The Alternative Service Book 1980 dominated the worshipping life of the Church of England for a full 20 years. Unloved and unmourned by the moderately literate, and deeply loathed by the feminists for its ham-fisted insistence on gender in a gender-free world, it has passed into liturgical history. Millions of volumes of the summit of 30 years’ ceaseless experimentation have disappeared from our churches. Only in a few reactionary parishes, where the priest is too lazy, too unfashionable or too ill-read, does this interim rite still exist under special but temporary stay of execution from the diocesan bishop.

For the most part the CofE has dutifully buried its recent ‘heritage’ and complied with the diktat to implement Common Worship, an extraordinary collection of books, pamphlets and ‘resources’ with more possible permutations than the football pools. What these exciting new toys proved is that ‘Stancliffe’s Folly’, as it is corporately known after the guiding episcopal hand, has proved what the ASB singularly failed to demonstrate. Anglicans can write worse liturgy than modern Roman Catholics if they really put their mind to it.

A more alarming piece of evidence is emerging from my burgeoning collection of parishes’ knit-your-own CW liturgy/mass booklets. There are a growing number of priests who, even within the multiple choice ‘restraints’ of CW, are unable to construct a liturgy which is either recognizable or licit. All of this has provided much needed light relief for those whose long preferred use has been a much better known form of common worship and those, like me, who tend to employ, what Dr Kirk refers to as, ‘Dr Cranmer’s interesting anthology’.

CW has admitted defeat for the ASB. So much so that parts of the Book of Common Prayer have been included in the volume. More than that, you can have most of your lovely old ASB prayers tastefully rehung in ‘BCP style language’. One of the most interesting (and entertaining) fall-outs of the summer Synod was the rebellion, by modernizing enthusiasts, against Common Worship! Rebellion broke out over the modern collects which, when rehoused in arcane language, ceased to offer God the direct and friendly advice about his nature that he so frequently requires.

With the Prayer Book rampant I decided to get an interview with the man who has held office for 30 years in that remarkable society dedicated to its preservation and has just, this summer, stood down as chairman, Tony Kilmister.

So it was, on a bright June afternoon, that I crossed the diocesan boundary and headed south to deepest Northwood. The portals of resistance headquarters opened to the password response (‘And with thy spirit’) and I sat down in a light and airy kitchen to lunch and talk with Tony and Sheila Kilmister.

Tony is a cheerful, rubicund, larger-than-life character, warm and passionate, brisk and enthusiastic and full of unexpected laughter. Sheila is quieter (not difficult!) but with a gentle wisdom and a great sense of fun. Her affection and loyalty, once gained, one suspects, would come in the diamond division of durability.

I asked Kilmister where he began. True to his Welsh origins he launched into the story of the family history without any further prompting. Key figures in his childhood were the grandmothers (‘Nain’ – Welsh for Grandma, his mother’s mother and ‘Grandma Newport’, his father’s mother). This latter loomed large, with memories of her bringing the Bible stories powerfully to life by the glow of the bedside nightlight, the framed card of Holman Hunt’s masterpiece in his room there, and letters down the years annotated by Bible references. At school, not surprisingly, he had been good at Divinity and History, capable at Latin and French and hopeless at Mathematics. Fortunately for the domestic budget Sheila more than compensates for this particular weakness.

Any brothers or sisters?

‘Two brothers, Ian was an officer in the Royal Regiment of Wales and died of cancer in his early fifties. Christopher worked in finance.’

What did you want to be?

‘I was intending to be a solicitor but with no real enthusiasm. Articles were applied for and then my father died and everything had to change. He was a huge influence on me and a great love in my life.’

Kilmister’s father was the local GP, ministering in the Townhill area of Swansea, in a pre-war depressed South Wales. A huge workload and a passionate concern for the people characterized his ministry. Local children probably remember him for his annual fireworks display for them. But soon the Kilmister fireworks were overshadowed by Hitler’s. Houses all around were flattened. Massive incendiary damage on surgery and pharmacy meant planks across broken rooms to continue work. The Home Guard’s rack of rifles was spared, as was their box of hand grenades kept under young Tony’s bed – the surgery doubling as HQ.

National Service?

‘Yes. I’d been an enthusiastic member of the cadet force at Shrewsbury, so knew how to blanco a belt and put gaiters on the right way up. I enlisted in the Welsh Regiment and later commanded a transport unit, which was a crash course in growing up. Towards the end of that time the King died and, in common with other officers, I wore a black armband on my uniform. I spent some years thereafter in the Territorials enjoying the annual camps.’

Kilmister’s only military reverse was to be a victim of his own loquacity. Paying more attention to the exuberance of his own verbosity while ironing pleats in his greatcoat he neglected to remove the iron. Result – charged and fined.

You mention the King’s death. Were you always a monarchist?

‘Always. Absolutely. I remember listening to the austerity royal wedding on the wireless in my study at school. I have a unbreakable personal loyalty to my anointed sovereign and an overwhelming constitutional preference for the settlement we enjoy, which I see as being a guarantor of liberty.’

What was your first job?

‘I went into the marketing department of the National Coal Board, world-wide anthracite sales! To be honest I spent more time organizing local Young Conservatives than flogging anthracite and, in 1954, went off to Central Office. I was privileged to be at the last party conference addressed by Winston (Churchill), and Land of Hope and Glory still brings tears streaming down my cheeks.’

Your task?

‘To go and revitalize Young Conservatives in, amongst others, the marginal seat of Stalybridge and Hyde (now massively Labour) and was told that Councillor Harwood’s daughter would be a useful ally. We met to discuss this possibility but I’m afraid politics immediately came second.’

Mobilized for the forthcoming General Election, Kilmister was sent to Chorley leaving Miss Harwood (Sheila), like Macarthur on leaving the Philippines, with the words ‘I shall return’. And, election and copious correspondence later, he did. They were engaged in 1956 and I was appalled to discover that no traditional proposal was ever put! In a fit of romantic modernism Kilmister announced simply, ‘I think you’re the girl I want to spend the rest of my life with.’

The Harwoods received him with open arms and his affection for them was unbounded. His care of Sheila’s mother in her final illness was exemplary.

When were you married?

‘1958. The last ever Empire Day, though we disclaim all responsibility for the imperial sunset.’

Actually that was an accident. The date had to be changed due to a sudden and unexpected by-election. Married on Saturday, back at work on Tuesday with the ebullient Lord Hailsham opening the batting and the first domestic row under the belt (no time to open the presents!).

Did you ever consider standing for Parliament?

‘Never. It’s a cut-throat world. I wouldn’t have objected to being a member of the House of Lords though – total independence and a much higher standard of debate!’

What came next?

‘Sheila wanted me to train for the law while she would work and support me, but I didn’t want that. In 1960 I saw the advertisement in the Daily Telegraph for the post of Deputy General Secretary of the Cinematograph Trade Benevolent Fund.’

He got the job and when, tragically, his boss died a year later, he took over. It was a job which involved dealing with a vast number of actors and actresses as well as being very involved with the life of the industry on a daily basis. Films were still at a high watermark and cigar-chewing moguls abounded. One of Kilmister’s more public tasks was the organizing of Royal Command performances. He has forbidden me to repeat the story of the ridiculous lengths one theatre went to for Her Majesty’s comfort and convenience (let the reader understand) but, if retold by Spike Milligan, with his combination of connections and lèse-majesté, it would bring much-needed laughter to the Royal parlour.

Who influenced you during this time?

‘Ralph Bromhead. His family founded Gaumont Pictures, later to become Rank. Ralph deepened my love of the English language and English literature. He was a very thoroughgoing Christian soul. He could be tough but essentially he was an accountant with a heart.’

Bromhead’s portrait is at the head of the Kilmister staircase and his death, of prostate cancer, was to be an influence on the Kilmisters’ later work. In the meantime, with the major growth of television, and film companies taking major shares, the Benevolent Fund’s emphasis shifted to take account of this new world. Men like Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont became the new giants on the scene.

And then?

‘Parkinson’s Disease research. This was a whole new departure. Suddenly we were dealing with suffering on a daily basis. The neurological crisis, physical and emotional balance, the struggle with the body, the ‘mask like expression’ almost all of which were mentioned by James Parkinson in his 1817 publication An essay on Shaking Palsy. We saw some remarkable developments in this field, some highly controversial, and were working hard to fund research and development all time.’

What were the major advances?

‘L-Dopa plus, an additive which allowed a jump of the brain blood barrier, was a great advance. There was also much heated debate when Professor Ted Hitchcock (a Birmingham neurosurgeon) suggested the use of foetal tissue to replace dead brain tissue in Parkinson’s patients. It was a policy which divided many traditionalists. Those who believed it was immoral to cannibalize aborted remains and those who felt that at least some good might come out of it. In the event the experiment turned out to be ineffective and many traditional Christians, like us, find the subsequent developments in the use or manipulation of pre-natal life deeply shocking.’

Was Sheila a committed Christian?

‘Sheila had an Anglican school background but then drifted away until marriage. On our first anniversary a girlfriend whose fiancé had died talked her into going to church. Fr Hetherington, a great influence on us both, was so kind and, via Evensong and Devotions, moved her gently ‘up the candle’.

Sheila recalls confirmation classes with the beloved priest. He always served wine at the classes and, apparently, ‘the trickier points of Christian doctrine always seemed more reasonable after the third glass’.. Since then their commitment to the faith has been an unshakeable partnership and the achievement of the one, the achievements of both.

How did you get involved with the Prayer Book Society?

‘I went to a meeting of those concerned about ‘trends’ in the liturgy. I had started a new job and Sheila specifically instructed me not to say too much or take on another task.’

The highly un-Trappist Kilmister, with his parish priest in tow to defend him, returned home with the job of secretary to the new organization. Sheila was not best pleased (‘I had to throw my hat in first’) but was soon won over and has probably worked harder than anyone in the subsequent 30 years for the cause. Along with Shirley and Jack Trefusis and the stalwarts of the Finance and General Purposes Committee of the Prayer Book Society, the Kilmisters (Tony became Chairman in 1989) have waged an unceasing rearguard action against the crass modernism and shocking banalities of much ‘liturgical reform’. Via education, publishing, lobbying, media awareness, conferences etc they have kept the BCP flame alive and enabled a new generation of clergy and people to have the opportunity of enjoying the heart-shaping melodies of Prayer Book English and worship.

How did you go about raising support?

‘Through every contact at hand. The world of arts, film and literature needed to be mobilized and many of them were only too happy publicly to defend the BCP against the new Philistinism. Having Martin (Lord Charteris, a tremendous ally and key figure in the Royal Household, recently gone to glory) was a great help and others, like the Salisburys, have been sterling. Royal patronage from the Prince of Wales, future Supreme Governor, could not have been more welcome or more forthright. And then the fantastic hard work of the branches and members who have just gone on, in the face of mountainous Church establishment opposition, making their case.’

Did you think you could win?

‘We just thought we had to do what was right for the Church. We opposed the 1974 Worship and Doctrine Measure because it gave a very undemocratic body (General Synod) a disastrous influence on liturgy and doctrine. We organized a huge petition of the great and good to lobby Synod. We proposed balloting the laity – real democracy. We put up parliamentary bills to thwart the destructive tendency in the Church. We knew they had no hope of passing but we hoped they would encourage episcopal incontinence. Anything to let them know this was a real battle and we were not going away. As always, the Church Establishment shied away from any engagement in serious debate. It was all done by appointments, committees and reports.’

Anyone who recalls or has seen the Great Petition can only marvel at its breadth. It is a veritable Who’s Who of English national life of its time. It is said that Earl Waldegrave enquired of David Martin at the time, ‘Do you want me to wheel out the Garter?’ i.e. all the holders of the most senior honour in the land.

One of Kilmister’s favourite phrases, ‘Rule Britannia. Send a gunboat’, encompasses his delightfully full frontal diplomatic style. But watch Kilmister work a room with gentle courtesy, individual attention and remarkable recall of people and their lives and concerns and you see the emotional, gentle and compassionate nature of the man.

So today, with some of its liturgy enshrined in Common Worship and a grudging acceptance by the ecclesiastical establishment that BCP has outlived ASB and, sotto voce, will still be going when CW is overtaken by its inevitable successor, 20 years hence, the Prayer Book Society can rest on its laurels? Not a bit of it! There is the next generation to win, priests to convert, education programmes in place, and so on. But with 30 years on the front line the Kilmisters will be taking a back seat. Tony has just stood down from the Chairmanship and, in thanks and honour, has been made Hon Vice-President.

So a quiet retirement then?

‘No. Since 1994 we been committed to the Prostate Research Campaign (UK). We wanted to do something for sufferers and there seemed to be an organization for everything except this condition. There was little public awareness or fund-raising to fight this quiet killer. The enormous publicity and work on breast cancer has saved the lives of thousands of women but men and prostate weren’t even on the map. We needed to get it known, talked about, understood.’

In the six years to date their work has transformed the public profile of the disease. High-quality comprehensible literature is produced, the papers and journals regularly carry stories of high-profile sufferers. Most important, men are less shy in talking about it, checking themselves, going to the doctor. From a few thousand pounds in 1994, fund-raising has risen to nearly half a million pounds last year including the proceeds of a specially organized and brilliant Verdi Requiem at the Albert Hall (conducted by a sufferer, the former TV Arts supremo, Humphrey Burton). One of the leading specialists, Dr Roger Kirby, got himself sponsored for the marathon to the tune of £100,000!

And so it goes on. The Kilmisters have restless energy to get things done and do what is both needed and right. They have never flagged in their duty, even in ill-health, and their enthusiasm and energy remains infectious. No doubt there are numberless beneficiaries of the various charities who owe them an unpayable debt of thanks, but first and foremost among these must be the Church of England for the defence of whose sacred liturgy and doctrine they have given half a lifetime.