Neil Collings: Visionary Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral

By Peter Townley
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:06

Neil Collings was the Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral from 2006 until 2009. Although his time there was short, he built on the solid work of his predecessor, James Atwell, and made an impact not only in the Cathedral but also in the Diocese of Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich and the county of Suffolk. He was no stranger to the Diocese: his mother had Suffolk roots and his great-grandfather had been a local shepherd.

He came to the Cathedral at the right time, the new Tower having been built and much of the other construction work completed. He had a vision of enabling Suffolk's mother church to become a distinctive spiritual resource engaging with the wider Diocese. He brought a much appreciated wisdom and clarity of thought, and during his all too short tenure, before he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour, he made a pilgrimage to all of Suffolk's 478 churches.

Coming to Suffolk from Exeter Cathedral, where he had been Canon Treasurer, he arrived with the reputation of somebody who was highly respected, able to make hard decisions, grasp nettles and make a Cathedral a springboard for mission. Greatly loved by the congregation in Exeter, he shone during his time as Acting Dean not only as a teacher and preacher but also as a leader, widening the vision of the Cathedral Council and College of Canons and thus laying the foundation stones upon which the present Dean has built.

Never narrowly churchy, Collings had a tremendous ministry with men. In Freemasonry he was Third Grand Principal and valued his chaplaincy work with the police and the St John Ambulance Brigade.

Born in Torquay, where his father was in the merchant navy before becoming the head porter of the Imperial Hotel, his humble beginnings betrayed no indication of what was to become of him. All he ever wanted to be was a parish priest. In the top class at Tor Church of England Primary School, smart, proper and serious but with a great gift for entertaining and inspired by Miss Lee's legendary scripture classes, he was known as "the Bishop."

Witty and urbane, as a student at King's College, London he was well known by his trade-mark pinstriped suit, bowler hat and furled umbrella. It was during his time at King's that he came to the attention of the Dean of Westminster, and erstwhile Dean of King's, Eric Abbott. Tall, mellow-voiced and always immaculately well-dressed, Collings was never afraid to stand out from the crowd. He would always surprise: he was in nobody's pocket, yet everybody thought he was their best friend; seemingly old-fashioned with his linen clerical collars but with a pronounced radical streak. He won people's confidence and they felt safe.

Ordained in 1970 to serve his Title in the Diocese of Exeter, he became in 1974 the first Chaplain of Westminster Abbey. As pastor to the Abbey congregation and staff he loved the daily round of worship and being alongside people from all ages and backgrounds, gaining a reputation as an effective minister and visitor. He made people laugh and enjoy their faith and relished the opportunity to entertain guests in his house in Little Cloister including George Thomas, later Viscount Tonypandy, and Sir John Gielgud.

Working at the heart of any institution, not least the nation's parish church, can be seductive and Edward Carpenter, the Dean Westminster, was right when he said that five years at the Abbey was long enough. For the next seven years Collings worked in Hereford, where as Bishop's Chaplain and Director of Ordinands he had a valuable insight into the machinery of the church. Whether it was guiding an ordinand towards a selection conference or taking the junior clergy to the pub, his ministry was marked by a deep sensitivity and care, making a significant contribution to priestly formation in the Diocese. He always kept in touch with those he had helped to prepare for ordination. Going to St Nicholas Harpenden in 1986, he was able to develop the work of the church there, not least with Hebrew and Greek classes for the congregation.

Everywhere he served Neil Collings is remembered for his deep spirituality, humour, encouragement and the ability to love and remember.

Neil Collings, priest: born Torquay 26 August 1946; ordained priest 1971; Canon Treasurer, Exeter Cathedral 1999-2005; Dean of St Edmundsbury 2006-2009; died Devon 26 June 2010.

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