'Called to Serve'

The stories of the ordinands of St Faith's, Great Crosby

Dennis Austin Smith

Many, varied and, often, circuitous are the journeys which lead to ordination, and we each have our own road to travel. When I was ten my friend and next-door neighbour, Ken Ronson, told me that he had joined the Wolf Cub pack across the road at St Faith’s and asked if I wanted to go along with him to the next Thursday evening meeting. Thus was to begin a 55-year association with the church that has occupied a central place in my life.

As Cubs – and I still have in my bedroom drawer the grey, long-sleeved pullover adorned with badges and yellow Sixer’s stripes – we joined the Sunday School, which met in church at three in the afternoon. Derek Clawson was Akela of the pack in the early 1960s and he subsequently gave up this responsibility and his daytime work to go off to Birmingham and study for the priesthood at the Queen’s College.

In 1961 Fr Tom Stanage was in the last year of serving his title at St Faith’s and with Fr William Hassall, then vicar, was instrumental in providing me with a model of Anglican priesthood which I found to be both attractive and compelling. I was also blessed and fortunate to come under the influence of encouraging and friendly teachers at Sunday School – Colin Oxenforth, Mabel Pickup, Caroline (‘Bunny’) Mountfield and Archie Pattison. For several years Bunny and Archie played a very important part in my Christian formation and, along with others like George Houldin, Emily Conalty, Elsie Foy and the Carter sisters, Dorothy and Lilian, provided me with much love, friendship and support.

My path towards ordination proved to be neither simple nor straightforward. I was 14 or 15 when Fr Hassall confided in another dear friend of mine at St Faith’s, Margaret Hesketh Roberts, that he feared my secondary modern education at Waterloo County might not equip me sufficiently for the academic achievement that was needed for further progress. At this time I started to explore two other avenues of possibilities for Ministry. First, there was the Church Army – a vibrant and inspiring organisation that trained men and women to be Captains and Sisters for evangelistic and parish work in the Church of England. Aged 16 and 17, I went on two very well-organised and enjoyable summer holiday house parties run by the Church Army – the first to lovely Bowness-on-Windermere, the second to a base in central London, from which we visited many of the great sights. Had my ‘O’ level success not been what it was, I might well have been accepted for the Army’s three year training course at its college in Blackheath, Kent.

My second exploration was to visit Kelham Theological College, a unique monastic institution in the C of E, close to the River Tent at Newark, near Nottingham. Kelham, the Mother House of the Society of the Sacred Mission, embraced a training course in which boys could study for both O and A level examinations before embarking upon a four year non-graduate seminarian-style preparation leading to ordination.

Having by now moved schools, from Waterloo County Secondary to Merchant Taylors’, I was most fortunate in having Russell Perry, one of my A level Divinity masters, persuade me that I should put aside any thoughts about the Church Army or Kelham, and set my sights on gaining a university place. With hindsight I will be forever grateful that I took my teacher’s wise and timely advice and thankfully, following the summer exam results, I was off to Lancaster University for a three years’ honours degree.

In the course of my enjoyable time at Lancaster two significant milestones were met. The first of these was that having been recommended to go forward for selection by the then Liverpool Diocese Director of Ordinands, Canon Gordon Bates (who subsequently became Bishop of Whitby), I was asked to attend the customary three days (four nights) Selection Conference of the Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry (ACCM) at Shallowford House in Staffs, to join other potential ordinands for interviews, discussions and possible selection. (Our Reader, Jackie Parry attended a similar conference a few months ago at the same venue and, happily, like me, was selected for training). A recommendation which came with my selection was that I might consider doing a year’s VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) prior to beginning ordination training. 

The second milestone I encountered whilst at Lancaster was totally unexpected and was to fundamentally change the course of my journey to Anglican priesthood and future career. In the spring of 1971, my final year at university, I saw displayed on a notice board in the Chaplaincy Centre an advertisement containing details of a one year Post Graduate Certificate in Education which was being offered at Christ’s College, Woolton – a Roman Catholic teacher training college here in Liverpool. I had little hesitation in  deciding that I should like to do the course being offered, for there would, I thought, always be the possible opportunity to put it to use sometime in the future, whether ordained or not.  

Thereupon, from September 1971 to June 1972 I was one of only three non-R.C. students at the college, learning how to be a teacher. I so enjoyed the experience that I decided to defer applying for a place at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, to begin priestly training and, instead, applied for a secondary school teaching post at the newly constituted Manor High School (now called St Michael’s) in Crosby. Successful in my application, I embarked on a pedagogical career that was to last for thirty eight years.

Two years into teaching I again entered into discussions with Canon Gordon Bates about my aspiration to be ordained. By this time the ACCM recommendation I had received earlier had apparently ‘expired’ and if I wished to pursue that road it appeared I would have to attend a second Selection Conference. In the meanwhile Canon Bates had put me in touch with the Rev. Dr. Ray Selby, who was pioneering a new non-residential ordination course for students in the North West of England. Before attending the ACCM Selection Conference this time, to be held at Chester Retreat House, I met Canon Selby, who was only too happy for me to begin his course that coming autumn of 1974, and so to become the youngest non-residential ordinand in the country.

What happened next in this eventful and unprecedented saga could only have happened to me! On the last evening of the Chester Selection Conference I was informed by the ACCM Secretary (who acts as Chairman and leader of the conference) that because I was intending to study on a non-residential course and, therefore, would subsequently be putting myself forward for non-stipendiary ministry, I shouldn’t have been at the conference, as that particular one was for those potential ordinands who were looking towards full time, stipendiary parish ministry. Thus began a most unusual and somewhat bizarre episode that it somehow typical of the mysterious and unpredictable machinations of the C of E.

As I was only 24 at this time the ACCM authorities in their wisdom decided that I was too young not to go for full-time residential training, which, obviously, would have meant that I would have had to give up teaching. Fortunately Canon Bates (still Diocesan Directory of Ordinands) and Canon Selby were both strongly of the opinion that despite my youthfulness I should be permitted to study on the North West Ordination Course, as I had already experienced residential training as a student at Lancaster University.  There was no agreement or meeting of minds between ACCM and the two Canons championing my cause.

ACCM subsequently decided that I should attend two separate interviews with their nominated advisors – one was the Vicar of Broadway, the lovely Cotswold village in Worcestershire, the other, a scholarly part time tutor at St Stephen’s House Oxford, whom I visited in his country rectory. In due course by train and bus I travelled to both interviews and put my case for non-residential training before these learned clerics. The result, some weeks later, was that ACCM were still insisting on my going to a residential college for ordination training. The Canons, Bates and Selby were not happy with the outcome of my interviews and decided that my cause should be put before the Diocesan Bishop, Stuart Blanch.

My dad drove a hired car to get me to Woolton on a spring Sunday afternoon in 1974 where I was interviewed by Stuart Blanch at Bishop’s Lodge. I think that the announcement only the day before of the Bishop’s preferment to the Archbishopric of York may well have helped put Bishop Stuart in a happy, agreeable and positive frame of mind. “What do you wish to do?” he asked me. “Begin the North West Ordination Course in September, my Lord” was my reply. “Then you shall,” was basically Stuart’s encouraging, confirming and most welcome response.

Suffice it to say ACCM were unhappy with the outcome of my meeting with the Bishop and subsequently refused to pay the necessary tuition fees for the course during my first year as a student. Thankfully, Canon Bates facilitated the financial support to which I was entitled and then insisted that having won the Archbishop’s approval and blessing ACCM had an obligation to finance the remaining two years of my training, which they did.

I doubt that few other journeys towards ordination in the C of E have come by quite as unusual and eventful a route as my own. Happily and thankfully, however, at Michaelmastide 1977, in Liverpool’s Cathedral Church of Christ, former England Test cricketer, Bishop David Sheppard, laid hands on me and the long, interesting and challenging journey was at last over. Laus Deo.

Fr Dennis Smith
June 2015

See Dennis's photo and entry on the St Faith's Parish Portraits page here 

The list of  ordinands