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Obituary: Canon Philip Spence

05 July 2024

The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam writes:

PHILIP SPENCE was a Methodist Minister who, in the aftermath of the failure of the first scheme for Anglican-Methodist unity, became an Anglican priest. He was an outstanding communicator, pastor, and preacher, and these skills were put to use in his post as religious adviser to Anglia TV. He was a skilled and witty cartoonist, with many of his gentle barbs gracing rectories and bishops’ palaces.

Philip described much of his pastoral care as occasional feather-dusting and polishing, but, when people were willing to do the hard work, he could use a ministerial chisel and mallet to help them face themselves, one another, God, and all creation. As a cartoonist, he used humour as a serious way of approaching truth. As a preacher, his curiosity, interest in people, knowledge of the Bible, and ability to tell stories was exceptional.

Philip was born, a twin, on 20 September 1939 in Stoke-on-Trent, just after the Second World War had begun. His father was in the Navy and went down on HMS Glorious, never having seen his sons. Mother took the boys to a high Anglican church, where they were “cope boys”, who held the ends of the priest’s cope.

Philip loved drawing. While he was at Junior Art College, aged 16, his tutor, a cartoonist, gave him his work to post on the way home. One evening, Philip opened the envelope and added a few lines of his own. The next day, he showed his mother the cartoon in the Evening Sentinel, and proudly said, “I did that.”

His art, particularly life drawing, taught him to look and see. His sense of the absurd meant that this often got turned into cartoons. He was published in Punch and a host of magazines, rather surprisingly including a publication for the Conservative Party. He said that he was broad church and needed the money. At an ecumenical conference in Germany, while staying with his host, he found one of his published cartoons hanging above the lavatory, and remembered that he had never been paid for it.

Philip was recruited by the Royal Doulton pottery and trained as a decorator. A colleague introduced him to a lively Methodist youth club, and very soon he was also training to be a Lay Preacher. Commissioned in 1962, he was presented with a Bible and a letter from the then President of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Leslie Davison, exhorting him to, “Study this age, sense its need and preach to its condition.” The social change of the 1960s was the crucible in which he sought to fulfil Davison’s commission.

Philip was intellectually able and loved the opportunities given by his training for ordination at Manchester’s Hartley Victoria college. His brave attempts at street preaching developed quick-witted repartee, which meant he sometimes got a hearing. It made him an engaging preacher. His sermons were carefully prepared and structured but usually delivered extempore, exploring and asking questions more than giving answers.

His first appointment as a minister was working with the vicar in the newest part of Harlow New Town. Local ecumenism showed him what was possible when Churches worked together. Here he met Monica, in what they described as an “arranged marriage”. Each was invited to a coffee evening which turned out to be just three couples and them. They spent much of the evening talking together and said how much they hated eating on their own; so they met for dinner twice a week, and were the first to be married in the new church at Great Parndon.

After three years in Finsbury Park and Wood Green, in north London, Philip received a friendly reception from John Trillo, the Bishop of Chelmsford. Episcopal ordination marked another stage on a journey which had Methodist roots and gave his holy orders a new setting. Formal preparation for the transition was a term at Westcott House, part of the Cambridge Federation of Theological Colleges, with Wesley House on the other side of Jesus Lane.

Philip was a natural ecumenist who wanted to overcome our propensity for division. He was not fond of religion and, like Bonhoeffer, thought it could be the downfall of true Christianity. He was struck by a compline address given by the then chaplain, Rowan Williams, based on William Blake’s The Everlasting Gospel:

The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.

In addition to parochial appointments, Philip became a frequent broadcaster. At Greensted, he loved looking after “the oldest wooden church in the world” which predated the divisions of the Western Church. He and Monica developed resources to help parishioners and visitors to appreciate the Christian heritage of that place. They were early adopters of the churchyard as an environment in which to nurture biodiversity and to help Church and community think about the care of creation. What drove him was what Christianity meant now.

“I can’t move: my trousers have fallen down” — one of the many cartoons produced by Canon Philip SpenceAlongside his posts of Vicar of St Mark’s, Newnham, and Chaplain and Fellow of Wolfson College, he was also religious adviser to Anglia TV. He loved the professionalism and skill of that secular context. He sought to apply these qualities to his own ministry both as a Vicar in and Residentiary Canon of Peterborough and in his final group of rural parishes, where he also had responsibility for clergy ministerial development in Peterborough diocese. He travelled extensively and led many pilgrimages and study groups.

In retirement, Philip went back to life-drawing classes, watercolour painting, and cartoons. He enjoyed a local book group in Uppingham, relishing the company of some former teachers with whom he could continue to learn. He was a popular after-dinner speaker. With clergy it can be too easy to say, “He had a gift of friendship”, but Philip did, and it did not depend on situation.

Before he died, Philip invited the rector and the undertaker to discuss his funeral. He said goodbye to his family and friends, including the clergy cell group formed at Westcott House in 1979 which has met twice yearly since.

Philip died on 29 May, aged 84. He is survived by his wife, Monica, their children, Andrew and Philippa, and five grandchildren.

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