Friday, 20 April 2012

We don't have to ordain you, you know.

This was the memorable phrase uttered by the Principal of Salisbury & Wells Theological College to one student who had just cast doubts on my parentage at full volume on the main stairs of the College. It was said with a twinkle in his eye, which is how I will always recall Rev Canon Reggie Askew whose death on the 9th April was announced in last week's Church Times.

Reggie always stood up for his students and supported them through the ups and downs of theological training. One person who had taken early retirement to enter the church told of his interview with Reggie who looked at him and said, "Well, you'll want to get on with it then if we're to get more than a couple of Evensongs out of you!"

A man of deep spirituality I sat in the Old Chapel as he took us through Meditation techniques - posture, and then slowly listening outwards from ourselves, through to the sounds of the College, out to the Close, then to the far away traffic hum and beyond. They were magical hours.

Then there was his preferred technique of saying the Morning Office - quietly. "If you can't hear the person next to you then you're saying it too loud" was the guiding principle, and so we whispered our way through the responses, canticles and psalms, pausing monastically in the middle of each verse and saying a silent "Ave Maria" to get the timing right.

He had a deep love of the College, having been Lecturer and Vice-Principal of Wells Theological College during the 1960's before it merged with and moved to Salisbury. Every year it was traditional that we travelled back to Wells for an annual Cricket match before Evensong in the Cathedral. He became Principal of S&W in 1973 and remained there until he moved to be Dean of King's College, London, in 1988.

Reggie also had a unique way of looking at liturgy and worship. He encouraged the "Friday Night College Eucharist" which was always a liturgy pulled together by one of the Tutor Groups, and they could be anything, and usually were. The College was also responsible for Evensong in Salisbury Cathedral once a term, and on one occasion Reggie led the prayers. In them we prayed for everyone connected with death, from undertakers to pall-bearers, gravediggers and layers-out, coffin-makers, those who forged the nails and those who wove the silk linings. It was unforgettable, and as we processed out the Dean of the Cathedral was heard to mutter, "Never again!"

When I entered my training I was only "conditionally recommended" and Reggie made sure that I felt secure in my calling and that I would be approved to continue after my first year. I shall remain grateful to him for that, though whether my subsequent congregations would agree is best left unasked.

The end of Christmas term student pantomime in 1983 was based upon a cult TV sci-fi character and titled "Dr. Broo and the Diakons". We had a New Testament lecturer called Dr. George Brook, who was mercilessly parodied throughout, and Reggie was written into the script as "Canonaskew the Cosmic", the portrayal of him on the stage frighteningly lifelike. He roared with laughter throughout, as the picture shows, and that's how I choose to remember his ministry amongst us - a presentation of faith with humour.

A quote from another Reggie seems appropriate here:

From the original series "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin", Reginald Iolanthe Perrin (initials of RIP) is speaking about the type of people entering his new commune:

Well, at the moment we've got a stockbroker, an overworked doctor, an underworked antiques shop owner, a disillusioned imports manager, and an even more disillusioned exports manager. Three sacked football managers, a fortune teller who's going to have a nervous breakdown next April, a schoolteacher who's desperate because he can't get a job, a schoolteacher who's even more desperate because he has got a job, an extremely shy vet, an overstressed car salesman and a pre-stressed concrete salesman. People with sexual problems, people with social problems, people with work problems, people with identity problems. People with sexual, social, work and identity problems. People who live above their garages, and above their incomes, in little boxes on prestige estates where families are two-tone, two-car and two-faced. Money has replaced sex as a driving force, death has replaced sex as a taboo, and sex has replaced bridge as a social event for mixed foursomes, and large deep freezes are empty except for twelve sausages. They come to Perrins in the hope that they won't be ridiculed as petty snobs, but as human beings who are bewildered at the complexity of social development, castrated by the conformity of a century of mass production, and dwarfed by the immensity of technological progress which has advanced more in fifty years than in the rest of human existence put together, so that when they take their first tentative steps into an adult society shaped by humans but not for humans, their personalities shrivel up like private parts in an April sea.

And that sort of sums up Salisbury & Wells Theological College under Reginald James Albert Askew's leadership. Thanks Reggie.


  1. What a lovely tribute to an obviously lovely man. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

    I love the bit about evensong at Salisbury.

  2. Yes, a great tribute. I too was at Salisbury & Wells and your recollection of Reggie is spot on, especially in regard to his humour. I loved those long hoots of laughter which seemed to precede Reggie down the corridors. He was open and responsive to new currents of thinking: when Don Cupitt published 'Taking Leave of God' Reggie closeted himself with his staff team, plenty of coffee and new copies in order to get a handle on Cupitt's thought.

  3. This has put me in a reflective mood this morning as I missed the news of Reggie's death when announced. At the earliest opportunity I must re-read "The Tree of Noah."