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Obituary: The Very Revd Colin Semper

29 April 2022

Mike Macleod

Ted Harrison writes:

FOR many years, Canon Colin Semper was a familiar voice on BBC Radio. His broadcasting style, which was kindly and honest, said much about the man himself. He rose within the BBC to become Radio’s Head of Religious Programmes, before taking up two high-profile church appointments: Provost of Coventry and then Canon Steward and Treasurer of Westminster Abbey.

Colin Douglas Semper was born on 5 February 1938. He attended Lincoln Grammar School, and, the son of a greengrocer, was the first in his family to continue to university, winning a place at Keble College, Oxford, to read theology. From Westcott House, Cambridge, he was ordained in 1962, becoming the curate at Holy Trinity with St Mary, Guildford. In the same year, he married Janet, and, in 1963, their son Giles was born, followed by Hugh in 1965.

Having in 1967 been appointed to the staff of ACCM (the Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry), Semper might have settled for a career in church administration, but for a developing interest in broadcasting.

In 1969, he started working on a freelance basis for BBC Radio and trained in current-affairs radio journalism as a studio producer with The World at One. This experience made him the ideal choice to launch the new Radio 4 Sunday programme, which adopted the approach of current-affairs journalism to reporting religious news.

His BBC career was wide ranging. He worked in radio and television across the networks as a producer, working with many of the leading broadcasters and faith leaders of the day, and as a broadcaster, leading acts of worship and presenting faith-based documentaries.

He produced Radio 1’s Speakeasy, a show about religion and ethics with, and for, young people. The presenter was the once ubiquitous, but subsequently disgraced, Jimmy Savile.

Semper never witnessed any of Savile’s predatory behaviour first hand. After Savile’s death, the rogue presenter’s behaviour weighed heavily on Semper’s mind. “I feel guilty,” he reflected, for not being more perceptive. Unlike other BBC executives, he did not try to duck responsibility. After her inquiry into the BBC and Savile, Dame Janet Smith went out of her way to praise the honesty of Canon Semper’s evidence, though concluded that he should have reported his suspicions about Savile to his superiors.

In 1975, Semper moved to the BBC World Service. In this multifaith post, he travelled widely. He joked that his name was more recognised worldwide than that of any other contemporary religious figure.

In 1979, he was appointed Head of Religious Programmes (Radio). He was a popular choice with religious programme-makers, who, if encountering problems with the BBC’s ever-present bureaucracy, would be reassured to know that when their boss said “Leave it to me,” he meant it, and solutions to previously intractable problems were found.

In 1982, he was offered the position of Provost of Coventry Cathedral. Janet was not keen to uproot the family from their Guildford home to settle in a new city, but it was an appointment that suited him well. He was utterly at one with the lead mission of the cathedral, the promotion of international peace. He was in his element greeting visitors with his wide smile and bonhomie. As one friend noted on visiting him at Coventry, “he seems to know everyone.”

After five years in post, Semper returned to London. He might have expected promotion, but, with a new Archbishop, the culture of the Church of England was changing. He was appointed Canon Steward and Canon Treasurer of the Royal Peculiar of Westminster Abbey. He brought with him his skills as a fund-raiser and enjoyed the pageantry of the job, playing his part in the great annual national and royal events.

He continued broadcasting, and, in 1996, at the age of 58, he had a major heart attack while on air. Typically, he soldiered on to the end of the programme before collapsing.

He was sad to leave his position at the abbey on health grounds. But, when, two years later, the Dean dismissed the organist, Semper, though still unwell, was called to give evidence to the official judge-led inquiry. Allegations revolved around the choir’s earnings from its extra-curricula work, which, during his time in office, it was the Canon Treasurer’s job to oversee. In his conclusions, Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle noted that a curious features of the case “was the apparent lack of interest in the Abbey in what was going on . . . in relation to non-Abbey promoted events. It must have been obvious that a considerable number of events were not being processed through the Abbey accounts department. . . Canon Semper. . . assumed that this was occurring but made no inquiries.”

Semper took the view that the matter could have been satisfactorily settled by all parties much earlier “over a bottle of gin”.

In his quieter, latter decades, Semper took on parish duties in Surrey, and enjoyed a range of chaplaincies, including that to the Feltmakers Livery Company. Janet died in 2011.

Semper will be long remembered for his ebullient gift for friendship. When the Savile scandal surfaced, he was respected for facing up to his failures with a rare honesty. His enduring legacy to broadcasting is the programme Sunday, which remains a fixture on Radio 4 after more than 50 years.

As his faculties declined, he retained a positive outlook and smiling demeanour. When asked how he was, he would invariably reply “Tolerably decent!”. He once reflected on the life to come in a radio talk, saying, “God’s work of making us human won’t be ended by death.”

The Very Revd Colin Semper died on 13 April, aged 84.

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