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A confident priesthood

02 November 2006

George Reindorp took on the run-down, bomb-damaged parish of St Stephen’s, Rochester Row, Westminster, in 1946. By the time he left, in 1957, it was one of the most thriving in London. The curates Reindorp trained there were left in no doubt who was in charge, says John Peart-Binns in a new publication

AFTER FIVE YEARS at St Stephen’s, Rochester Row, George Reindorp had to seek new assistant curates with new gifts. As he looked at some of the men emerging from their theological colleges, he was not impressed.

But the phenomenal effect he had on St Stephen’s can be seen most clearly through his curates. Here is a typical invitation to a prospective curate: the letter went to Timothy Raphael, curate 1955-60, later Dean of Dunedin in New Zealand, and then Archdeacon of Middlesex.

Archdeacon Raphael says: "I had never heard of George Reindorp until the principal of my theological college (Mirfield) returned from a preaching engagement at St Stephen’s. ‘The vicar kept me up all night: he talks more than you do. You should go and be his curate.’

"I did. First, I went to be looked over and given the treatment. ‘Loyalty and hard work are what I require of a curate,’ he said. While I was still thinking about it, a postcard arrived. ‘Are you coming to train me — or not? GER’"

Mr Raphael accepted, and soon received the following letter:

 ‘I want you to read this several times carefully, and keep it by you.

SERMONS  You will preach usually once a month at parish communion, and usually once in six weeks at evensong or mattins.

I want to see your MSS not less than one week before you preach. That means that if you are preaching on a given Sunday, I want the MS in my hands on the previous Monday. If I get it I take very great trouble about it. If I don’t, I completely refuse to treat a curate like a small boy with an imposition and keep asking for it.

We parish priests hear a lot from principals of theological colleges about "vicars who won’t help with their curates’ sermons". We hear less about curates who won’t give their sermons in! You will know your preaching dates six weeks ahead.

You will be the 13th curate under whom it has been my privilege to serve as vicar, and only one so far has consistently kept this rule. I am no expert on preaching, but I believe intensely in the need to put back the ministry of preaching where the Ordinal intends it to be. Experience and the suffering of sermons that won’t stop, or would do honour to the Doctrine Commission, have given me some slight insight into the difficult art of preaching, and such help as I can give is at your command.

Your first sermon will be at 9.15 on October 16th. Say ONE THING in seven minutes. It is at parish communion and everyone is on your side. You speak from the aisle, holding your notes in a book with one hand, leaving the other free to turn over. Practise this with an unreplying mantlepiece before you.

READING THE LESSON  I have been shocked lately by the low standard of this in recent curates. Practise reading them in church. Theological-college chapels are too small. Be sure you have looked them up before (you will know a week in advance).

Try at least to have some working knowledge of how to tackle the Hebrew names! Everyone follows you in a Bible, yet some casuals who are not used to this must be "shocked" into listening, not by fireworks or Nonconformist intonation, but by sheer good reading aloud, as the BCP envisages.

Be quite certain you give your attention to this. We have had a couple of diaconal holocausts recently.

LEARN BY HEART  (a) the Ten Commandments, so that you can break all records and be the second curate in nine years here to know them without a book.

(b) the long Exhortation at mattins with its glorious phraseology and clear reasons for public worship.

(c) the 1928 Exhortation which is useful for mission services.

PUNCTUALITY  I have a mania for this. I hope you have. If a service is meant to start at 7.30 or 9.15 a nurse must know she is able to make her communion and get back to the ward on time. If a service is late, she cannot. The service starts at the strike of the clock, not the preparation of priest or server.

The People’s Warden is a Commander of the Metropolitan Police. They are taught that "Metropolitan Police Time" means that as a bobby you turn up at a quarter of an hour before the event whether you are the star turn or not. I strongly commend this to deacons. If you do arrive in plenty of time, you can use your initiative to find places, serve tables, and see that the preacher (a fellow curate) or celebrant (a mere vicar) can say his prayers in peace while you see that all is set.

MONEY  There are, I believe, few parishes where a professional accountant will do your income tax for you and be paid for doing so by the parish; where your insurances are paid by the parish; your cheque paid monthly (unless you are proceeding on holiday, and then it is paid early) and where you are forbidden ever to spend any money out of your own pocket for official purposes.

So, don’t borrow money from anyone but me. Please be careful to pay your cheque in at once.

The Treasurer (and Vicar) of this parish well remember when we had to wait a few days to pay this bill or that because we hadn’t got the money. Now that we deal in a budget of £2000 we still take as much care of the pennies. Curates do not have to look after our property of some £100,000. Vicars and Treasurers do. Help them by being punctilious about all your money transactions. . .

DOWN AND OUTS  We live in central London. Your pastoral heart will be shocked — I mean that — at the stern and almost seemingly unchristian treatment that the vicar metes out to the hundreds of hobos and confidence men who are on the way from Scotland to Plymouth via St Stephen’s. Believe me, the word soon goes round that there is a new curate. NO MONEY may ever be given as a curate. That is the golden rule under which you hide. In 17 years as a priest, I have had four such cases that were genuine, only two in London.

THE VICAR’S WIFE — seldom interferes. She is always ready to give you any unofficial medical advice if you are uncertain whether to get in touch with a doctor. If by chance she tells you that you cannot be heard, it is simply because you have (as yet) no wife to do so. Accept this criticism. I have to accept more stringent stuff! She is a doctor.

A SMALL POINT with implications. In this parish there is a Vicar, and Mr Shepherd, Mr Case and Mr Todd. Don’t be led off by high-church coddlers into Father this or that. I like the term, but it is not expedient with this parish set in the midst of Cardinal Griffin’s Mission on one side, and a very "extreme" neighbour on the other.

Then there are the loveable folk who refer to Philip Case and Bill Todd. Be advised by an old hand. Look polite and say, "Do you mean Mr Case?" It only has to be done once! Only a small point, you may say, but begin as you mean to go on.

GESTURES AND POSTURES  It may well be that there are certain of these to which you have been accustomed, which you may temporarily forgo — I do not know. I do know that love of the Catholic Faith has been taught here and caught by many just because we have discharged the functions of the Church Militant more assiduously than the agenda of the fellowship of Catholic priests.We all loyally maintain the same outward gestures and postures so that all may teach our confirmation candidates, etc., the same. You will appreciate the wisdom of this.

READING AND STUDY  What time you take for this will not really depend on me, but upon you. Your mornings, with the exception of staff meetings and your teaching in school, are yours. If you wish to patter down the road to the National Society, SPCK, etc., and fritter away your time, I cannot do anything about it. Your deacon’s and junior priest’s study comes under the direction of the Bishop.

LOYALTY  I believe in discipline. So does the Ordinal. I despise clergy who run down their bishops. So does the Ordinal and 99 per cent of decent laymen. The Ordinal also refers to vicars, though only under the heading of "those set over you". Part of your training is to get on with your vicar. Those are the words of one of the bishops who will be in charge of you.

Don’t succumb to the subtle temptation of "being liked". It is desperately easy on a large staff to play for popularity. "Let’s ask Mr Raphael, I’m sure he’ll agree" — knowing full well that the Vicar has said a definite "NO". Don’t let it ever be dreamed that you and the Vicar could think differently on any important matter, although in point of fact you could willingly murder the Vicar.

I commend to you with all earnestness at my command Philip Loyd’s suggestions to his curates that every time they said, "I think", they should say. "I should be wrong in thinking". The policy of this parish is not in your hands. It is set five years in advance by the whole council, clergy and laity. You are there to learn, and there are few parishes where the laity help you so willingly and generously.

Above all, be prepared to challenge anyone. You are not ordained to be liked. When you leave St Stephen’s more people should love God than when you came, even if they can’t remember your name, and though some may not come to that knowledge till long after your departure.

But if I were asked for one word that St Stephen’s stands for, and one word that seems pitifully lacking in our Church today, it is the word "challenge". You are coming to a parish to which I and many others owe much. We shall have been praying steadily for you, and many will be here to welcome you.’

TIMOTHY RAPHAEL says that he found this maddening and infuriating, but he would still, if he had to choose again, go to be trained by Reindorp. "We had a lot of fun. Staff meetings were always ringing with laughter, and on the spur of the moment George would take us all for a day out in the country, concluding with a sing-song at a pub while he played the piano. ‘Tea for two’ was about his musical level.

"He was very conservative in many matters, e.g. the Prayer Book, but he was open to any experiment that might work pastorally: the ‘Seventy’ lay visitors, or parish baptisms with preparation parties for parents and godparents. He had a talent for communication, and applied his talents to evangelism, in which he was more successful than any priest I have known, especially with women. We called it ‘sanctified sex appeal’, but we were only jealous.

"I remember him asking me about a girl sitting next to me at a parish breakfast one Sunday, a nurse passing through London. ‘Does she say her prayers?’ he asked. I said I didn’t know. ‘She’ll never have breakfast with a priest again, and you missed the opportunity,’ he said.

"Yet he supported us. I visited two elderly ladies who thought they were entitled to something better than the deacon, and requested the Vicar to call. He did, complete with surplice and purple stole, and asked which of them wished to make their confession. They were shocked. ‘It’s the only thing I can do that the deacon can’t,’ he told them.

"You either loved him or hated him. You couldn’t be neutral about him. Many people became very dependent on him. He loved being ragged by his curates, and would delight in telling how we took him off. We used to put on concerts with songs about life in the parish, and he was hugely delighted with every reference to himself. He had the heart of a child, the sympathy of a woman, and the energy of a dynamo. I’ve seem him helpless with laughter, doubled up with pain and in floods of tears.

"Other clergy hated him. Local vicars talked of ‘chromium-plated Reindorp’. But most of them were jealous of his success, which was phenomenal. He once said that ‘gimmick’ was the compliment second-class priests paid to their more successful brothers.

"Some thought him a snob, but he was too ingenuous for that. Only he would send out Christmas cards of himself talking to the Queen. We might like to, but we wouldn’t dare for fear of what others might think. George could, and did. He was thrilled to meet the Queen, and wasn’t ashamed to show it.

"He cared about people rather than ideas. He had no great academic ability, nor claimed any. No one has ever infuriated me more, given me more, or supported me more."

George Reindorp (1911-90) was subsequently Provost of Southwark Cathedral 1957-61, and Bishop of Guildford 1961-73, and of Salisbury 1973-81.

This edited excerpt is from George Reindorp at St Stephen’s 1946-1957: A Confident Priesthood, extracted from an unpublished biography by John S. Peart-Binns. The booklet, edited by Margaret Duggan, is available from St Stephen’s Parish Office, Hide Place, London SW1P 4NJ, £4 including p. & p.


Holding court: the highly sociable George Reindorp among parishIoners on a church picnic. On occasions, church staff were whisked off for impromptu days in the country ended by a sing-song round a pub piano

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