The Rt Revd Neville Chamberlain

by
09 November 2018

The Very Revd Jim Mein writes:

THIS Neville Chamberlain was given his name by his working-class parents in Liverpool, in October 1939, just months after the Munich Agreement. His lifelong friend, Malcolm Goldsmith, wrote that Neville first went to church aged 12, soon after his brother had died, and the priest came round to arrange the funeral. Neville remembered him as totally bland, out of his depth and without insight. Yet it was from this experience of vulnerability and emptiness that a vocation to the priesthood was born.

Neville and Malcolm became workers together in a Birmingham inner-city parish; they shared the small salary and a dilapidated house. The idealism of the 1960s may be hard to recall now, but it marked the whole of Neville’s life. He was greatly inspired by Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, Robinson’s Honest to God, and Albert van den Heuval’s Humiliation of the Church. Van den Heuval was a theologian working for the World Council of Churches, who accused the Church, not only of failing to live up to it calling, but of failing to reflect its own claims.

Neville always had an uneasy relationship of love and despair with the institutional Church. As Richard Holloway, his Bishop and friend in Edinburgh, put it: there was a surprising innocence about Neville, a lack of cynicism or realism which was almost boyish; it could be both lovable and infuriating.

But how much this “innocence” achieved. After building a new church on a housing estate in Birmingham, and leaving the parish debt-free, he moved out to become a probation officer. But he soon felt called back to the Church, and became Social Responsibility Officer for Lincoln diocese. Here, he helped to establish a hospice, worked as prison chaplain, established hostels for battered wives, and worked on job-creation schemes for the unemployed. This was pioneering work 40 years ago.

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In 1982, he was appointed Rector of St John’s, Princes Street, Edinburgh. He immediately invited organisations that shared his vision to move to the St John’s Campus. The Peace and Justice Centre, VSO, the One World fairtrade shop, Cornerstone Café, and a bookshop were all developed on the site. The Festival of Spirituality based at the church became part of the City’s annual Fringe Festival.

Most controversial was the Mural Ministry: paintings on one of the walls of the church were designed to challenge passers-by on Princes Street on a multitude of controversial issues over the years. They often caused offence, not least among members of the congregation, but they got Edinburgh thinking about the issues of the day.

That Neville retained the support of his congregation was due, in large part, to his pastoral care. He was, in many ways, an old-fashioned minister — a constant visitor, often out late at night visiting those in crisis. He knew his people, and they knew he loved them. This “caring for the flock” enabled him to revitalise the worship with a new nave altar and liturgy.

He attracted a series of very gifted associates, both stipendiary and non-stipendiary, to work with him; and he developed close working arrangements with neighbouring churches. He had tremendous energy and the perseverance to translate his vision into effective action, while, at the same time, supporting restoration of the stonework and stained glass.

His wife, Diana, was a fiercely independent support and critic, at times refusing to attend church, but always entertaining large groups in the rectory, besides bringing up their four children, who probably saw little of their father, who was out working from early morning till late at night. Her death on Good Friday 2009 was a tremendous loss to Neville.

In 1997, Neville was elected Bishop of Brechin. This was not a happy time. His predecessor had proposed joining this small diocese to the larger adjoining diocese of St Andrews, but the proposal was defeated by a carefully orchestrated campaign that left a bitter feeling in the diocese. Unfortunately, Neville made matters worse by insisting on appointing the first woman Provost of the cathedral. A charismatic maverick like himself, she soon fell out with him, and, in spite of a flight to the US to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu in search of reconciliation, the breach was never healed and it soured his whole episcopate

On his retirement in 2005, Neville became Chaplain to the Hugh Sexey’s Hospital, in Bruton, Somerset, where he was much loved by the residents. He bought a house in the village and enjoyed life. Neville died peacefully there, with his four children beside him, on 8 October 2018, aged 78.

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