theological colleges and courses. He was in demand for individual counselling and direction as well as retreats, and at the end of his ministry this led Archbishop Runcie to invite him to look after clergy in particular difficulties, while at St James's, Piccadilly, he enjoyed conducting the services of the well-known as much as chaplaining the staff of the Ritz.
As a priest he had a disciplined but unfussy life of prayer. And while the relics of the past - a photo of Padre Pio, who had received the stigmata (and whose signature McCurry had tried to secure), or a Breton figurine of Our Lady - were treated with affection; it was the now which was important. Perhaps that is why the theatre bored him rather: the real-life dramas which constantly gathered around him seemed so much more exciting. But most important of all was his gift for making you feel twice the person you were: he could transform a simple meal, and his hostess's confidence, with an extravagent but wholly sincerely meant 'That was the best dinner I've ever had'.
On the last Sunday of his life, though tired and in pain, he walked to the altar rail to receive the sacrament unaided, and then brightened at meeting the clergy for a drink. And on the day he died, when his daughter had flown back in haste from Kuala Lumpur, he said one last, biblical word: 'Mary'. It was these people - his family, his friends and those among whom he ministered - who were his life, and who at his funeral found that there was only standing room when they came to say farewell.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content