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’.
It’s that confidence in God’s goodness that is the key to all the rest. What upset Colin about the Church was that in over his time as a priest it seemed to have grown narrower and meaner and less loveable, making God look narrow and mean and unloveable too; which for Colin was a sort of ultimate blasphemy. He wanted the Church to be big-hearted and warm and generous and kind because that’s how God is, and if we don’t reflect that, how are we going to show God to the world?
The papers and his detractors always portrayed Colin as an arch-Liberal, as if he were the leader of a faction obsessed with a secular agenda. It was never true, and it misses the whole point. For Colin it began and ended with God. The truth is that he was a traditional Catholic Anglican, thoroughly disciplined and orthodox in his faith, a man of profound prayer and penitence. His idea of inclusiveness was not that ‘anything goes’, but that we are all equally in need of healing, and therefore the Church must equally be a home for all. Colin welcomed people because Jesus did.
And that didn’t just mean welcoming gay people and women bishops, important as that was and is. He welcomed everybody. The first thing he did in Southwark was to take down the notice that said ‘Worship in progress – Cathedral closed’.
He welcomed children. It is not an overstatement to say that Colin warmed up and humanised two cathedrals, and hugely increased the congregation, at least partly by making sure that services were child-friendly. And of course he was brilliant with kids, being basically a big kid himself.
He welcomed students. He was a fantastic College Chaplain in Cambridge and London, with just the right combination of bounce and seriousness to get alongside them. All through his ministry he nurtured scores of ordinands who still see him as a friend and inspiration.
He welcomed the homeless. Colin was actually evicted from his flat in his first year as a curate because it was so constantly filled with vagrants and dropouts. He set up the first homeless night shelter in Norwich. He was a tower of strength to the Crisis centre in Southwark, and persuaded the Queen to visit them before she came here at the Millennium.
He welcomed everyone, talked to everyone from tramps to Royalty with the same ‘un-scared’ straightforwardness; and if you had some crisis or need where he could help, he’d move heaven and earth to do it. Edith is overwhelmed with letters from people he helped, practically and spiritually. One 95 year old lady wrote ‘All the times I met Colin were joyful ones. He always left me feeling God loves me and wants me to be happy’. Another wrote ‘He was such a fun, large, rude, honest man’. (I love the casual inclusion of ‘rude’ there. It is so true.)
Colin lit up rooms when he walked in. More than once I have seen gatherings of gloomy Deans cheer up just because he’d arrived and we could stop being bored.
There are endless funny stories, nearly all - alas - unusable in a pulpit. I’ll never forget the opening of the Millennium Bridge. Colin was convinced it had a design fault, and even as Her Majesty was wielding the scissors to cut the tape, there was Colin next to her in full canonicals jumping up and down as hard as he could to demonstrate the wobble. ‘O ye of little faith’ said Prince Philip, but Colin was right. The bridge was closed a couple of days later.
He was indefatigable. Dean Inge once said the life of a dean among his canons was like that of a mouse watched by four cats; but with Colin it was the other way around. At Chapter meetings he fired off dozens of wildly improbable ideas, while we squeaked our reservations and tried to rein him in. When Colin had his heart operation last year the consultant told him that for years he had only been functioning at 30 per cent power. I think it was Bishop Tom who said ‘Thank God we never knew you when you were 100 per cent’.
If you wanted an advert for the more abundant life the Gospel promises, there he was.
I want to pay tribute to Edith and the family, because , as Ben reminded us, this amazing generosity and hospitality meant they had to share Colin with everyone else. He was a great family man; he was rooted in a deep and obvious love of Edith and the children, but he was traditional too in putting his priesthood first and being always available; and there is a high price to pay for that. So I want to say to Edith, and Ben, Rachel, Ruth, Sonia and Trevor, on behalf of all of us, thank you for what you gave too, and for what you had to give up, to share him with us and make his incredible ministry possible.
Colin’s work extended to Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Zimbabwe, America, New Zealand and no doubt elsewhere. Partly in recognition of that Edith has asked that instead of flowers, any donations in memory of Colin should go to the Cathedral’s partner diocese of Masvingo in Zimbabwe. As Edith put it: Colin died at home in safety, surrounded by love, and having received the most wonderful care from the NHS. In Masvingo many die in terror and starvation and without medical help. The contrast is terrible. So please help.
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.
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.