My favourite Colin Slee story involves his campaign against the swingers’ sex club that opened just a few yards from Southwark Cathedral. In his office, Colin had rows of box files marked “Club Wicked”. He was gathering the evidence that he needed to close the place down — which is what he eventually did.
In the course of this campaign, he hired a couple of private investigators to go into the club one night and record what they saw. That particular evening had a costume theme. To those who frequented Club Wicked, that meant leather and rubber bondage gear. But the private investigators thought it meant fancy dress. They turned up as two of the three Musketeers. I would often tease him about this.
On Thursday of last week, the Very Revd Colin Slee, OBE, Dean of Southwark, lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. At least, that is how we might describe it. But the tabloid cliché that people battle bravely with cancer is often not helpful. How do you fight back against multiplying cells? The experienced reality of having cancer is commonly far more frighteningly passive than the militaristic language suggests.
Yet the image is particularly tempting to reach for in Colin’s case because he was always so up for a scrap. He fought other people’s battles with gusto, especially on behalf of those whom he felt had been badly treated by the conservative church establishment.
He particularly stuck up for those gay friends and colleagues whom he believed (rightly, in my view) were being sacrificed on the altar of Anglican unity. And he wouldn’t just say supportive things in private. He would be a pain and cause trouble at the highest levels of the Church, at Synod and in the press.
This was not because he was a natural rebel; for Colin was deeply traditional. He became a trouble-causer precisely because his words and his actions were lit up by his prayers and his faith. In a world of bland careerist clerics, Colin Slee stood out as a true believer.
At the lunchtime eucharist on the day he died, a few hundred people turned up at the Cathedral to mourn his loss. Some went to the pub afterwards. “He made the church a colder place; he made the church a warmer place,” one priest commented with a smile. Why colder? Because he was always trying to save money in the cash-strapped cathedral by turning off the heating. Why warmer? That is easy. His was a gospel of welcome and inclusion for all.
It is, of course, common to wish the dead rest and peace. But Colin wasn’t much of a rest-and-peace man when he was alive; so I won’t wish him that now he has gone. May he rise in glory.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.