Bill was the chaplain of my college for many years. He was a cheery, chubby and ever welcome presence bouncing around the college. He was totally dedicated to serving everyone in the college from freshers, to scouts right up to the Master. He was a priest who had none of the loftiness or falsity that sometimes afflicts men of the cloth. He only ever wore clericals for leading worship. It is as though he was a living textbook for how to be a chaplain.
I remember my first few days in college. There was an information session for us freshers. Bill introduced himself to the undergraduates and said ”We are not all at it. I am definitely not at it.” This prurient quip did not go down terribly well but at least he was willing to crack a joke. He went on to emphasise that he was there for us all whether Christian or not. He was as good as his word. Everyone felt welcome to go to his rooms for a private chat or in groups. These were extraordinarily popular. People could confide in him and he never betrayed anyone’s trust. Here was one sky pilot who was incredibly down to earth. He said we should address him by his Christian name. I said this was far too informal. I would call him Bill and he must call me Mr———–. He chortled at that and stuck to it for about a term.
He threw himself into the life of the college. He was there on the touchline at every rugger match. When the rugby boys’ needed a senior member for the dinner he volunteered. He seemed very at home with us but it cannot have been easy for a man in his 60s to be rubbing shoulders at a party where some of us were in our teens. He always got it right. He never tried to be youthful. He was usually beaming and it was unfailingly genuine. We could crack crude jokes in his presence without him responding with a po-face or being so enthused that it was unseemly.
He and the head porter has a running gag of pretending to loathe each other. They were forever slagging each other off in a case of public persiflage. Bill was a useful foil for the head porter. One day, shortly after saying said something especially stupid in public I happened to drop by the porters’ lodge. The head porter said, ”You wouldn’t want me to tell the chaplain what you said would you?” Bill chuckled but did not ask how I had disgraced myself. The head porter could use someone as respectable yet affable to shame undergraduates into decent behaviour.
Bill had an inimitable toddling gait. He was forever on tours of inspection around the college, greeting everyone. I never once saw him glum.
In all my years associated with that college I never knew anyone to have a bad word to say about him. However, he was not a total pushover. He revived the college choir. Choral scholarships were awarded. One recipient later wanted to join another college choir but Bill put his foot down. The good of the college came before milksop ‘niceness’. He was not always meek and mild. He could also handle a crisis. There was a certain very beefy boy who liked to drink himself senseless and behave menacingly in the bar – refusing to leave. Rather than have the porters manhandle him out of there Bill would be called to talk some tranquility into him. It worked.
When a senior government figure applied to be head of house in the 1990s Bill was on the interviewing people. ”If you are appointed will you be supporting the chapel?” asked Bill. The man was flabbergasted, ”But my wife and I – we are C of E people, Christmas and Easter. All right, yes.” This man honoured his undertaking and attended chapel every Sunday.
Bill had an early morning service on Sunday. Those who attended matins were entitled to partake of a sumptuous cooked breakfast afterwards which would be put on battels. I could never resist free food. My parents were paying so that was free. In my second year, that Trinity term, I attended Sunday matins no matter how smashed I had been the night before. I would be visibly the worse for wear and sober up over the collect. Bill never criticised me for this. The Sunday evening service was always packed. Bill knew how to put on a good show and often invited preachers from elsewhere. Bill also knew that the supreme virtue in a sermon is brevity. His sermons were delivered pithily, with poise and a leavening of humour. He avoided the moralistic pontification and Biblical scholarship that is a sedative to many congregations. Carols services were marvelous.
I went to his crumpet teas on many occasions. He was happy to greet my chums from other colleges. He was full of bonhomie and avoided talking down to us even though he could have been our grandfather in terms of age. Just occasionally it would only be myself and Bill there. He never broached religious topics but was willing to converse about them if someone chose to raise such matters. He was prepared to discuss ethical questions but he was not judgmental. He was also realistic about how most people behaved. He was magnanimous enough to own up to harbouring misgivings about Christianity. He had an open door policy and people were welcome to drop by. He would eagerly chew the fat with anyone so long as he was not busy. He became like a shrink but without the psychobabble. People could unburden themselves of their anxieties. He seldom offered advice unless he really knew what he was talking about. He understood implicitly that the role of a chaplain was sometimes just to listen. It must have been trying to hear mostly very privileged young people whining about how unlucky they were but Bill never complained.
For years he ran reflection groups. He compiled a series of books entitled ”Visions… ” as in ”Visions of Hope”, ”Visions of Joy” etc… filled with quotations on each topics plundered from every noteworthy writer through the ages. I occasionally dipped into his compilations from the canon of world literature. These were an incredible compendium of literary allusion. It was as though he had read every noble notion ever written. Lots of small groups would gather in his rooms to read this treasure trove of quotations, contemplate them and discuss them. His parishoners were by definition cerebral but bearing in mind many of them were aged 18-21 he was doing well. People in this age bracket are seldom the most reflective.
He kept up to date with politics but was apolitical. Through much of his chaplaincy the Church of England was pinko. Those being the days of the ”Faith in the City” Report. People of all persuasions felt comfortable with him.
He seemed to see himself more as a social worker. He was totally authentic in caring about the welfare of all members of the college. He was willing to write references for people but would not lie for them. I later saw a confidential reference he wrote for me that I should not have seen. He was honest enough to damn with faint praise – as I deserved.
He was short, sprightly and possessed of a venerable paunch and an unsurpassed collection of natty jumpers. He never married but said he was glad to have been an Anglican priest as it gave him the option of marrying.
Bill was born in 1939. He grew up in Yorkshire and still remembered the end of the war being declared. He was from a family of solicitors. He attended Worksop College and stayed on an extra year to be head boy. He then went and did National Service. He at first tried to avoid military service on the basis that he had had an operation as a child and his hearing was not 100%. The doctor sent to evaluate this claim was – the same man who had performed the operation. ”No, no – perfect job been done here. You’re in the army!”. He had a very formative experience in basic training – mixing with soldiers from poor families. He was an officer in the Gurkha Rifles. He became fluent in Gurkhali which he said was a hick form of Nepalese. He was in Singapore for much of this time. He was apolitical and gave no thought to the merits and demerits of imperialism. He attended Gurkha reunions and took a great interest in his old regiment. It struck me that his time in the army was the happiest chapter of his very full life. He did not suffer from the jingoism or puerile machismo that some soldiers have.
Bill went to Balliol and took his degree there. He fondly recalled his time there. It contrasted markedly with Oxford around the Millennium. He spoke of undergraduates having far less money in the old days. They led almost cloistered lives. Boys outnumbered girls 8 to 1. They were legally minors until the age of 21 and had to be in their rooms by a certain hour. There was a passionate rivalry against Trinity. Of a Saturday evening the Balliols boys would lustily sing a song mocking the college over the wall ending in a raucous, ”I am not a Trinity man.”
The intention was for him to become a solicitor and join the family firm. In the end he answered a higher calling. Not in the sense that he was supercilious or moralistic. Being a priest gave him the opportunity to help people full time. As he did not seem to have an ardent faith I suspect that it was this chance to assist people that drew him to the priesthood. He was forever bubbly and attentive to the needs of his parishoners. I count myself as lucky to have been one of them. He quickly got the measure of people. He knew what made them tick and could get through to people. He made an effort to get to knew each member of the college – whether students or staff. Few rebuffed him. Some would have a polite and stilted chat once but it would go no further. For others it was the start of a lifelong friendship. He was a veritable walking archive of college lore and he enormously enriched the soul of the place. He was the Church of England at its caring and convivial best. He retained a vestigial Yorkshire accent that came out in certain phrases such as ”young lads.”
He kept in touch with those who had left. He knew of former dons who had been taken ill. He would visit them frequently when no one else would. He had a lot of grief to handle. Some undergraduates died whilst at the college. Bill had the unenviable task of conducting the funeral and handling the mourning generally. This is not an easy matter when the dead person is 18. He shouldered this duty manfully. He managed it with dignity and without displaying so much pathos that it came across as disingenuous. That was the thing about him – he always pitched it right and was unfailingly sincere.
He retired in 2005. He went to live a few miles from Oxford and was able to visit his former colleagues regularly. A few years ago I saw his unmistakable silhouette tottering down the High Street. I could have crossed the road and greeted him but for no worthwhile reason I chose not to bother. I could have said hello. What I did not know is that I would have been saying farewell. It was the last time I saw him. How I wish I had made that tiny effort!
I miss you Bill. Bill of the chummy smile and the mischievous gag. Bill of the boundless energy and buttered crumpet. I feel a lump in my throat as I write this. He was avuncular and somehow brotherly. I wish there were paradise for him to go to.