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Obituary: Canon Philip Crowe

02 July 2021

The Rt Revd Dr Colin Buchanan writes:

CANON Philip Crowe, a regular contributor to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day in the 1980s, died on 14 June, aged 84.

Philip graduated from Selwyn College, Cambridge, mentored by Owen Chadwick, to continue to ordination. He often said that he had chosen between being a clergyman or a farmer, and he kept animals and grew vegetables all his life. As a promising theologian, he went from Ridley Hall through ordination in 1962 to teach at Oak Hill College. He married Freda Gill, with whom he fell in love on a beach mission, in September 1963.

He was joined at Oak Hill by George Carey, who became a life-long friend. Philip’s position among the younger Evangelical clergy brought him into the organisation, under John Stott, of the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Keele, in 1967. For this, the committee dropped the plan of heavyweight platform Evangelical teaching in favour of full participation. Philip was one of a group of three who provided initial drafts to facilitate congress groups devising the Statement that he then edited. It became a landmark in post-war English church history.

Philip then focused on two projects. The first was putting his secretarial and management skills towards the organisation of Latimer House Study Groups. The second was writing for the Church of England Newspaper. His incisive knowledge of the constituency gave birth to critical comment and well-judged advice, all part of the whole Evangelical resurgence of the 1960s.

In 1971, Philip became Lecturer at St Martin-in-the-Bull-Ring, Birmingham. John Pritchard, a curate colleague, and now bishop, recalls Philip as “canny, politically astute, an independent spirit”. As a clear speaker, well salted with humour, he developed his journalistic instincts in broadcasting, through Michael Shoesmith. Always his own man, he slowly moved from the Evangelical “constituency”; in 1973, he resigned from Latimer House council rather than appoint as Warden a “hardline” Evangelical. His more open stance on divorce and on same-sex relationships also distanced him, but prepared him to support his daughter through divorce and his youngest child through gender reassignment.

In 1977, the Bishop of Derby, Cyril Bowles, invited him to be Rector of Breadsall, a village north of the city. There, he and Freda raised their three children and developed the generous garden (with livestock, sheep, and goat included). At St John’s, Nottingham, he was a visiting lecturer, took students on placement, and was elected to council, where his wisdom and frankness were greatly valued. He supported Grove Books, writing an ethics booklet on the use of alcohol. He helped to form Grove Books Ltd, becoming its board’s first chairman.

In 1988, Salisbury and Wells Theological College council called Philip to be Principal, and he led a happy team there. One characteristically radical approach was not to impose rules on the students: as adults they could govern themselves responsibly, both individually and corporately.

Philip came on to the Synod and, fearing none, confronted many. He strongly advocated the ordination of women. As a canon of Salisbury Cathedral, he loved the cathedral worship. The wheels of Synod turned; a bishop investigating the viability of the colleges recommended three closures, including Salisbury and Wells. Publication of this report dried up the supply of candidates to Salisbury and Wells. It was too late when the Synod rejected the report. Could he be redeployed? Bishops thought him an uncomfortable prospect: prophets are safer at a distance.

Philip, cooling towards the Church of England, migrated to Wales for two years’ service. Then, aged 61, he and Freda retired to Whittington, near Oswestry, again with dogs, crops, and livestock. He assisted at his parish church, and lived contentedly within that framework. Retirement enabled more time with children and grandchildren, both in England and the US; he deepened his interest in Judaism, engaging gladly with his rabbi son-in-law.

Ten years ago, Freda died suddenly. This struck him hard, and it took time, faith, and the love of family and friends to restore him. He lived these years well, enjoying his travels and wide-ranging interests. Philip was a man of enormous integrity, health-giving to hundreds of lives, and blessed by warm and enduring friendships

Bishop Pritchard wrote: “He may rest in peace but I’m not completely sure it will be the same for God!”

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