Canon Bill Ritson writes:
THE Very Revd Colin Bruce Slee, who died on 25 November, aged 65, was one of the major figures in the Church of England of our time. He was an outstanding Sub-Dean of St Albans and Dean of Southwark, and was loved by many as a loyal friend and faithful pastor. A man of boundless energy, he was full of bounce and joie de vivre, good-hearted, hard-working, enthusiastic, outspoken, and ever valiant for truth and justice.
Fearless and brave, a big man with a big heart, he spoke out loud and clear (too loudly for some) for what he believed to be right. He was always genuinely pained when he saw fellow Christians excluding or diminishing others. Indeed, perhaps his greatest contribution to the life of the Church was his constant reminder to us all that the love of God is much broader than many Christians are often able to conceive.
He was born in London on 10 November 1945. His father was a policeman, and Colin was educated at Ealing Grammar School, King’s College, London, and St Augustine’s College, Canterbury, where he prepared for ordination. He was ordained deacon in 1970, and priest in 1971, beginning his ministry as a curate at St Francis’s, Heartsease, in the city of Norwich. While he was there, he became convinced that a great many people were sleeping rough in the city. His vicar was persuaded that there was a problem, and gave him permission to work at night to gather evidence. Colin discovered many people sleeping in doorways and other places, and sought support from the diocesan Bishop, Launcelot Fleming, and the Dean, Alan Webster, to approach the city council about the need for a night shelter. He and Webster then worked with the council to set up the first shelter in a redundant church, and from that beginning work with the homeless in the city grew and grew.
During his time at Heartsease, he married Edith, the stepdaughter of Sir Ronald Harris, First Church Estates Commissioner. He and Edith had been students together, and now formed a loving partnership that was to last for almost 40 years.
In 1973, he was appointed Chaplain of Girton, and Curate of Great St Mary’s in Cambridge, and then, to his great delight, was asked to be Tutor and Chaplain of his beloved King’s College, London, from 1976 to 1982. Here, as at Cambridge, he befriended and helped countless students, many of whom kept in touch throughout his life.
In 1982, when he was 36, the Bishop of St Albans, John Taylor, and the Dean, Peter Moore, were looking for a sub-dean of the Cathedral and Abbey Church. The Dean of King’s, Sydney Evans, told them that if they wanted a lion of a man, Slee was the man for them; and so he was appointed. He was ready to take on a demanding job, and at St Albans he carved out a name for himself as a prodigious worker and a strong pastor of the large congregation.
At St Albans, he and Edith made their home open to everyone. All were welcome. Colin was a generous host and a great family man, devoted to his wife, and to their children, Ben, Ruth, and Rachel, and their two foster-children Sonia and Trevor, whom they later adopted. All five children were equally loved members of the family, and it was the importance of the family, and the family of the church, which led to his emphasis on inclusiveness throughout his life. Also, of course, his so-called “liberalism” in matters of justice and the inclusion of minorities was seen by himself as simple obedience to the gospel, and entirely in keeping with the traditionally generous and tolerant instincts of classical Anglicanism.
He made important innovations at St Albans Cathedral, where he was keen to have Christians involved in social issues, and the congregation was encouraged to respond.
He was always supportive and encouraging, spotting potential in people, and instilling in them a sense of confidence and taking great delight in seeing them succeed.
He worked hard to secure the appointment of a full-time education officer, and started an education centre, which still thrives, and thousands of schoolchildren explore the Abbey every year.
He also established a “root group”, which provided an opportunity for prospective ordinands to immerse themselves for a year in the life of the Abbey and the local community, as a way of helping to discern a sense of vocation, and to gain some experience before going to theological college. Two or three young people came to St Albans as “roots” every year.
At St Albans, and later at Southwark, he believed passionately in the cathedral clergy’s praying together. He was disciplined and assiduous in his own personal prayer, and his spirituality was based on the daily offices and eucharist, which he saw as the heartbeat of cathedral life. Later, one of his first acts at Southwark was to instruct the vergers to remove a sign saying “Cathedral closed for worship”.
He was also a brilliant preacher and teacher, basing his sermons on the biblical readings, and relating them to everyday life. He was never dull. He made people think. For people in trouble, he was the first point of call, and a rock to whom to turn in time of crisis.
Appointed Provost of Southwark in 1994, and Dean in 2000, he had a tremendous impact on the cathedral. He worked hard to encourage lay participation and congregational committees, and (as at St Albans) supported the foundation of an education centre, and also introduced the post of Canon Pastor.
Here again, because he believed so strongly that all God’s children are equally loved and accepted by their father, so he continued to speak out, and was now led to become a champion of inclusiveness on a wider and more contentious stage. As a colleague remarked: “Welcoming noisy babies in church was for him of a piece with welcoming the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement on its 20th anniversary, or a woman bishop from the United States.” He welcomed everyone, from the Queen for her Christmas broadcast, and Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (a close friend), to the smallest child, and the cathedral cat.
He cycled all over London, and in his younger days had been an enthusiastic rowing man. Throughout his life, he always went to Henley for one day during the Regatta to meet old friends and fellow oarsmen. On one such occasion, a swarm of bees appeared along the towpath, and everyone stood looking helpless, but Colin (a beekeeper himself) immediately, with no protection, rushed in among them and sought to return them from where they came. This was typical; for he was a man always willing to take risks, and throughout his ministry, if he saw the lowliest job that urgently needed doing, he would roll up his sleeves and do it himself.
He was delighted that the Dean’s house at Bankside, between Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern, overlooked the Thames and, across the water, St Paul’s Cathedral. He loved being the only dean in the Church of England who looked out of his window at another dean’s cathedral. He did a great deal to promote Southwark’s ecumenical links, and links with parishes within the diocese. In the Anglican Communion, he had strong personal ties with the provinces of Papua New Guinea and South Africa, which led to the establishment of the Tutu Foundation UK. His vision enabled the cathedral to build on to its north side what became known as the Millennium Buildings, for which he worked hard to find the funds and make it all happen. He had a great gift for seeing what was possible and, against all odds, getting it done.
In 2003, his friend and colleague at Southwark, Canon Jeffrey John, was nominated by the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, as Suffragan Bishop of Reading, but this appointment was blocked because John was gay. Colin was outraged, and spoke out forcefully on his friend’s behalf. Later, when Dr John was Dean of St Albans, his name was again being put forward, this time to succeed Tom Butler at Southwark, which would have been popular in most of the diocese, but again the appointment was blocked. Colin was even more distressed and appalled at such injustice, and spoke out as forthrightly and robustly as before. The media loved him.
He was a strong leader who loved working with a team. He took pains to make sure he knew all the members of the regular congregation, and had a great capacity for friendship. He revelled in controversy, enjoyed a good argument, and could be gleefully provocative.
He was a member of the General Synod for 15 years, and since 2006 had been a member of the Crown Nominations Commission. In 2001, he was awarded the OBE, and was appointed hon. lecturer at Harvard Divinity School. He took enormous pleasure in Southwark’s link with John Harvard. In the same year, he was elected a Fellow of King’s College, London.
During his final illness (he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer), he showed enormous courage and faith, and felt greatly supported by the prayers of a host of friends all over the world.
He leaves his wife, children, and six grandchildren. His mother is still living in her own home, aged 98.