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South Bank’s critic of the parish system dies

12 May 2017


Woolwich pioneer: the Revd Nicolas Stacey in the early 1960s

Woolwich pioneer: the Revd Nicolas Stacey in the early 1960s

FOR a while in the 1960s, when Woolwich was a byword for things ecclesiastical and radical, he was possibly the most newsworthy rector in the Church of England, before winning headlines again with a decision to quit his benefice to work for Oxfam. He was one of the first to announce the demise of the parish system.

“Faithfully maintaining the parochial structure . . . may not necessarily mean that one is being faithful to the Kingdom,” he wrote in the Church Times on 1 January 1965.

The Revd Nicolas Stacey, who died on Monday, aged 89, was an international sprinter, who ran in the Olympic Games in 1952, and had been a naval officer on the first British ship to arrive at Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. The sight of the city in ruins was a catalyst in his seeking ordination.

As Bishop Leonard Wilson’s chaplain in Birmingham, he developed his skills in popular journalism. After leaving Oxfam, he worked as director of Social Services for the London Borough of Ealing and Kent County Council. He was awarded the Cross of St Augustine by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2005.

But it was when he was Rector of Woolwich, in the area of Southwark diocese whose Bishop, John Robinson, had just stirred up a storm with Honest to God, that his name came to prominence.

Stacey wanted to make his restored church, in its parish of 12,000, a powerhouse in the community. He had an ecumenical staff, including a Church Army Sister and a squad of young, bright curates, a discothèque, a coffee bar, film strips for baptism preparation, and a programme of congregational training; and he persuaded a group of young professionals to found the Quadrant housing trust, to help meet unaddressed social needs.

Then suddenly, in Deember 1964, he declared “A Mission’s Failure” in an article for The Observer’s Colour Supplement. “In church-going terms we have failed. . . We have played all the cards in the pack.”

The congregation had doubled to about 100, “mostly drawn from socially superior areas outside our working-class parish”, while a priest had spent six hours a day on house-to-house visiting, but not one extra person had come to church as a result.

He proposed to appoint a lay bursar to run the parish, while all the clergy would take secular jobs, “leaving their evenings free for spiritual counselling, leading lay training groups, sick-visiting, and so on”. Writing in the Church Times, he said that letters and calls had poured in, not only from his critics, of whom there were many, but from clergy who had written to him say, “You have made me feel less of a failure.”

Obituary to follow

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