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Longest-serving vicar in C of E celebrates 59 years in one parish

04 March 2016

In place: the Revd James Cocke preaches at a service celebrating the building of All Saints’, Highfield, 100 years ago

In place: the Revd James Cocke preaches at a service celebrating the building of All Saints’, Highfield, 100 years ago

A CLERGYMAN who was the new man in his parish when Harold Macmillan was the new man in No. 10 is looking forward to celebrating 60 years in post.

The Revd James Cocke, who, at 89, is still Vicar of All Saints’, Highfield, in Oxford, celebrated the 59th anniversary of his collation last week. He has ministered to the parish since 23 February 1957, which is thought to make him the longest-serving incumbent in the Church of England.

On Monday, he said that plans were already being prepared to mark the diamond jubilee of his ministry at All Saints’, next February.

“The Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Martyn Percy, has agreed to preach at a sung eucharist on 23 February next year,” Mr Cocke said. “On the following Sunday, Lord Williams of Oystermouth is coming to preach, too.”

Apart from a five-year curacy in Christchurch, in the diocese of Winchester, Mr Cocke has spent his entire ministry at All Saints’. He also studied at the University of Oxford.

When asked why he had stayed so long as Vicar, Mr Cocke said that he had inherited four building projects when he joined the parish in 1957.

“There was no house for a curate; and, secondly, the church was in desperate need of refurbishment,” he said. “Thirdly, the church hall was a corrugated iron building which was cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and was in a ghastly state of disrepair.

“We took our courage in both hands, and pulled down this hall; and on its site we built a new church hall, which is not only used by the church community, but also the local community.”

Last, the vicarage needed to be brought up to date. “That’s how it has worked out: I could have moved lots of times in the past, but I decided to stay here,” Mr Cocke said. All four of his children had gone to school in Oxford, which had also served to keep the family in situ.

Mr Cocke became the C of E’s longest-serving incumbent in 2011, when another priest, the Revd Trevor Thorpe, who had also served one parish since 1957, retired.

When Mr Cocke first moved into the vicarage, Harold Macmillan’s premiership was just a few weeks old. Later that year, Britain would test its first hydrogen bomb, Paul McCartney and John Lennon would first cross paths at a church fête, and the Queen would broadcast her Christmas message on TV for the first time.

Not only had the country changed during his tenure, but the parish had, too, Mr Cocke said. “It was full of artisans, who weren’t professionals, but worked in the factories. “We had enormous difficulties in getting a church treasurer. But it is a much more mixed community [now]. It’s all changed dramatically.”

The provision of regular bus services to London had also led to an influx of commuters into the parish, Mr Cocke said, which had caused “great social change”.

Another shift he has seen over the years has been the arrival of Oxford Brookes University, whose buildings have gradually come to surround the church.

The practice of faith at All Saints’ had also developed: the Prayer Book service of matins that had been the most well-attended Sunday-morning service when Mr Cocke arrived in 1957 has given way to today’s Common Worship eucharist.

But the job itself had not changed, he thought. “There’s the ordinary pastoral work of dealing with families, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. The work remains the same; people remain the same.”

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