SHORTLY after the bombing of Hiroshima a protest procession wound its way through the blitzed East End streets of Sheffield. It was led by Alan Ecclestone with the members of the Church of Holy Trinity, Darnall - one of the courageous and prophetic acts which marked his 27 years as vicar.
Ecclestone was the most challenging and radical of all the Church's parish priests, a George Herbert of the inner city; like Herbert he was catholic in his sacramentalism and committed to the welfare of people in his parish whether they went to church or not, and again like Herbert a scholar and writer. He summed up his spirituality in a contemporary classic on prayer, Yes to Prayer (1975, awarded the Collins Religious Book prize). After his retirement to Gosforth he won more admirers with his Staircase for Silence (1977, showing his love for Charles Peguy), his Night Sky of the Lord (1980, the churches' need to heed the Jewish experience) and Scaffolding for the Spirit (1987, insights into St John's Gospel).
Ecclestone was the son of a Stoke-on-Trent pottery painter. His mother, more radical than his father, used to put up a Home Rule for Ireland poster in their window but removed it before father returned from work. Scholarships gained Alan firsts in history and English at Cambridge and a lectureship in English at Durham. The sight of unemployed miners and the teaching of the Catholic Crusade in the Church of England were powerful counter-influences to a university career, especially to the radical priests Jim Wilson, of Burslem, and Conrad Noel, of Thaxted, who intertwined the red flag and the Cross of St George for their demonstrations. Ecclestone deserted Senior Common Room talk for a lifelong love affair with the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) and was trained for the church at Wells and ordained by Dr Williams, the philosopher-Bishop of Carlisle. He married Delia Abraham, who shared his campaigning determination - her 'Amens' loudly spoken at the end of prayers seemed always admonitions to the Almighty.
Alan Ecclestone's first living was at Frizington, in Cumberland, where three-quarters of the men were unemployed miners - in his words 'a marvellous heart-rending place. TB was rife and the poverty was appalling. But they were wonderful people to be with.'
In 1942 he joined Bishop Leslie Hunter's team in Sheffield and spent the next 27 years as vicar of Darnall. He and Delia were convinced that the Church needed major changes. Though he admired Hunter as 'the greatest bishop I have ever known' and represented the diocese in the Church Assembly and Convocation, these were not his scene; he devoted himself to the ideal of transforming the Church into a network of living communities, able to change 'the devilish society in which we live into something nearer the Kingdom of God'.
His ministry in Sheffield developed the strategy of the parish community and the parish meeting as basic weekly events in which the congregation learnt to experience the discipline and exhilaration of becoming a close-knit community of friends with a common life-purpose and plan of action. He lost a few parishioners to this demanding regime but won many more both in the parish and outside. At a parish meeting sitting in his cassock, alert, laughing, on the floor of the stone-flag kitchen with 30 or 40 parishioners of all ages slowly becoming articulate, he was a brilliant animator and summariser. Hints were heard: Delia agreed to stop selling copies of the Daily Worker before service (she sold them afterwards outside). Popular Catholicism in the Church of England was at its lively best. A form of church life increasingly influential in other parishes was slowly evolved and Darnall vicarage became a place of pilgrimage as Ecclestone sought to reintegrate the Church and the working community. Services were full of light, processions, and enjoyable symbolism. He used to say, 'Marrying the children whose parents you have married is a wonderful thing.'
He was also a leader of the Christian-Marxist dialogue in the post-war years. He attended the left-wing Peace Conferences at Paris and Warsaw and stood six times unsuccessfully as a Communist councillor for solidly Labour Sheffield. He welcomed the revolution in China and was happy that one of his sons went to work there. When accused of naivety he would quote Hromadka, the wartime Czech Christian leader, that one must go with the people and share their centuries-old struggle for power.
In the Cold War years he was isolated by his membership of the Communist Party. The party, Ecclestone said, was as bemused to have a priest for a member as the parish was to have a Communist as their priest. In later years he did not support the party but pleaded for a sharing of a property and a renunciation of the power structures: 'God has renounced power and approaches us only with love.' His personal way of life and humour won him a hearing even when Stalinism and McCarthyism bedevilled understanding.
Prayer as the link between the Divine and the human was at the heart of his faith. He used an imaginative 'communion for married couples' before and during Delia's long illness. In hospital they could be heard singing Compline quietly before he caught his bus home.
In 1987 his Good Friday Three Hours' Devotion at St Paul's was a compelling reassertion of the Cross as the scene of the struggle for justice. Supported by his loyal and talented family he continued to the end, generously available for conferences, retreats and a constant succession of friends who travelled to Cumberland to walk and talk with him. Wherever he was, he was loved and respected. His writings and letters treasured, and his own discipleship convincingly encouraging to the end of a long life.
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