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.
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
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.
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
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.