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Obituary: The Ven. Norman Warren

16 August 2019

The Rt Revd Michael Turnbull writes:

THE Ven. Norman Warren, who shyly claimed to be the author of the bestselling Christian book other than the Bible, died on 19 June, aged 84. His Journey into Life, an illustrated booklet to put into the hands of someone seeking to understand the basics of the Christian faith, was turned down by several publishers. In 1964, CPAS agreed to publish it, and quickly sold half a million copies. In 2017, it was estimated to have sold 30 million copies in all, and was still selling at the rate of 20,000 a year.

As a boy, Norman was a chorister at Holy Trinity, Sydenham, in south London, and in Exmouth, and Weston-Super-Mare, to where he had been evacuated. This gave him a lifelong love of church music, but it was not until he was 18 that he “knew Jesus” rather than “simply knew about Jesus”. This turning-point at a mission in which Clifford Martin, the Bishop of Liverpool, was involved became the basis of Norman’s lifestyle and teaching throughout his life.

At Dulwich College, he shone at music and at cricket, both of which became significant activities in his early life. On the cricket field, he attained 1st XI colours when he was only 14, and had treasured memories of an 8-for-28 bowling performance against serious rivals. During National Service, he played for both the Navy and United Services. Norman twice took the wicket of Colin Cowdrey, another infant prodigy with the bat, who became captain of England.

At Cambridge, cricket, music, and the Christian Union became important parts of his life, but he took a tripos that included French, German, Music, and Theology. It was on a student week at St Mary’s, Islington, in north London, led by the Vicar, Maurice Wood, later to become Bishop of Norwich, that Norman felt a strong call to ordination, and, in 1958, he went to Ridley Hall, Cambridge. His years there included his engagement to Yvonne Sheather, whose talents and outlook were to complement those of Norman so fully for the rest of his life.

Ordained by Bishop Cuthbert Bardsley, in Coventry, Norman served his first curacy at Bedworth, in Warwickshire, a mining parish whose culture was to prove another learning curve. His digs were with a lady who took the News of the World and the Daily Mail. Norman had hardly seen them before, and it was this abrupt realisation of “another world out there” that Journey into Life, and its four successors, was conceived.

There followed 14 years as Vicar of St Paul’s, Leamington Priors, before another 12 as Rector of the huge parish of Morden in south-west suburban London. He claimed to have presided over nine weddings in one day and to have trained 14 curates. It was during this time that Norman developed his partnerships with Michael Baughan, Michael Saward, Richard Bewes, Michael Perry, and others in the Jubilate Group, which transformed the choice of hymns and their tunes, not only in England, but throughout the Christian world. From the start, Norman was a significant player in this enterprise, which continues today as many lyrists and musicians continue to present new hymns for today’s Church. More than 100 of Norman’s hymn tunes are published worldwide, many of them named after family members.

When he became Archdeacon of Rochester in 1989, the work included a residentiary canonry at the cathedral. It seemed an ideal place where he could use his pastoral gifts to the full, and influence the musical tradition; and so it proved. Norman’s warm-heartedness endeared him to the clergy of the Thamesside parishes, for whom he fought adeptly when confronted with traditionally minded PCCs and diocesan advisory committees. His sermons were true to his background and personal experience, and he was admired for his integrity and the clarity of his vision.

At this time, Yvonne became a figure in the national Church in her own right, serving on the General Synod for many years and completing a doctorate on clergy stress. She was a professional psychotherapist, specialising in sexual counselling, and her work dovetailed with Norman’s great pastoral heart. They had five children, including one adopted from Vietnam, and 11 grandchildren.

After retirement, Norman and Yvonne stayed in the Medway towns for six years, and then moved back to the Midlands, where Norman took charge of the parish of Snitterfield for another 11 years. Always diffident about speaking about himself, Norman was immensely proud of his family and their continuing faith. He was one of those priests around whom lives were changed and through whom the mission of the Church was enriched.

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