The Memoirs of “A Very Dangerous Man”
Donald Reeves 10th July 2009 Review Church Times
“I decided to be sparing with names.” So says Donald Reeves in his opening acknowledgements. It is a decision he soon forgets. I counted 35 names on just one page. The index is names and only names — 173 of them. Donald Reeves’s fascinating and provocative memoirs are peppered with names, because he is a “people man”. Institutions, such as the Church of England, bore him. No wonder he has never been made a bishop.
Donald Reeves needs some kind of explanation — more so than is the case for most of us, dull lot that we are. All who have met him, if only fleetingly, have wondered what makes him tick. But if we are going to explain Reeves, we must hear first from the man himself. So we turn eagerly to his story as he tells it.
Much about him is explained by his childhood and schooldays. He was an only child, a condition from which few recover. His indolent father was interested only in the insides of cars. His socialising mother was rarely there. As soon as was possible, he was packed off to a ghastly prep school, where he was bullied and beaten. Then he was dispatched to Sherborne, where manliness was instilled on the rugger field and all expression of the emotions was suppressed.
His schools tried to turn Reeves into someone else. He refused to comply — just as later he declined to conform when the principalities and powers of the Church of England wanted him to fall in step. He survived by staying who he was.
Another explanation of the man is the influence on him of Mervyn Stockwood. At Cambridge, he went to Great St Mary’s, where Stockwood was Vicar and drawing crowds by preaching a Christianity that was not off the wall. After a curacy in Maidstone, where he upset apple-carts, Reeves was invited by Stockwood — by then Bishop of Southwark — to be his chaplain. In Southwark in the ’60s, prophetic ministry was still possible. “A new reformation” was in the air. (Today — God help us — we settle for “fresh expressions”.)
Breaking moulds was Stockwood’s way, and it was the hallmark of the brilliant people he attracted to his diocese. It was the Bishop who appointed Donald to the huge St Helier estate in Morden, where he swiftly earned the title of “the red vicar”, where his increasingly frequent appearances in the media made him a national figure, and where he gained the reputation for controversy which — much to his satisfaction — has subsequently accompanied him.
From Morden, Reeves went to St James’s, Piccadilly. When he arrived, the church was spiritually and financially bankrupt. He tells us that on the night before his induction he locked himself in the church and ascended the pulpit. From there, he shouted at God, cursed him, and ordered him to move in with him. No one says no to Donald Reeves, not even God.
The history of St James’s, Piccadilly, is testimony to this day that God did as he was told that night. God moved in — and soon people moved in, too. No doubt many were drawn by the famous names Donald persuaded to preach or to take part in public debate. But just as many were drawn by the welcome Reeves has always given to the wounded, not least those injured by bad religion.
Donald Reeves believes that God in Christ wants you to be fully his, but that to be his you must be wholly yourself. Thanks to the parson’s freehold, he was able to live and preach that liberating gospel, unimpeded. “To be a Christian you must be you.” This belief accounts for the all-embracing inclusivity of St James’s. It also explains the church’s non-condemnatory hospitality to the wacky and way-out. It is the reason why you enjoy the freedom at St James’s — wheeling out the joke one last time — to meditate to the music of dolphins mating.
Reeves’s career since leaving St James’s, Piccadilly, has been as adventurous and contentious as every other chapter of his ministry. A left-wing cleric could hardly court controversy more provocatively than by going to work as he did for Rio Tinto. Currently, he is a peace-maker in the Balkans — as brave and costly a ministry as any he has undertaken.
Reeves has never stopped, and, until he is called home, he never will. We close his memoirs understanding him better. We have been entertained, as we expected to be, by the mischievous maverick. But we have also been brought to see how very much more there is to him. We recognise and salute in Donald Reeves the tenacity and fidelity of one unswervingly resolved to be Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to his life’s end.
The Revd Dr Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney, in east London.