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Angela Tilby: Colin Semper had only gospel ambition

29 April 2022

Diocese of Guildford

The Very Revd Colin Semper (right), Provost of Coventry Cathedral, with the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Michael Adie, and the Sub-Dean of Guildford Cathedral, Canon Peter Croft, on 6 May 1987. Semper, who had served his title in Guildford diocese, preached at a service in the cathedral to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the diocese

The Very Revd Colin Semper (right), Provost of Coventry Cathedral, with the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Michael Adie, and the Sub-Dean of Guildfo...

COLIN SEMPER, who died on Maundy Thursday, was a brilliant and much-loved radio broadcaster, a big-hearted jovial priest whose soft Lincolnshire voice belied a passionate energy for communicating God.

I met him when I joined the BBC in 1972. He was then much involved in the Radio 4 Sunday programme, which he helped to devise, having trained himself in radio journalism by an attachment to The World at One. I arrived as a research assistant with my theology degree and somewhat elitist principles. He was a well-established populist, whose only academic distinction was to have been awarded a rare Fourth at Oxford. I found him terrifying. He found me, a young female straight from Cambridge who was not a secretary, a specimen from an alien world.

But, after a few flurries of misunderstanding and a number of gin and tonics after my first series failed catastrophically, we got on all right (though I remember him saying that I did not do journalism well, a remark that left me trying to do it better for the next 50 years).

No one could have mistaken Colin for an intellectual, but he was extremely able — not only in the practice of broadcasting, but in the politics of it, and in the practical project management that enabled him, after he left the BBC, to bring much needed change to Coventry Cathedral, where he served as Provost, and to Westminster Abbey. There was nothing churchy about Colin, and it was impossible to define his churchmanship. He was simply bigger than any attempt to categorise him.

He was not ambitious in a careerist way, but only in the sense of being ambitious for the gospel. He did not do deference. He could storm into the offices of the great and the good and demand a hearing for his latest idea. He once, notoriously, excused himself from a vital office meeting to attend a test match. He was often seen in the BBC Club drinking and smoking heartily. Unlike many today, he had an appetite for risk. It was typical of him that, being overcome with chest pain while taking part in a Daily Service, he managed to complete the programme, before collapsing with a heart attack.

When the Jimmy Savile scandal broke, Colin was mortified. He had worked with Savile, and helped ghost-write his book God’ll Fix It, in 1979. In 2016, clearly in ill-health and hesitant in his speech, Colin recorded a heart-rending apology on YouTube, acknowledging that he should have realised more fully what was going on.

I like to remember him as he was in his prime: big, fearless, in love with life and the God of life. It is good that we are more cautious today, but it would be better if we still had fierce, gentle lions among the clergy.

Read an obituary of Colin Semper here

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