Donald Easton evokes the life of a good and faithful servant
Father John Vine, who has died at the age of 97, was one the last surviving incumbents to have been appointed under the old regulations which granted a freehold for life. He was born on 15th May, 1924, and grew up in Orpington, Kent. He read history at Keble College, Oxford and retained a love of both history, particularly mediaeval history, and Oxford throughout his life. After training for the priesthood at St Stephen’s House he served his title at St Mary’s, Hackney Wick, in London followed by a second curacy at St Alban’s, Holborn.
A change of direction then led to a total of twelve years of teaching in theological college. The first seven were at Ely, initially as Chaplain under Principal Balmforth and then, after Balmforth’s departure, as Vice-Principal. His lectures included early church history, and his distinctive, song-song style could still be remembered and occasionally mimicked by former students many years later. After a spell as Honorary Curate at Christ Church, St Leonard’s-on-Sea, he returned to teaching, this time as Chaplain at Lichfield Theological College, an appointment which he held for five years. He then, in 1967, returned to parish life becoming Rector of Wrington, a Somerset village located west of Bath with a fine, predominantly fifteenth-century church.
But in 1969 he moved to the parish he was to serve for the next 43 years, as vicar of St Cuthbert and St Matthias, Philbeach Gardens, in Earl’s Court, London. St Cuthbert’s was and is one of London’s Anglo-Catholic shrine churches – a tall, red brick, Victorian Gothic structure with rich Arts-and-Crafts furnishings and fittings and an enormous, Spanish-style wooden reredos. It is not an easy parish. The church sits right on its western boundary next to a railway line, and is hidden away in a residential crescent with a very low natural foot-fall. The housing consists almost entirely of flats and mansion blocks, all fitted with entry-phones. It is not an area where any kind of doorstep ministry is realistically possible.
But the church has a primary school from the former parish of St Matthias, and here Fr Vine said a weekly school mass with absolute regularity. Throughout his time he served as Chairman of the Governors, the meetings of which, by his own account, were best prepared for by wrapping a wet towel around the head. The church also has a spacious hall and ancillary buildings. Fr Bill Kirkpatrick, who had a remarkable ministry on the streets of Earl’s Court, was attached to St Cuthbert’s as honorary curate, and in 1987 a part of the church hall building was set aside to be the Body Positive Centre where HIV/AIDS sufferers could find support. A further development came in 1990 with the opening of the St Cuthbert’s Social Advisory Centre, set up to help those who had fallen through the social care network – often the homeless. It still does valuable work and attracts clients from a surprisingly wide area.
John Vine’s ministry at St Cuthbert’s was one of quiet perseverance. It was typified by his visits to a parishioner who had developed severe dementia. She had moved to a care home a long way out in west London and had no conversation. Regularly every week, for many years, he made the journey to sit with her. There was a lot of kindness in him, and I suspect that he felt people’s pains more than he showed. He was not very demonstrative. There was nothing flashy about him, or about his preaching, but invariably the content of his sermons was theologically sound and spiritually helpful. He had a good intellect and an extensive library which included all the many volumes of St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. His life revolved around the sacraments, and he kept up a daily mass for many years.
In the early 1980s there was a move by the diocese to close St Cuthbert’s. The church is fortunate in having a substantial body of Friends, some of them influential, and these he mobilised very effectively. Questions were asked in Parliament and the scheme was quietly dropped.
There was a definite routine to his life: a trip to the west end on Thursdays for one or two groceries, always to the same suppliers; a walk in Kensington Gardens on Sunday afternoons; two weeks in Kitzbühl for the walking in the spring and in the autumn; short visits to friends in Cornwall and Inverness.
Then in 2008, after nearly 40 years at St Cuthbert’s, he fell while clearing the church after the Maundy Thursday vigil, and broke a hip. There was a spell in hospital and many months in rehabilitation, followed by physiotherapy after his return home. He persevered for a long time in the hope of recovery but it was not to be. He never regained mobility. In 2012 he moved to East Grinstead where he had a happy year lovingly looked after by very good friends. But with increasing incapacity it became necessary for him to move to the College of St Barnabas, Lingfield, and there he was beautifully cared for and regularly visited by his friends. He died peacefully in his sleep on the 18th February.