Colin Slee, Bishop of Southwark: a true son of St Nicholas

Today at St Nick’s we celebrated the Feast of Saint Nicholas (it’s actually tomorrow, so it was “transferred” to Sunday).

Father Steve’s homily was a fun series of stories, each with its own slightly wacky hat. Before the service, we were all asked to leave our shoes out for St Nicholas in the gathering space (adults and children both). After the service, there was CANDY in your blogger’s snow boots, thoughtfully packed in an odor-proof plastic bag. Thank you, St. Nicholas!

We have St. Nicholas to thank for the life of a great Anglican who passed away recently, The Very Revd Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark in London. Following are some excerpts from the funeral sermon, preached by Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans. For many reasons, Dean Jeffrey was exactly the right person to remember the Very Revd Colin Slee.

One of the last things Colin said before he died was, ‘I am surprisingly un-scared’. It could have been the motto of his whole life. Colin was always surprisingly un-scared. Unlike the rest of us, he never did let fear or self-consciousness or embarrassment to stop him reaching out to the most unlikely and needy people, or doing and saying what he thought was right and true. All the frightened, careful people said Colin was risky, indiscreet, unreliable – ‘the most dangerous man in the Church of England’ said one, to Colin’s deep delight. But he was not dangerous or indiscreet or unreliable – certainly not in anything that mattered. He was just surprisingly un-scared.

If you ask why he was so un-scared, I think the answer is as straightforward as he was. He really did believe. He really trusted in a good and loving God as Jesus came to make Him known to us; and that confidence set him free to be the astonishingly life-giving, brave, generous and joyous person that he was.

That faith never wavered, not even in the few weeks between the diagnosis and his death. A fortnight ago Colin asked me to say something at a service he had been due to preach at in St Albans. He said this:

‘People have been shocked by the suddenness and seriousness of my illness, and some have asked ‘Why you?’ Well, why not me? We believe in a God who creates a world with freedom for life, and freedom means the potential for going wrong. Cancer is life gone wrong. But if God didn’t let go and let go wrong, He would be less than the God of the Gospel’.

Other people had said to him ‘It’s not fair: you’ve led a good life’. Colin replied, ‘How do you know? And anyway, whatever goodness I have is God’s gift. We rely on mercy, not fairness’.

Dean Colin took good care of the people of Southwark Cathedral and indeed wherever he had served, and his death is a great loss to many. As it happens your blogger, unaware that the bishop was dying, tried to visit Southwark Cathedral on a recent trip to London, having heard that it was one of the most welcoming and dynamic communities in London. A baccalaureate service was about to begin, and although it was open to visitors, it wasn’t the best time to be wandering around looking at monuments. The cathedral itself is not large and is undergoing a major renovation in the “front,” where it snubs up against a railway bridge. But there’s a modern annexe that adds welcoming space and a cafe on one side, and a tiny garden with a wandering walkway on the other. It offers hospitality to the stranger in the best way; with benches, a quiet place to regain one’s composure away from the noise and confusion that is modern London, and even picnic tables for office workers from the surrounding area. It appears that Dean Colin was a friend to students as well, and he might have thought it appropriate for the students to get on with their professional lives after completing their academic ones, as he lay completing his own life surrounded by family and friends and getting ready to begin his life in glory.

There are many funny stories about Dean Colin, including the one about the time he gleefully jumped up and down in full canonicals to demonstrate the dangerous “wobble” in the Milennium Bridge, just as Queen Elizabeth was standing by to cut the ribbon; he was on hand to bless it. She opened it, he blessed it, and a few days later it was closed for urgent repairs.

As it happens, your blogger actually witnessed the arrival of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Dean Colin’s Thameside home for what must have been a pastoral care visit. The residence, known as the Provost’s Lodging, is two doors down from the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre; the house has a cheerful yellow door and the front windows have a view of the “wrong Cathedral,” St Paul’s, on the north side of the river. There was no pomp, no circumstance; it was the visit of a friend to a man whose valiant fight for life was nearly done.

After the funeral service for Dean Colin, St Nicholas biscuits were given to those in attendance:

Don’t be surprised if when you leave this service a biscuit is pressed into your hand in the shape of Santa Claus. Something I only learned about Colin this week is that his patron saint was Nicholas, because the name Colin is apparently a diminutive of Nicholas in Scots Gaelic. Nicholas does seem terribly appropriate. A big man with a big heart who laughs a lot; a man who loves God and people, especially children; a generous man who gives away all he’s got; a man who goes out to the poor and outcast and defends the weak against the strong. It was also Nicholas – let us remember – who at the Council of Nicea is said to have punched Arius the heretic on the nose because he was misrepresenting Jesus and failing to show the full extent of God’s love in the Incarnation. As patron saints go, that was, it seems to me, a remarkable fit.

A true son of Nicholas, like one of the sons described in Father Steve’s light-hearted sermon this morning, has left us; it is up to us to live up to his example and stand up for all people, shelter all people, and welcome all people:

Someone said about Colin, ‘He was such a big man. We felt we could shelter behind him and he would stand up for us and protect us’. That is true, but it should also make us ashamed. Why was it so often left to him and him alone to stick his head above the parapet? Why did he have to pay the price of telling the truths that every single one of us here knows?

Colin chose the Emmaus Road Gospel for his requiem because he wanted us to understand that the risen Christ still walks with us even if we can’t see him. And in this breaking of the bread Christ can still open our eyes, to see that all those who have died in him are present with us too. As the Bishop says in the Preface, ‘we join with angels and archangels, with Colin and with all your faithful people’. In the Communion of Christ’s Body, death doesn’t divide us. And as we pray for Colin, I don’t doubt he is praying for us – that we’ll have the same confidence in God’s goodness that he had, and go out from here to be more big-hearted and more truthful and un-scared ourselves.

Lord Jesus, open our eyes in the breaking of the Bread.


And amen.

Thank you, good Saint Nicholas, for sending your spiritual son Colin to the people who needed him, and thank you for welcoming him into your warm embrace.

The family suggests donations to the sister diocese of Southwark, Masvingo in Zimbabwe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *