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Obituary: The Very Revd Christopher Campling

22 January 2021

Canon John Hadley writes:

THE Very Revd Christopher Campling, who died on 9 December, aged 95, had been a priest for 68 years. He had served as a naval officer, teacher, curate, school chaplain, parish priest, archdeacon, director of religious education, General Synod member, and cathedral dean. He was the husband of Juliet (who survives him) for 67 years; the father of Penelope, Angela, and Peter; grandfather, great-grandfather, and also theologian, apologist, author, poet, composer, pianist, singer, sportsman, educationist, ecumenist, linguist, and friend and mentor to countless people.

Christopher Russell Campling was born on 4 July 1925 into a clergy family. His upbringing was strict but happy. He went to Lancing College as a choral scholar, and then directly into the wartime navy, first as coder, then as captain’s secretary. This took him all over the world, and included the Japanese surrender in Singapore. Summoned from his ship to a selection conference in Colombo, as he later wrote, “I was asked . . . what book I was reading. ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ said I. ‘But does that help you to pray?’ Thinking it over now, the answer is, ‘Yes, all books that help you to new experience, and new insights into the world, help you to pray.’”

This absolutely sums up his attitude to the faith, and to life.

He read theology at Oxford, and trained at Cuddesdon, where he found the company stimulating but the teaching dull. By this time, he had met and fallen deeply in love with Juliet Hughes, whom he finally and joyously married in 1953. He served his title in the parish of Basingstoke, where he valued the rhythm of daily worship and the traditional training, although he soon sloughed off such advice as never, when preaching at a funeral, to mention the person who had died. He did a huge amount of visiting; planned and built a church; ran, with Juliet, an inspiringly imaginative youth club; and regularly drew more than 300 children to a Sunday-afternoon service.

Next he became chaplain at King’s School, Ely, and Minor Canon of Ely Cathedral. He developed a new RE syllabus, aiming, as he said, to “present the truth as I understood it, in a way that left people free to make up their minds. . . and what fun we had with the delicious Old Testament stories and the astonishing life and teaching of Jesus and the bungling history of the Church and the juicy ethical problems of the day.”

He began to write a four-part course on the teaching of RE, eventually published in 1965 as The Way, the Truth and the Life.

In 1960, he became chaplain of Lancing, his old school. Here, in the face of complaints from boys about compulsory worship, he devised all sorts of ways to enliven both the teaching and the practice of religion; but a phalanx of conservative teachers resisted any changes to the extremely old-fashioned liturgy. After appalling ructions in the staff room, he was devastated to be asked to leave, along with his fiercest critic, the assistant chaplain, Henry Thorold. Years later, though, they were gladly reconciled.

He went on to be Vicar of Pershore, in Worcestershire; then Archdeacon of Dudley, and Diocesan Director of Education; and ended his official ministry happily, and much loved, as Dean of Ripon. He was elected to the General Synod, where his frustration with entrenched party attitudes led him to co-found, and eventually chair, the Open Synod Group. He was as upset when the Church of England rejected the the Anglican-Methodist reunion scheme and Covenanting for Unity as he was delighted when it finally agreed to ordain women. In 1995, he retired to Worthing, where he was able to renew and heal his relations with Lancing, serving for ten years as chairman of the Friends of Lancing Chapel. In 1997, he published The Food of Love: Reflections on music and faith.

Openness to new ideas and possibilities, and to different perspectives on faith, was key to Christopher’s teaching and ministry. His motto was Jesus’s word to the blind man: Ephphatha (Be open). His spirituality was solidly Catholic, but he hated the narrowness that that word sometimes suggests. He never stopped learning and reading and thinking and growing.

At around 90, he decided that he had not taken Shostakovich seriously enough, and set about rediscovering his symphonies. At his parish church, some would never miss a sermon by the now nonagenarian Fr Christopher, because he always had something new and interesting to say. A couple of years before he died, he changed his mind on transgender issues after hearing me describe my own son’s transition.

Yet his unwavering openness never got in the way of an unwavering and joyful faith. His last publication was a simple book of sonnets, inviting atheists and agnostics to reconsider. His funeral, despite the limitations of Covid-19, was a wonderfully moving and celebratory occasion, with splendid music, and contributions from all his children and grandchildren and numerous other friends from across the years. When his vicar asked him, shortly before he died, how he felt about his long life as a priest, he replied, “Oh, I’ve loved it!”

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