02 November 2006

THE Revd Ralph Stevens, who has died, aged 91, was one of the best-known incumbents in Birmingham in the second half of the 20th century. A Black Country man, the son of a Smethwick butcher, he went to Oldbury Grammar School, and then graduated in chemistry at Birmingham University in 1934.

Rather than go into the arms industry as many such graduates then did, he sought ordination. Encouraged by Bishop E. W. Barnes, he went to Ripon Hall, under its principal, the liberal theologian Dr Major, and, as a member of St Catherine’s Society, gained an Oxford BA in theology. A middle-distance runner, he got a blue. In 1936, aged 23, he was ordained by Bishop Barnes. As scientists and liberals, they had a close bond. In 1948, he became the Bishop’s Hon. Chaplain. Ralph always revered him as “the great bishop”.

For nine years, Ralph was assistant curate at Aston Parish Church. The clubs he ran for young people are still remembered; and he supported many who had been bereaved by the war. He and Gwen were married to the sound of air-raid sirens. Those days and later the tragic death of their teenage son Andrew from leukaemia gave his pastoral relationships and their life together a fibre and quality on which many drew. Their faith was undemonstrative, implicit, and luminous.

In 1945, Ralph took charge of St Paul’s, Birmingham, in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter, becoming Vicar in 1950. Ralph restored the church after bombing. He was a member of the Church Assembly.

He was Hon. Chaplain to four Bishops of Birmingham, and  something of a confidant for them. In 1952, he became Hon. Canon, and, in 1967, Chaplain to the Queen. Offers of preferment came his way, but he stayed at St Paul’s with its restrained BCP worship.


From that base he supported, encouraged, and delighted in Birmingham people, shared their lives, and, above all, talked with them. His gifts as a raconteur, his mimicry of Midland dialects, his interminable phone conversations, and his unchurchy voice were renowned. He was known and respected by all and sundry in the centre of Birmingham in business and trades, the Council House, and professional offices. On the day of his funeral, I had a haircut and took a taxi. The barber and taxi driver both spoke of Canon Stevens.

Bishop Wilson made him industrial chaplain in 1955. St Paul’s gave Ralph particular access to the jewellery trade, and the church became, and remains, a centre for industrial mission, which is perhaps his most enduring legacy to the diocese. Lucas and Longbridge became places where he was at home and welcome. He would speak enthusiastically of the creativity of God in the cars rolling off the Longbridge line, of Christ being there before him, not needing to be “taken” into the factory — and his personal qualities made him known and trusted from the boardroom to the shop floor.

For all his radical style, liberal theology, and enquiring mind, Ralph was conservative in his quiet and loyal commitment to the established Church of England and the dignity of the Prayer Book. The years after his retirement in 1983 were spent within a short bus journey of the centre of his beloved city, where he kept in touch with his many friends in lively conversation. He worshipped at the Cathedral with Gwen, who died in 2002. There he was loved and sought after by many, and made new friends.

They joined with people from St Paul’s in supporting him in the place of family at the end of his life of distinguished service.


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