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03 July 2020

Canon Richard Ames-Lewis writes:

THE splendid obituary of Canon John Armson by Dame Mary Tanner (Gazette, 22 May) covers his gifted life with tenderness and care. I would like to add my personal reminiscence of John from my time as an ordinand at Westcott House, while he was Chaplain.

His influence on our formation was huge. He inherited a beautiful chapel, built in the fashion of the 1920s with an elegant English altar, complete with riddel posts and angels, and all made in English oak. At the end of his first academic year, when everyone had left, John went into the chapel and personally removed the angels, took down the riddel posts, withdrew the altar from the east wall, and cut it down to two-thirds its length. The chapel was thus instantly transformed into a liturgical space suitable for a training ordinands to serve the contemporary Church.

But, when everyone returned in September, there was horror at what he had done. I remember John telling me: “They all said ‘By what authority have you done this thing?’ But by then it was too late!”

The chapel retains his mark to this day. Many a vicar would give their eye teeth for such a faculty-free opportunity. But this was John’s style. Vision, imagination, artistic sense, and a steely determination to get his way, and preferably to do it himself.

He detested fussiness and churchiness, and, if he could avoid using a catalogue, he would. He never bought a paschal candle for the chapel. He made his own, saving up candle ends through the year and casting the candle five feet tall in a four-inch plastic drainpipe. This he would decorate, or commission someone else to decorate. No candle stand was necessary: the candle was mounted in a piece of tree-trunk on the floor. Likewise, the liturgy that he organised was uncluttered, often quite monastic, with elegantly prepared service booklets, and the vestments that he commissioned were strikingly colourful, with plain embroidered designs.

At the end of my first year, John moved from being Chaplain to Vice-Principal. A new Chaplain was appointed who, we learned, was to be the young theologian Rowan Williams. We wondered what influence he would bring to bear on chapel arrangements. But there was none. I recall Rowan saying, “I think the present regime is pretty firmly in place.”

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