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Scenes from Clerical Life (11) – Canon Harold Wilson

May 20, 2009

imagesIn 1969 I finished my first Curacy at St Salvador’s Church, Edinburgh, and accepted an invitation to be Chaplain and Tutor at Salisbury Theological College. It was the Principal of the College who invited me, Canon Harold Wilson who (because the Prime Minister at that time was also Harold Wilson) was widely known as “Harold Wilson, not Iscariot”.

The College was built in the 19th century in the middle of the Salisbury Cathedral Close, one of the most evocative and romantic places in England. The walls of the Close are still intact, and every night at 11 o’clock, the great gates at the three corners were closed. During the day, the Close was busy with a mixture of tourists, townspeople and the residents of the Close, but after the gates were closed there were only the few hundred residents, a mixture of the Bishops and Canons of the Cathedral, the seminarians, the boys of the Cathedral Choir School and a few dozen people who had houses in the Close, wonderful Queen Anne and Georgian houses; and they were a mixture of ancient Canons’ widows, and some very wealthy people who had decided to live in one of the loveliest spots in Europe.

When I began as Chaplain, the Theological College was experiencing a revival under Harold Wilson’s leadership, and we had about 80 students, which is large by UK seminary standards. Harold was quite a visionary in educational terms. He was a pretty traditionalist High Churchman himself, but he believed that the Church of England was far too stuffy, and that part of his job was to turn out priests who would break some of the old moulds and pioneer new paths of ministry. Being quite a talented artist himself, Harold commissioned some of the most extraordinary Mass vestments we had ever seen. They were the new trendy post-Vatican II blanket-like shapes, and ranged through the wildest psychedelic colours and the oddest textiles and silks.

Because of his determination to break new ground, Harold encouraged the students to work out much of their theology in small groups; the same groups were allowed great licence in preparing the College’s daily chapel worship (which could be hair-raising for the more traditional minded); and every student was sent out on two field trips during his two or three year’s training, one in England and one on the Continent. This broadened their horizons considerably, especially since the English one consisted of a whole term attached to a church in a very difficult area of London, the Elephant & Castle.

The foreign trips were vary varied; ones I remember were to a Roman Catholic seminary in Lille in northern France and one to Naples, where I accompanied a group to stay with Father Borelli at the Casa dello Scugnizzo, a home he had founded for orphans. We had a wonderful time seeing the great work Padre Borelli was doing and being shown round Naples by the older teenagers in the Casa. Naples can be a difficult and dangerous city, but these youngsters had grown up in it and knew it intimately. We went to places we would never have dared to go on our own and were warmly welcomed by friends of the young people who would normally have been more than happy to pick our pockets or worse!

Harold Wilson saw to it that we were equipped with the latest video cameras to record our experiences. He had a marvelous ability to charm money from the rich and famous, and Lord Rank had given the money to build a television studio in the College and equip it with the best cameras available. So all the students had training in filming and appearing in front of the cameras, long before this became popular in other colleges.

The logical step for Harold would have been to go as Bishop of an urban diocese in the north of England and see his methods put into practice ( and we all knew he had a bottom drawer full of exotic mitres!) but strange are the ways of the C of E, and instead he was appointed to be a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. I don’t think he was very happy there, though he did exercise a wide personal ministry, and true to form, got the Dean and Chapter a new set of matching copes in red, white and blue! They are sometimes still to be seen when services are televised from St Paul’s, and I always say a prayer for Harold when I see them, as I do when I see the canons and choir of Salisbury Cathedral in green cassocks, for that was his doing too. 

Harold died at St Paul’s Cathedral, and so many people came to his funeral that the Cathedral (which is vast) was almost full. He touched many lives, including mine – though I have to admit that much of what I learned in Sarum was what is known as”negative learning”, such as what not to wear in church!

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