OBITUARY:The Right Rev Vernon Nicholls
Wednesday 07 February 1996
The Diocese of Sodor and Man is the smallest and, it claims, the oldest diocese in the Church of England. Whilst part of the province of York, it still retains its own Convocation and it is bound by no act of the UK Parliament unless specifically named in the Act. Because he has a seat in the island's Legislative Council, the upper house of Tynwald, the Bishop of Sodor and Man is debarred from sitting in the House of Lords even if he is a senior bishop. He has a courtesy seat only in the Lords, and may neither speak nor vote. The strongly Celtic church, traditionally founded in 447 by the mission of Patrick's disciples, came under Nordic influence in the Viking period and for a time Bishops were consecrated in Trondheim, Norway, providing a long and often hazardous journey. This was the period when "Sodor" - the Scottish southern isles - became part of the diocese, and although the bishop, from the 14th century, retained no territorial responsibility, he still retained Sodor in his title.
Nicholls was consecrated Bishop in York Minster on 11 June 1974 and later enthroned in St George's Church, Douglas. His nine-year tenure saw an extensive programme of reform, requiring three Diocesan Synods a year, instead of the usual two. This exercise continues at a more leisurely pace today, but it was he who began it.
Nicholls set about raising the stipends of his clergy, which were appallingly low compared with those of their English counterparts. With Stuart Callister, the then Chairman of the Board of Finance, he worked tirelessly to bring their remuneration to an acceptable level. He was loyal to his clergy, but he expected loyalty and hard work in return. A firm disciplinarian, he was quick to rebuke when necessary, but ready too with praise and applause.
His crowning glory as Bishop was the creation of a cathedral from the parish church of Kirk German, close to the ruins of the former cathedral on St Patrick's Isle. It was consecrated on All Saints' Day, 1 November 1980, an occasion which gave him great personal pleasure, and to which he often referred after his retirement in 1983. This was his dream and would not have been achieved without him.
Former and present members of Tynwald will remember his forthright approach both in and out of the Chamber which did not always make him popular, but, liked or not, he was a force to be reckoned with.
He will be remembered by most people on the island as the bishop who sold Bishopscourt, a piece of Manx heritage. But Nicholls was a realist who recognised the heavy financial burden the palace was placing on the Church in the Isle of Man and would continue to do so. In 1974 the cost of repairing the roof alone was pounds 60,000. In the light of recent discussion by the Church Commissioners for England about the wisdom of keeping some bishops' residences his decision would seem to have been vindicated.
Vernon Nicholls was a Cornishman, born in 1917. He attended Clifton Theological College, and was ordained in 1941. His two curacies were at Bedminster Down, Bristol, and at Liskeard with St Heyne in Cornwall. Between 1944 and 1946 he was an army chaplain and then Vicar of Meopham, in Kent, for 10 years. He served as Vicar and of Walsall from 1956 to 1967, when he was also chaplain of Walsall General Hospital. He was appointed a Prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral, before becoming Archdeacon of Birmingham in 1967.
Pastorally and socially Nicholls was very personable, with a gift for remembering names and faces. Freemasons on the island held him in high regard, especially when in 1977 he became Grand Chaplain of the United Grand Lodge of England. He regularly attended the Rotary Club at Douglas.
David A. Willoughby
Vernon Sampson Nicholls, priest: born 3 September 1917; ordained deacon 1941, priest 1941; Vicar of Meopham 1946-56; Rural Dean of Cobham 1953- 56; Vicar and Rural Dean of Walsall 1956-67; Prebendary of Curborough, Lichfield Cathedral 1964-67; Archdeacon of Birmingham 1967-74; Bishop of Sodor and Man 1974-83; Honorary Assistant Bishop of Coventry 1983-96; married 1943 Phyllis Potter (one son, one daughter); died Stratford-on-Avon 2 February 1996.
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