Bishop Kenneth Stevenson, 1949-2011

Kenneth StevensonI attended the funeral of Kenneth Stevenson today. Kenneth had been Anglican bishop of Portsmouth from 1995 to 2009. However, I knew Kenneth first when I was an undergraduate at Manchester University and he was the Anglican chaplain. I was a member of the university Christian Union, which in the UK is a conservative evangelical constituency. Traditionally, at British universities then, Christian students were either of the “CU” or of the “Chaplaincy” and I was definitely of the former variety. Kenneth and I met because I wanted to write a final year dissertation on Edward Irving (1792-1834). Kenneth’s family on his father’s side were members of the Catholic Apostolic Church, a church which had been founded after Irving had been ejected from his ministry at the National Scotch Church in Regent Square, London (which was an outpost of the Scottish Kirk). Kenneth therefore knew the story of Irving well and was able to supervise me on the dissertation.

Kenneth, along with Sarah, his wife, had an amazingly hospitable personality and a tremendous sense of fun. He was not remotely “stand offish” about evangelicals and they happily welcomed me into their home where we spent many hours ransacking his extensive library for relevant reading material and discussing theology and Christian thought in general. At that time, I was in the early stages of candidating for the ordained ministry in the Church of England. Kenneth was wonderfully supportive and enthusiastic about my sense of call. He teased me for being over-serious but underneath it all took me very seriously. When you’re in your early 20’s and exploring big things like the possibility of giving your entire life up to public Christian ministry, encouragement is a critical ingredient. He had started a course on the History and Significance of Liturgy in the Faculty at Manchester, which he co-taught with Richard Buxton. I, however, was not much interested in liturgy at the time. But Kenneth’s fascination for the subject was infectious.

A couple of years later, after I had been selected by the Church to train for ordination, the recommendation came with the suggestion that my training should include work towards a postgraduate degree. I was hooked on the story of the Catholic Apostolics, who followed Irving. How could a group, which had begun in the controversy of an outbreak of speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy, so shortly afterwards develop one of the most ornate series of liturgies in the 19th century? Irving had spoken of the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” about 70 years before Pentecostalism was born. How did they understand the working of the Holy Spirit to relate to their seven liturgies of initiation?

A research topic was born, but to do it required access to Catholic Apostolic primary texts, which are enormously hard to come by, as most of their books were privately published for internal circulation. As the church began to die out in 1901 and had all but ceased by the 1970s, this was potentially incredibly difficult. However, Kenneth (who had himself done his PhD on the Eucharist of the Catholic Apostolic Church) was both my supervisor and my librarian. With his Catholic Apostolic family roots, he was able to provide key texts which rendered the project possible. As such, he was the main reason why I was able to tackle and complete my doctorate. Seldom do research students owe such a double-debt to their supervisor.

Kenneth was also a key supporter in the early years of my ministerial career. He was a referee in my candidacy process with the Church of England – I remember ringing him up long-distance from Manchester to Notre Dame University, Indiana, where he was taking a sabbatical, to ask him for the reference. He faxed it through to the church authorities within a day or so. He encouraged me to write after I had finished the doctorate and we co-edited (with David Stancliffe) an introduction to the Celebrating Common Prayer daily office called Something Understood in the early 1990s.

His encouragement, support and assistance are foundational to my present ministry. The debt I owe him is huge.

Of course, his achievements are much larger than this and have been widely reported in the church and secular press. (You can read Bryan Spinks’ obituary in The Independent here.) I simply wanted to put on record my debt to him. I am not alone. He was an encourager, supporter and enabler of very many.

Today’s funeral service took place in Portsmouth Cathedral, which was packed to overflowing. I’m sure Kenneth would have enjoyed the liturgy (he was not censorious, so it makes no sense describing him as ‘approving’ or ‘disapproving’ of a liturgy). Bishop John Gladwin did an excellent sermon – Kenneth had told him, ‘don’t talk about me, just preach the gospel’, but since there was so much gospel in Kenneth’s life, the two things weren’t incompatible. The choir and orchestra were on good form. For me, the most moving point was the Kontakion of the Dead which is one of my most favourite pieces of liturgy, ever, sung by the choir to the Kiev melody:

Give rest, O Christ, to thy servants with thy saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
Neither sighing but life everlasting.
Thou only art immortal the creator and maker of man:
And we are mortal, formed from the dust of the earth
when thou created me, saying,
‘Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.’
All we go down to the dust;
and weeping o’er the grave we make our song:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

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One reply on “Bishop Kenneth Stevenson, 1949-2011”

  1. Good to see you up and blogging again, Paul. As a former student of yours I am grateful for the infectious enthusiasm for liturgical study that Kenneth quite clearly passed onto you, and you in turn have imparted to more than a few generations of ordinands. I have found Kenneth Stevenson’s writings accessible, lively and learned with it. He was one of those bishops I think it would have been fun to work for and I’m sorry I never knew him, except through some of his publications.

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