Prebendary Bill Atkins - Service of Thanksgiving 20th June 2003
We meet in the church with which he will be for ever associated to remember Prebendary Bill Atkins - loved and respected by all of us here and by so many more whose lives he touched over a ministry of 66 years. At his funeral he was described by the Bishop of London as his ‘ideal parish priest, one of a band of learned clergy of a kind one rarely meets, possessing a mellowness and kindliness of a bygone age. Firm in his convictions but no place-seeker, he had no side, but he loved people and places, always displaying a generous and hospitable spirit. Although ancients in years he never grew stale. He exhibited a kind of youthfulness and accepted his failing eyesight with graciousness. Think of him and cheerfulness breaks through.’ Today we give thanks for his warm humanity, his friendship, and his ministry not only here at St George’s but also in his earlier years in Ireland and at St Paul’s Cathedral and at St Sepulchre’s Holborn.
THE ADDRESS given by The Reverend Prebendary John Slater
- Between the avenues of chairs,
- Contemptuous of man's affairs,
- Black as a Canon's Sunday hat,
- Saunters Abinadab the cat.
- Tourists and Guides he passes by
- With weary tread lest they should try
- To ruffle with attentions rude
- His sleek and sable pulchritude.
- He climbs the stairs, serene, aloof,
- To stalk a pigeon on the roof;
- He creeps unerring to the kill
- With eager lust to eat his fill,
- And then to earth again descends
- For milk-time with his Virger-friends.
How typical of Bill that he should write a poem about a cat to entertain the pupils of the choir school at St Paul’s where he was a Minor Canon and teacher. And how equally typical that he should remember it when, aged 90, he dictated a memoir of his time at the cathedral for a tribute to the Friends of St Paul’s.
Bill was born in Leicester where his father had a shoe-making business. He started his education at Dover College, which he disliked so much that he persuaded his father to remove him, and he went on to crammers in Norwich before becoming involved in the family business. Later, at Trinity College Dublin, he took a double first in Latin and Greek, and then studied theology before being ordained in Armagh Cathedral on St Patrick’s Day in 1935. I attended his sixtieth anniversary of ordination when he told us that the Archbishop of Armagh had nearly refused to ordain him on the grounds that he was too high church. Bill added, with a twinkle in his eye, I don’t think anyone would call me too high church today!
His first appointment was to two parishes near the border. He worked hard for ten years building up the congregation and encouraging boys from both Catholic and Protestant communities to join his Scout Troop, and he became a Captain in the Territorial Army. At the same time he was Assistant Organist at Armagh Cathedral. This qualified him after the war to be appointed, at the age of 35, as a Minor Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral where he taught Latin and Mathematics in the choir school and also became Cathedral Librarian. He was a Founder Member of the Friends of St Paul’s which Dean Matthews started to perpetuate the enthusiasm of the members of St Paul’s Watch who had guarded the cathedral during the Blitz. With Dean Matthews, he wrote what is still considered to be the definitive history of St Paul’s, now being updated for the 1400th anniversary of the cathedral next year. Bill very much enjoyed a chance to show the very young Prince Charles and Princess Anne around the library one day, letting them walk around inside Wren’s Great Model of his proposed cathedral - saying with some pride I might have infected Prince Charles with a love of architecture that afternoon! Many years later, he was made a Prebendary of the cathedral, holding the stall of Cantlers
After ten years at St Paul’s, Bill was made Rector of this church which was to be his great work - retiring only when forced to do so by failing eyesight at the age of 89 in the year 2000. He found a church with a small congregation, no money to pay the bills and no house for him to live in. But he worked in close partnership with Roddy Faure Walker who was churchwarden for 50 years, and who himself died only last year. Together they built up the congregation and sorted out its financial situation through the sale of the old burial ground in the Bayswater Road, though this took years of negotiation and even an Act of Parliament. In partnership with Directors of Music, Christopher Morris and Denys Darlow, he transformed the worship, introducing in 1967 the form of Sung Eucharist which we still use today.
Bill was a superb pastor. In my own conversations with him after I came here I found he could remember the names of people who lived in different streets of the parish and were involved with St George’s thirty years ago. For a number of years he also ran St Mark’s North Audley Street until it was closed. But there are countless couples whom he married here or whose children he baptized who remain forever grateful for his counsel and his friendship. His ministry was indeed one of quiet thoughtful spiritual friendship.
Bill was a supremely clubbable man who was appreciated good food and wine. Once, when asked what he was giving up for Lent, he replied after much thought that he would drink his gin without the angostura! He was seen regularly at the Oriental and the Lansdown or in the The Royal Green Jackets’ Mess; and he was proud to be Chaplain to the Reunion des Gastronomes. In 1963 he was Chaplain to Sir James Harman as Lord Mayor of London, and for a short time he was chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons and to the City of London School. He was a Wax Chandler and a Cook and very proud to be a Fellow of the Society of Antiquarians. He was President of Sion College and for many years Chaplain to the Royal Society of Musicians.
After 45 years at St George’s, failing eyesight forced his retirement in the year 2000. At that time he was the third oldest priest holding office in the Church. He was preparing to move to a residential home in Northwood, and it was there at Pocklington House that he conducted his last service at the request of the residents on Christmas Day last year.
All of us have been greatly blessed in the privilege of his friendship and it is with great thanksgiving that we commend him in death to God whom he served so faithfully in life. In the words of his poem about Abinadab the cat, he lives in the eternal now. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
The other verses of Bill's poem are below:
- No cankering ambition his:
- Content to be but what he is,
- He never suffers from the urge
- To don a gown or bear a virge,
- Nor manifests the least desire
- To make his voice heard in the choir:
- Among his cronies he is known
- To spurn the Mitre and the Throne;
- A Minor Canon's cushioned Stall
- Seems to attract him more than all,
- Not for the dignity it sheds –
- It makes the cosiest of beds.
- From sermons he can seldom reap
- Much gain nor suffers loss of sleep,
- Though on occasion he is seen
- To pay attention to the Dean.
- When doors are shut and all is still,
- He treads the empty aisles until
- Each subtle noise, each quiet smell
- Convinces him that all is well;
- Then, intricate ablutions o'er,
- He curls himself to dream once more;
- And Orpheus with his muted harp,
- And Chrysostom and Polycarp,
- Prophets, Evangelists, and all
- The great companions of St Paul,
- Observe from Dome and Peristyle
- A little cat that rests a while.
- In him let careful man descry
- The mind at one, the single eye;
- Heedless what time may yet allow,
- He lives in the eternal now.