Obituaries:The Right Rev Mervyn Stockwood

Michael De-La-Noy
Saturday 14 January 1995 00:02

Mervyn Stockwood was certainly the most colourful and controversial diocesan bishop of his generation and, considering his contradictory character, probably one of the most popular and successful.

In many respects a prophet, he created in his diocese of Southwark visionary enterprises now regarded as commonplace, and during two decades he attracted to inner-city areas south of the Thames some of the most able clergy available. His name became synonymous with South Bank Religion. Primarily a pastor to his clergy, he nevertheless had a knack of hitting the headlines, and there is little doubt he enjoyed publicity. This is probably why his undoubted gifts and immense capacity for hard work were never in the end utilised by the Church to the full.

Stockwood was born in 1913, the younger son of a solicitor killed on the Somme when Mervyn was three. That same year, 1917, the family moved to Bristol, and it was there, at All Saints', Clifton, later destroyed in the Second World War, that Mervyn discovered the liturgical delights of Anglo-Catholicism, and where he was later to spend 19 years as curate and vicar at St Matthew, Moorfields. His education, at a series of boarding schools, was somewhat haphazard, ending up with four years at Kelly Collegein Tavistock. He became a Lay Reader at the unusually early age of 18, and read history at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he came under the influence of the liberal scholar Charles Raven, Regius Professor of Divinity. He spent a year at Westcott House and was ordained deacon in 1936.

Mervyn Stockwood kept quiet about the fact that while an undergraduate he was a Young Conservative. His conversion to socialism occurred through personal experience of deprivation at Moorfields, and although, like many affluent middle-class socialists, he enjoyed the fruits of capitalism, he retained all his life a sincere social conscience. He served as a Labour councillor both in Bristol and Cambridge, and in Bristol he established the first health clinic in the country. Being unorthodox to his fingertips, he managed however to get expelled from the Labour Party no fewer than three times.

In 1947, while still only 34, Stockwood was considered for the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, but his appointment was stymied by the Bishop of Oxford, Kenneth Kirk, who did not fancy a maverick socialist preaching to undergraduates. It was a blessing in disguise, for Stockwood never felt at home in Oxford. Cambridge, on the other hand, he loved, and it was to the University Church of St Mary's that Stockwood eventually moved, in 1955. After only four years he was offered the bishopric of Southwark. Clement Attlee had always hoped for Stockwood's preferment, but had done nothing about it, doubting Archbishop Fisher's co-operation, and, quite erroneously, Harold Macmillan has been credited with the planting of a campaigning socialist onthe bench. But oddly enough, in view of the later severance of good relations between them, it was in the end Fisher who pushed for Stockwood's consecration. "Now, Stockwood," Fisher said at Lambeth Palace, "sit down and tell me your reasons for not going to Southwark. There is no hurry. Take as long as you like, Then I'll tell you why you're wrong." There were six candidates, and Fisher had told Macmillan that Stockwood was the one "who could be recommended with the most conviction".

Although he hesitated, as anyone offered a bishopric is supposed to do, it is doubtful if Stockwood entertained any serious qualms about donning the purple, especially as Fisher, possibly tongue in cheek, arranged to consecrate him on Labour Day. Stockwood had High Church views of episcopacy and, although he immediately and ostentatiously discarded his gaiters and took to wearing a bow tie, he enjoyed every minute in episcopal orders, performing his duties with prelatical aplomb. But he was also a modern man in a hurry. At bishops' meetings he would noisily object to Fisher's headmasterly habit of addressing the bishops by the name of their see; he later objected even more strongly to Fisher's adherence to Freemasonry. Despite the divergenc e in their churchmanship, Stockwood regarded Donald Coggan as by far the most courteous and efficient of the four archbishops under whom he served.

He had good cause to mistrust his fellow Anglo-Catholic Michael Ramsey's pastoral concern for the bishops. Stockwood had previously had John Robinson on his staff in Bristol, and as soon as he arrived in Southwark he insisted on Robinson's being appointed, at only 40, Suffragan Bishop of Woolwich. Four years later Robinson delivered his theological bombshell, Honest to God, and, while Stockwood supported Robinson through fire and brimstone, Ramsey denounced the book, very nearly causing a schismatic rift between his diocese and that of Southwark. But this time Stockwood was no stranger to controversy. When one of his parish priests was found guilty of adultery and refused to resign, Stockwood, to his later regret, took the advice of his reactionary Chancellor; this involved a protracted Consistory Court hearing and ultimately the public unfrocking of the priest. Such unsavoury publicity encouraged Stockwood in future to work much more on intuition and to use his own initiative.

One of Stockwood's suffragans used to say there was not much between his ears but he had a wonderful nose; he meant he had an inherent instinct for making good appointments and spotting opportunities for experimental schemes. He sat very loose to convention, ordaining one of his future chaplains priest within three months of making him a deacon; an older man he priested within just one week of ordaining him deacon, without even sending him to theological college. He found a divorced and remarried curateout in the cold and gave him a living; needless to say, this elicited a note of protest from Fisher. If he thought someone was right for a certain task, he would appoint him, even if he did not like him, and there were few things Stockwood enjoyed more than a good argument. One of his undoubted gifts was as a talent-spotter. Three of his suffragans went on to become diocesans of Birmingham, Liverpool and Lichfield. His first chaplain became Dean of Westminster.

In the strict sense no academic or theologian, Mervyn Stockwood nevertheless enjoyed an acute sense of mission to build the Kingdom of God with whatever materials were to hand. And his ministry really has to be judged by the success of his pioneering schemes. The Southwark Ordination Course was an entirely new concept and became a blueprint for ecumenical theological training. The diocese had no endowment, yet Stockwood raised the stipends of all his clergy, and Southwark was the first diocese in which parishes were encouraged to produce from among their congregation their own incumbent. Although in his care of the clergy he was generally acknowledged to be outstanding, he felt a need to withdraw from them too, and one of the anomalies at Bishop's House in his day was that the telephone number was ex-directory; if a priest wanted to see his bishop he had to make arrangements through the rural dean. While he often looked with indulgence on some sexual lapse, what he could never tolerate was idleness. He once had occasion to discipline a lazy clergyman, who said to him, "You are only treating me like this because I am black." "Indeed I am, " said Stockwood. "If you were white I should have deprived you of your living."

Stockwood had the ability to nod off for 20 minutes after lunch and start the day again as bright as a button, and to survive on four or five hours' sleep a night. He read extensively, entertained generously, sometimes lavishly, and one day his guests might include the Queen Mother or Princess Margaret, the next a delegation of trade-union leaders. His capacity for alcohol was prodigious, but it never impaired his mental facilities; the more wine he drank, the sharper his memory became.

Stockwood believed that he enjoyed his own company but in reality was so frightened of it that he never even went into retreat. While he meditated on the Scriptures each morning in his private chapel, a gramophone record would ease the silence. A deep interior loneliness may have accounted for the way he drove himself, and others, but, while there was undoubtedly a rejection of conventional sources of spiritual renewal, the externals were scrupulously observed, the staff being summoned each morning to c orporate prayer. "He thought he had a working relationship with God," one chaplain said. His gravest flaw, his egotism, was almost impossible to exaggerate; it could take 40 minutes just to stop him talking about himself. At the same time, he would slip out at night to attend a train crash or sit with a dying priest, and he had a genuine and surprising rapport with children.

His relations with women were more ambivalent. By nature a chauvinist, he admired women who stood up to him, was very fond of his secretary and had long advocated the ordination of women, flying to the United States in 1981 to ordain to the priesthood a woman he had previously made deacon in Southwark but who was barred from the priesthood in England.

There was no ambivalence about his attitude to administration; it bored him profoundly. For the first year in Southwark he sat on every diocesan committee to find out what they did, and then left them to get on with their own devices. He seldom bothered to attend the Church Assembly or General Synod, and when he did it was to make a speech and leave. The sound of his own voice was one of his especial pleasures. The House of Lords, in which he took his seat in 1963, he enjoyed, but by and large he was easily bored. ``I don't mind if it's High Church or Low Church,'' he said, ``as long as it isn't Long Church.'' The Church Times he found so boring he simply refused to read it, subscribing instead to the Catholic Herald.

Alongside the evident human failings there remained a lifetime's devotion to his clergy, who felt they were loved and supported by him. He prayed every day for every priest he had ever ordained, and wrote or telephoned to anyone he thought might for any reason be under stress. He was scandalised by the fact that after resigning the see of Woolwich John Robinson was never offered another job by the Church, and it is a sobering thought that Stockwood himself only had three jobs in 44 years. He was disappointed in 1974 not to be offered the Archbishopric of York, which on experience and ability he well merited, and after 21 years as Bishop of Southwark he retired in 1980, to an elegant house in Bath lent to him indefinitely by a rich business friend. He had been spokesman in the Lords on Palestinian refugees, returning from a fact-finding mission with two Arab brothers from the Mount of Olives, one of whom became his chauffeur, the other his cook. Now, totally undomesticated, he had to learn to look after himself. Guests would be instructed to arrive for champagne in the garden at some precise moment when the sun was due to do something spectacular over the Avon and, as night drew in, around nine o'clock he would disappear indoors to start roasting a leg of lamb.

In 1982 he published a rather pedestrian autobiography, Chanctonbury Ring. He kept remarkably busy as an honorary assistant bishop in three dioceses. ``It is easier to be a Christian when you are no longer a diocesan bishop,'' he said. It is doubtful whether Mervyn Stockwood ever found it easy to be a Christian, which makes the impact he achieved as a fearsome but entirely fearless leader all the more remarkable.

Michael De-la-Noy

Arthur Mervyn Stockwood, priest: born Bridgend, Glamorgan 27 May 1913; ordained deacon 1936, priest 1937; Assistant Curate, St Matthew, Moorfields 1936-41, Vicar 1941-55; Vicar, Great St Mary's, Cambridge 1955-59; Bishop of Southwark 1959-80; died Bath 1

3 January 1995.

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