Obituary: Canon Bill Vanstone

Alan Webster
Thursday 11 March 1999 01:02

BILL VANSTONE was the most intellectually brilliant of the many able men who were ordained after the Second World War. He was a 20th-century John Keble who committed himself without compromise to a pastoral ministry as well as writing a number of small spiritual books, hymns and verses. Many had prophesised for him a glittering academic career. Occasionally Vanstone allowed himself a twinkle and would remark: "Seven of my friends have just accepted jobs which I have refused."

He was greatly respected within the ministry of the churches. Both lay and ordained men and women who were lonely, questioning or deeply wounded found their way to his door and his lights often burned late into the night.

William Hubert Vanstone (he published as W.H. Vanstone) was born in 1923 in a Lancashire vicarage, where his father and his mother were model leaders in a working-class parish, wholly devoted to the needs of the parishioners. His parents remained his models throughout his life.

After service in the RAF, training as a pilot in Canada, he took two Firsts at Balliol College, Oxford, and afterwards, while training for the ministry at Westcott House, Cambridge, he gained a starred First in the Cambridge tripos. He achieved further distinction while studying under Paul Tillich and James Muilenburg at the General Theological Seminary, New York. His retentive and analytic mind had an unusual grasp both of contemporary philosophy and modern historical methodology. Oxbridge colleges were eager for his services, but he was determined to be a parish clergyman.

Vanstone was ordained in 1950 and served in the Lancashire parishes of Halliwell and Kirkholt before a heart attack persuaded him in 1978 to accept the post of Canon Residentiary at Chester Cathedral, where he served under Dean Ingram Cleasby, one of the survivors of Arnhem.

At Halliwell and Kirkholt, Vanstone established a strong influence over the boys' clubs and his summer holiday camps in Wales, the Western Isles of Scotland and Ireland became famous. He believed in discipline and regular church attendance. In camp on the Island of Coll, everyone went to the Wee Frees in the morning and the Church of Scotland in the evening. The previous night Coll had been lashed by fierce gales which were the subject of both sermons; the Wee Frees as an example of the Wrath of God at the sinfulness of the people of Coll, the Church of Scotland - whose minister had nearly perished in the crossing - as a sign that "The Lord is my Shepherd". In discussion with Vanstone, the Lancashire lads in camp found the Church of Scotland homily not only shorter but much more Christian.

Vanstone's parish friendships were long-lasting and some led to ordination. His parishes were caring communities with a strong commitment to Sunday worship.

At Chester Cathedral Vanstone could be puzzling to his colleagues. He found teamwork difficult. He loved cathedral worship and his brief eucharistic addresses were exceptional. He insisted on living in a small cottage, not the Canon's large house, and was splendidly accessible. He enjoyed cooking and was endlessly hospitable. But he was averse to any change in worship or administration, though it was a time when both the Church of England and the Second Vatican Council were encouraging lay involvement at many levels. Vanstone felt it his duty to slam on the brakes. He did not allow the Bishop to celebrate the new liturgy more than once a year and then on a weekday. He was ingenious in devising arguments in favour of "Leave Well Alone".

His genius flowered in his addresses, essays and devotional books. In 1954 he had contributed a perceptive essay on St Paul's exercise of authority in a volume of essays edited by Kenneth Carey, The Historic Episcopate in the Fullness of the Church. In 1979 his Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense, published two years previously, won the Collins Religious Book Prize. In 1982 The Stature of Waiting was welcomed by many as a notable protest against over-activism in the Church and the public relations of religion: it was a plea to see the waiting figure in the Gospels as powerful and dignified. His last book, Fare Well in Christ (1997), returned to his emphasis on the suffering but creative love of God for His whole world.

Vanstone was a short, sturdy man with black hair and piercing eyes. He reminded many of the old-fashioned celibate priests of an earlier tradition. He was so busy with all the duties and lists and laughter and agonies of a parish, that he had no time to think of marriage. He never took holidays.

In his later years he did not involve himself in ecumenism or in the struggles over apartheid and justice in Africa. He felt the tide was turning against the Church and that each year its work became more difficult on the housing estates to which he had devoted his life. But he left on the characters of those he influenced the impression that they were valued by a God who was prepared to suffer without limit.

Vanstone argued that humanity can achieve its true dignity through a life of prayer. In his own last years he lived out patiently his theme of waiting.

William Hubert Vanstone, priest: born Mossley, Lancashire 9 May 1923; ordained deacon 1950, priest 1951; Curate in charge, Kirkholt 1955- 64, Vicar 1964-76; Honorary Canon, Manchester Cathedral 1968-76; Vicar of Hattersley 1977-78; Canon Residentiary, Chester Cathedral 1978-90; Six Preacher, Canterbury Cathedral 1983-91; died Cirencester, Gloucestershire 4 March 1999.

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