Colin Bryan Oxenforth
A near neighbour from Grosvenor Avenue accosted my mother one day and said “Mrs Oxenforth, that child should go to Sunday School!” and so the next week I was taken. It must have been around Easter, since when asked what it was like by a keen Auntie Nuttall, I replied “We had Alleluias, Alleluias and more Alleluias!” I never looked back, loving Sunday School and was in awe of the marvellous Mona, very glamorous indeed. I also remember the dreadful ditty of “pennies dropping, pennies dropping” for the collection, and a pantomime of Babes in the Wood with Miss Brinton and Miss Owen as the hapless children.
It wasn’t long before I wanted to go to the Sung Eucharist, which filled me with awe and delight. The choir sang “this is the house of prayer, wherein thy servants meet, and Thou O Lord are there, thy chosen flock to greet” from the vestry – a disembodied sound of great mystery. Thus began the liturgy I grew to love and which became a central part of my life. I look back on myself as a very odd and pious child. I joined the choir at eight and came under the good influence of George Houldin who looked after us, and Ernie Pratt who taught me to love music in a new way. I read the first lesson at the Carol Service, sang the odd solo and later became responsible for putting the music out. I developed a knack for opening the hymn book to within two are three numerals. I loved the settings Ley in B flat and Ireland in F (?). George Houldin used to take the choir for lessons and told us stories. I well remember hearing all about Fr. Potter of Peckham – the first of many coincidences in my life as I did my second curacy at St. Anthony’s Nunhead and heard many more stories about this remarkable man.
I joined the Cubs and later the Scouts, enjoying going to Tawd Vale, Cheshire and North Wales for Summer Camps as well as Bob-a-Job week. Thank you to George Goodwin, Ken Clawson et al for their encouragement. And then there was the Pantomime! I was a scullion one year in “Humpty Dumpty” with a huge cast including a wonderful Pat Clawson and Raymond Clark as her father. The Sunday School was run by Miss Mountfield, whom I seem to remember retiring several times, and receiving a black handbag at each ending. She was wonderful, though mocked by some including my brother. She taught me so much about the real worldwide nature of the Church and interesting people like Fr Damian, Charles de Foucould, Nicholas Ferrar and his community at Little Gidding. She was so well informed and a model of the devoted life. She also managed to get us to see the Albert Dock years before it was rediscovered. (Her brother was the general Secretary of Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.) Many years later I was looking at the parish at Pemberton and the vicarage had the name “Mountfield” which I took as a sign !
The clergy were of course a major influence. Fr Hassall was centred on the liturgy and expected the highest standards from everyone and was a great model. I do though treasure a few moments when his weaknesses showed. When the Youth Club, tired of having to go the 8.00am Holy Communion went up in significant numbers to the altar at the Sung Eucharist. Up until this moment only a few elderly and infirm ladies were expected to go up. Fr. Hassall’s face was a picture ! The only time I saw him angry was after the death of Miss Henderson – a retired missionary who rode a sit-up-and-beg bike and wore incredibly darned lisle stockings. She left a lot of money, mainly to missionary societies I think and a few hundred to St. Faith’s. Fr. Hassall was shocked and was very angry she hadn’t left more to her parish church so that a good window could be put in. “I’ll see that women in Hell !” was a response I did not forget. Nevertheless I revered him, and still do, as a good and encouraging parish priest, and enjoyed serving during the week and on Sundays.
Tom Stanage was another great example and help to me as a teenager. He brought great life to many young people at the Youth Club and was very good at producing events for us. I well remember being in a play where I was Satan, and Denise was also in it. I also remember a holiday in North Wales staying in the property of Mr Williams, and an excessive number of bats invading the air in the evening as soon as it was dark.
Schools were also an influence in the formation. Homewood Kindergarten, Forefield Lane Infants and Junior and finally Merchants. Apart from academic life, a sense of duty and service were instilled into us. Every year we had the Patriarchal sagas read at Assembly and sang vigorously. Famous visitors came and talked to us. I well remember a black American woman taking to us about racism years before it was a topic of thought or conversation. Ralph Rolls was a good teacher of RE and I was pleased when he became a worshipper at St. Faith’s. Chris Price was also a good teacher of English and a rather quiet subversive presence, teaching some of us that a complete indifference to sport didn’t mean we could not contribute, and so began the magazine “Image” and the beginning of Image Press.
St. Chad’s College, Durham called – another Horsfall foundation, and years of training for the priesthood. And also a lot of drama with the religious drama group “The King’s Men”. Apart from “Murder in the Cathedral” in the Galilee Chapel of the most wonderful cathedral in the country, I was in some rather obscure plays by Anouilh, Strindberg, Byron and Dorothy Sayers. All a good training for leading the liturgy and having a real sense of the drama of the Mass. We also had training about how to deal with almost impossible acoustics by visiting the six worst churches in the diocese. Thank you Nessie.
Learning about the Bible, Church History, liturgy, sermons and pastoralia was the purpose of our training and of course saying the daily office (BCP) and going to mass on a sliding scale until you went six days a week. We started being trained in group dynamics and I went on a course at a mental hospital. It was very different what happens today, but was still an excellent training in the sort of faithfulness I had learned at St. Faith’s. St. Chad’s had the lowest drop-out rate of clergy than any Theological College.
Finally the aim of all these years – Ordination. The beginning of my diocese-hopping started in Rochester and St. Andrew’s, Bromley with plenty of visiting, youth club and a fine dramatic society. Then Southwark diocese and St. Anthony’s, Nunhead and my first real encounter with a multiracial population. I soon learned how important it was to know which island the West Indians has come from, and also how to enjoy and cook so many varieties of food. I also trained with the Richmond Fellowship in Pastoral Care and Counselling – a very demanding course. The orientation week was so disorientating, I fell down the stairs at Holland Park Tube station and hobbled round with two sticks for weeks.
Then it was back to Liverpool and St. Margaret’s, Princes Road in what became called Toxteth after the riots. David Sheppard has known me in Peckham and thought I might be the right person to go there. George Goodwin brought a group from St Faith’s to visit, which was appreciated. Here I learned how a whole community had been ignored and badly labelled, just like St. Margaret’s itself – it had been under the bishop’s ban for many years, simply because it was too catholic. (Even the scouse tram ticket collector had been known in ages past to proclaim “All change for Rome!” at the stop outside the church.) Of course Liverpool generally was reviled in the press. We were always too rebellious. The mixture of Lancashire, Wales, Ireland, West Africa, Somalia, China and many others who came here on the way to America from Eastern Europe and stayed, is too much for many people. And of course our self-mockery is second to none, and we don’t take prisoners.
I returned to Brixton in Southwark diocese for a ten year stint, where apart from St. Matthew’s, I was very involved in pastoral care and counselling groups for the diocese, and being the trainer from Victim Support, Lambeth. As in Toxteth, there were enough daily dramas for me to forgo any stage productions, though I did do a spot of cabaret of operatic pastiche, utilizing my major hobby – opera. Then it was back to this diocese and Wigan, just a few hundred yards from where my mother’s father was born. Another very distinct culture, and miles away from anything I had known before. As in Brixton, Church alterations were a large part of life, as well as coping with a four thousand plot churchyard constantly messed about by vandals. An annual pantomime reinvigorated my desire to tread the boards, and I played a series of loud and heavy characters. It was surprising to learn how important it was in funeral visits. Ice was already broken by the phrase “I know this is a funny thing to say, vicar, but we do enjoy you in the pantos.” As in everywhere else I studied local history, especially ecclesiastical, to discover the roots of both good and bad practice.
Finally I retired to within yards of where I was born – Park House. I do reflect on that strange day when a three and a half pound baby, two months premature came into the world, and my mother was told I would be very strong if I survived. The sisters fed me on brandy and glucose from a pen filler, and kept me in an oxygen tent. I don’t think I ever looked back and give thanks for a life full of riches, but above all for a good start to help me survive all the ups and downs, some very severe, in the ministry of a priest. I give thanks for the many people who helped me become who I am, and with God’s help will continue to serve his Kingdom of Justice and Righteousness.