Colin Slee was far from pompous or solemn, relishing the absurdities of the church.The Very Rev Colin Slee, the dean of Southwark Cathedral, who has died aged 65 after the sudden onset of pancreatic cancer, was one of the most courageously outspoken liberals in the Church of England – almost alone among senior churchmen – and in the wider Anglican communion. A close friend of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, Slee was a doughty defender of another friend, Jeffrey John, the theologian who was denied a bishopric in the Church of England in 2003 when conservative evangelicals launched a campaign against his appointment on discovering that he was gay.
Slee’s combativeness cost him a bishopric himself, both inside the Church of England, where safer candidates – less inclined to rock the boat by speaking out against the church’s prejudices against women and gays – were preferred; and in New Zealand, where conservatives led a smear campaign to prevent him from being chosen as bishop for the diocese of Christchurch three years ago.
Yet, whatever his detractors alleged, Slee was also an orthodox priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, insistent on following the proper form in prayer and dress. It is what led him at one stage to ban the singing of the popular but scarcely Christian Jerusalem from the cathedral and he was critical of the sort of evangelical clergy who do not believe in vestments, like praying vacuously, extempore, and insist that they are the true orthodox.
As he said in a typically robust address at the launch of a liberal Anglican group called Inclusive Church, following John’s enforced resignation: “I insist the cathedral clergy wear black shirts because it is a statement of history and origin, a uniform deeply rooted in tradition and monastic antecedents … (not) the floral extravaganzas more symptomatic of a photocollage of the Chelsea Flower Show than the hard work of saving souls … All that makes me ‘liberal’, a moderniser. Then there are those who … don’t wear clerical dress, so you don’t know who they are or what they represent … all that makes them ‘conservative’.”
That gives a good impression of his forthrightness, but he was very far from pompous or solemn, relishing – and excoriating – the absurdities of the church. His outspokenness in defence of an inclusive church and frustration at Williams’s equivocations on the gay issue were evident. Nevertheless, he and the archbishop remained friends, and Williams visited him last week and led prayers for him at Wednesday’s General Synod meeting. Colleagues were aware of his deep pastoral compassion. A gay cleric in his diocese said: “Colin was a big man and you always felt you could shelter behind him and he would stand up for you and protect you.”
The son of a policeman, Slee was educated at Ealing grammar school, west London, before studying at King’s College London – to which he would return as chaplain and tutor in the late 1970s – and training for the ministry at St Augustine’s college, Canterbury. He was ordained in 1970. He became curate of Great St Mary’s in Cambridge and chaplain of Girton, then still a women’s college, from 1973 to 1976. In 1982 he moved to St Albans as sub-dean, in charge of pastoral work, before becoming dean of Southwark in 1994.
At Southwark, Slee was responsible not only for transforming the appearance of the cathedral, overseeing the construction of a sympathetically designed refectory, conference centre and library, but also encouraging greater engagement with the ethnically diverse community in south London, considerably increasing the regular congregation and inspiring a team of canons and lay workers who were devoted to him. He developed close links with the liberally inclined Anglican church in southern Africa and with Harvard University in the US.
Slee was also active in church politics, serving on the General Synod for 15 years until his death and on the crown nominations committee, which chooses bishops and senior clergy.
He married his New Zealand-born wife, Edith, in 1971 and the couple had a son and two daughters, as well as fostering a brother and sister whom they later adopted. All survive him.
Slee, a keen rower and London university “purple” as a student, was a familiar figure cycling around London from the dean’s lodging on Bankside until he suffered heart trouble last year.
In the autumn he had a fall while on holiday on Majorca and x-rays disclosed the cancer which was found to be inoperable. When I visited him in hospital a fortnight ago, he said wonderingly: “I have received so many get-well cards, even from my enemies.” “Colin,” I said, “Surely you don’t have any enemies left?” No, he replied gently, he was beyond all that, and turned to discussing a book he wished to write. It would have been on the episcopacy, arguing against the appointment of bland bureaucratic types in favour of troublemakers. “Peter and Paul weren’t smooth men,” he said.