CANON JOHN EDIS SPENCE

by
12 October 2012

The Revd Gorran Chapman writes:

CANON John Spence, who died on 1 June, aged 88, exercised a remarkable ministry for more than 60 years, and around much of the world. His life, punctuated by personal adversity and life-changing war experiences, equipped him with exceptional gifts for supporting people in their troubles, and enabling them to discover their value and potential. Canon John was direct and down-to-earth, with a piercing insight combined with humour, compassion, and a real understanding of people. These qualities endeared him to generations of colleagues and parishioners wherever he went.

Born in Durham to parents of strict Nonconformist leanings, he suffered early personal sorrow at the age of five, when his father died. He was educated at Worksop College, and completed a year of a history degree at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, before volunteering for war ser- vice.

John became a tank commander in the Royal Tank Regiment. He landed on the Normandy beaches the day after D-Day, and fought in the battle for Caen. Once, his tank was hit by a shell while he and his driver were standing by. His driver was killed instantly. This event strengthened in John the call to a vocation felt even before university; and it also inspired his lifelong enthusiasm as a member of the Royal Tank Regiment Association, and great affection for the spirit of comradeship among his tank crews.

He was involved in combat from Normandy to Germany. He encountered the survivors of liberated concentration camps, which confirmed his belief that the war had been just.

After the war, he completed his degree at Oxford before moving to St Stephen's House. He did not prosper there, but moved to Westcott House, where he flourished. He was made deacon in 1948, and priested in 1949, serving his title at St John's, Newland, in Hull, under Mark Green, later Bishop of Aston, who had been a colleague in the army.

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During his Hull years, he met and married Marjorie Bourne; their marriage lasted 62 years and produced three children. Shortly after their honeymoon, they went to Australia to join the Bush Brothers, where they served from 1950 to 1954. John was the first married Bush Brother, and his parish in central Queensland - Winton - was roughly the size of England.

On returning to England, he was appointed Assistant Curate of Uckfield in East Sussex, but the stipend of £8 a week could not support a growing family. As a Chaplain to the Royal Navy, he found that his pay doubled immediately, and, after initial training at Portsmouth, he spent 18 months at sea, in the Far East and in the South Pacific. He took groups of sailors to see the bombsite at Hiroshima and its War Museum; and, ironically, he also visited Christmas Island when preparations were afoot for the H-bomb test. Yet some of the Melanesian islands, he said, were the closest thing to Paradise on Earth.

After a brief spell of parish life in Yorkshire, he returned to naval chaplaincy in Plymouth, and became a Royal Marine. His welfare and pastoral work in the Marines was widely regarded as exceptional, despite being frequently difficult and sometimes dangerous. He remembered with clarity and affection his trips to Norway with the Marines, to practise Arctic warfare. The official photographer on these ventures, he loved the landscapes and the friendly attitude of the Norwegian people.

In 1965, John was appointed Vicar of St Germans in Cornwall. There then ensued a period of settled family life, a happy time for his wife and children; but the parish threw up formidable difficulties. In 1972, he resigned the benefice, and spent a period largely out of active ministry, supported by - and helping - Marjorie, then National Trust curator of Trerice Manor near Newquay.

The arrival of Dr Graham Leonard as diocesan bishop relaunched John's ministry. Dr Leonard, an ex-serviceman, already knew of John, and would not allow a man of his calibre to be lost to his diocese. He presented himself at John's house, and literally called him back to ministry. After some small charges, John served with distinction from 1980 to 1987 as Truro Diocesan Stewardship Adviser. He gained wide respect across the county.

He was among the first to encourage congregations to understand that Stewardship was about more than money, and a joy and an opportunity rather than a chore or necessary evil. Not everyone was ready to hear this message, and John's task was often thankless, but, at the end of his period in office, both the financial returns and lay participation had much improved. In recognition, he was appointed Hon. Canon of Truro in 1984.

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By then, Peter Mumford had been Bishop of Truro for some years, and, after a succession of younger domestic chaplains, and with the end of his episcopate in sight, he took the unusual step of offering the domestic chaplaincy to John, an older man. The two worked together for the rest of their stipendiary ministries.

Each held the other in high esteem; they were much of an age, had similar educational backgrounds and war experiences, and equally varied ministries. Each recognized a new comrade whose unspoken understanding would uniquely help the other towards his journey's end. John ran the Bishop's office and diary with enormous care.

In retirement, John and Marjorie Spence moved to South Brent in Devon, to be nearer to their daughter and her family. For the many years he remained active, he exercised a significant ministry of support to the parish clergy there, and served for a time as Priest-in-Charge of St James's, Avonwick. As his health failed, Marjorie cared for him wonderfully, until he entered residential nursing care near his home.

Those who conducted the monthly communion at the residential home always asked John to give the blessing at the end of the service. I witnessed this on the last occasion I saw him. The transformation was remarkable. The years, and their accompanying marks of age, sickness, and frailty, seemed to fall off him like scales, and he pronounced the blessing with conviction, authority, humility, and a deep sense of spirituality. It was, at one and the same time, both his valediction, and the definitive statement of what he was: every inch a priest of the Church of England.

He is survived by his widow, three children, seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

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