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Obituary: The Revd Nicolas David Stacey

26 May 2017


Ahead of his time in Woolwich: the Revd Nicolas Stacey

Ahead of his time in Woolwich: the Revd Nicolas Stacey

The Revd Robert Hughes writes:

NICK STACEY, as he was best known, died on 8 May, aged 89 (News, 12 May). As Rector of Wool­wich from 1959 to 1968, he set out to transform a run-down Thameside parish by pouring into it all the resources that he and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, thought it needed.

“South Bank religion” was stir­ring (Honest to God appeared in 1963) and congregations were shrink­­ing, especially in working-class areas. Nick was challenged to demonstrate that the tide could be turned. After eight years in Woolwich, Nick left to work for Oxfam. He was convinced that the tradi­tional parish structure of the Church of England was dying, and could very well not be what God wanted of his Church anyway.

What was so special about Nick? His background was special. He and his wife, Anne, came from wealthy and well-connected families, which stood him in good stead when diocesan funds did not materialise for building transformations.

Nick was more than well-connected. From 1940 to 1948, the Navy had been his world. Top cadet of his year (winner of the King’s Telescope), he saw service at the end of the Second World War and, in HMS Anson, sailed into Hiroshima two months after the atom bomb had destroyed it.

What he saw there changed his life: war, for which he was trained, now repelled him, and the Christian gospel of God’s love appeared to be a better way, and the priesthood the right career.

Something else had happened: the Navy had uncovered his talents as a sprint runner. He was the naval champion, and, at Oxford, while training for the ministry, he won silver in the Commonwealth Games. In the 1952 Olympics, he was a semi-finalist in the 200 metres and a finalist in the 4 × 400 metres relay.

He brought all of this to Wool­wich: social advantages; the discip­line, efficiency, and swift re­­sponse to crises that the Navy gave him; and the sprinter’s ability to give all in a final burst of energy.

He drove his team, of whom I was one, hard and himself harder still. Within months, the church building had been transformed. The vestry was now a parish office, with a full-time secretary. The galleries, long disused, had been sound-proofed and put to daily use: one a comfortable lounge (often leased by outside bodies for meetings), the other as a coffee bar, serving re­­­fresh­­ments after church, and open all week to provide soup and light lunches for Woolwich office workers. Never one to skimp on pub­­licity, Nick prevailed on Prin­cess Margaret to open the complex.

The crypt had been cleared out and redecorated, first for the use of young people, and then as the first district office for the Telephone Samaritans, when Chad Varah ex­­tended his work beyond St Stephen Walbrook.

Services were prepared with meticulous care. Baptisms were held quarterly in huge services and after group preparation for the parents; objections from parents who just wanted their babies “done” with the minimum of fuss were largely over­come by the fact that four clergy babies arrived in time for four of the first services and were sub­jected to the same discipline. The music was good, the choir con­scientious and mostly young. The youth club flour­ished, and bingo sessions in a church hall raised funds and im­­proved contact with the elderly.

Responsibility for paying the team fell on Nick’s shoulders; dio­cesan help was negligible, and Nick raised money by undertaking radio and television work and by writing for national newspapers. He had dis­­covered a gift for journ­alism, first, in his curacy in St Mark’s, Port­­sea, and then, as Do­­mestic Chap­­lain to Leonard Wilson, Bishop of Birming­ham, he founded the Birmingham Christian News, which flourished and went national.

Nick produced most of the ideas but he was completely democratic and prepared to be outvoted on issues. His was a very powerful extro­vert personality, and some of those who met him were made hostile by his apparent arrog­ance and willingness to make sweeping criticisms, often coloured by language that was more naval than clerical. But others were cap­tivated by his real charm and open­ness. As Director of Social Services in Kent, he visited council homes for chil­dren and the elderly and always made a point of kissing the cook.

Even before the TV play Cathy Come Home (1966), homelessness in London was a growing issue, and we were involved in campaigning and practical action. It inspired and stayed with Nick; his work with the Quadrant Housing Association and other housing activities continued well into his retirement.

At the start of Nick’s ministry, the Sunday congregation of St Mary’s was about 50. Five years later, it had doubled, to 100-plus, and most of the increase had come from outside the parish, from the better-off areas south of Woolwich.

We had made almost no impact on the population of the parish itself; so Nick threw the cat among the pigeons with an article in The Observer: “A Mission’s Failure”. In it he wrote: “We have played every card in the pack. We have done everything we set out to do. But we have achieved virtually not one of the modest things we hoped for . . . We have no excuses.” The tradi­tional methods would no longer work, he wrote: “Indeed I believe it may get harder still as the residue of formal Christianity dis­appears and the secularization of society is com­pleted.”

If Nick had hoped to alert the Church by this article, he was to be disappointed. He became the church­­man that other clergy loved to hate. Two years later, he resigned from Woolwich and was offered no other work by the Church. He was 40 years old.

On appointment as Deputy Dir­ector of Oxfam, he was initially ex­­cited by opportunities, but this did not last. He saw the need for more political involvement by Ox­­fam; its establishment backed away and feared loss of charitable status. His impatience with conserv­ative at­­titudes won him no friends, and his flamboyant lifestyle struck the old-fashioned as inappropriate for a charity worker. He left, took time off, and wrote his autobiography, Who Cares, which gives a detailed, and mostly fair, account of the Woolwich years.

His appointment as Director of Social Services for Ealing brought a new direction. From Ealing, he moved on to be Director of Social Services for Kent, one of the biggest authorities in the country. He worked there from 1974 to 1985, three years longer than he had worked in Woolwich, and a time, he said, when he had “more oppor­tunities to build the Kingdom of heaven on earth” than ever the Church had given him.

His work in Kent has been ex­­pertly described by Don Brand in A Study in Leadership: Nick Stacey and Kent Social Services, but it can be summarised by saying that he initi­ated Care in the Community, the policy that has revolutionised the care of those in need.

In his retirement, Nick kept busy with developing housing-association work. From 1993 to 1998, he was Chairman of the East Thames Hous­­ing Group. He never aban­doned his Christian faith or the ordained min­­istry. When his home parish of Selling faced a long inter­regnum, he took the services, and Anne under­took parish visiting. Typ­­ically, when a new ring of bells was to be ded­icated, Nick went to the top and persuaded Robert Run­cie, the Arch­bishop of Canterbury, to do the job.

He kept up with old friends. He had acquired a villa on Ibiza, which he lent to friends at ridiculously low rates. He continued to be generous and encouraging.

Nick was a prophet without honour. He was way ahead of his time in Woolwich, and Care in the Community is not yet complete enough for its originator to receive his due credit. In 2005, he was awarded the Cross of St Augustine for services to the Church, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, a little-known but welcome gesture.

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