Ailsa Temple remembers Geoffrey Kirk as a parish priest

On reading Fr Davage’s history of the Parish of St Stephen’s it appears obvious that in 1981 Fr Geoffrey Kirk was parachuted into a time of dissention and general irritability, with obscure Diocesan arguments, and ideas and solutions being knocked down without alternatives. On reading it now, one suspects that the Anglo-Catholicism practised at St Stephen’s was at the heart of the matter.  Into this strode Fr Geoffrey  Kirk as Priest in Charge, happy to live in the large Victorian vicarage, thereby negating any sale, steadfastly Anglo-Catholic, and aware of the extent of badly needed structural renovation. He also turned out to be someone whose abilities were wide ranging, knowledgeable and covered many skills. An early battleground was the Vicarage. Fr Kirk looked for some repair work, the Diocese looked to decorate.  As Fr Kirk’s ideas ran to William Morris wallpaper and on or two chandeliers it was not long before the parting of the ways, leaving Fr Kirk to work his magic with little or no interference from the Diocese. He often gathered a group of parishioners to pop in for coffee and see the latest addition (admittedly this divorce from the Diocesan oversight came to roost when we wanted to offer the vicarage as a dwelling place for the successor!).

Then there was also the matter of the suspension of the living which had been hanging around and never quite sorted.  Fr Kirk was reported to have said “I did not study all those years to become a Priest to end up closing churches”. He followed this up by walking around the parish and calling on every lapsed parishioner he could find in an attempt to getting them to return! After six years as Priest in Charge, Fr Geoffrey finally became the Vicar in 1987.

St Stephens is not an affluent parish but Fr Kirk bought resourcefulness and determination to fundraising for the restoration. In his early years an impressive organ was acquired (second hand!), the floor relaid, surplus pews removed (these could be viewed in the local Turkish restaurant!) and a West facing altar was installed.

The Church Hall was extended into the basement of the vicarage and a kitchen and toilets provided – thus enabling the generation of significant income. From the year 2000 the restoration of the fabric of the church became an urgent priority starting with the stabilization of the East Gable, which was parting company from the rest of the church. This meant the removal of some valuable stained glass windows which needed renovating. Then the restoration of external stonework, roofs and rainwater goods, and a new heating system also became essential.  During the period 2000 to 2012 some £590,000 was raised, and spent, for these works. 

There was a great focus on fundraising and fellowship; the usual Harvest, Christmas and Patronal lunches and suppers were well catered and attended. We had themed dances went onto dramatics: Murder in the Cathedral was a success, and Midsummer Night’s Dream and Aladdin particularly hit the jackpot for the kitty. 

The services became the “smells & bells” we were used to, with processions around the streets and before Easter week local churches would come together to perform the Way of the Cross through the streets, starting in Hither Green. Weeping women cascaded past the shopping centre and Pilate washed his hands outside the Catholic Church. The finale of the Crucifixion was always outside St Stephen’s and there was never any shortage of church members to take even the most menial role.

Never short of ideas Fr Kirk decided one year our young people would undertake a sponsored walk to Walsingham. Our 15 children were magnificent.. The older boys cycled alongside the walkers watching for anyone who needed to ride in the minibus. We slept in church halls – in Swaffham the church people put us up! We raised a good sum of money but the best moment came as, carrying the banner we had made, we walked the final mile, Fr Kirk with no shoes, and people stopped to  cheer and clap as we entered Walsingham!  One year Easter Saturday  provided a somewhat more exciting evening, when Fr Kirk decided that we should emulate St Mary’s, Lewisham and have fireworks. He sent two young men up on the tower with some rockets and the display bought the police!  Apparently the permission to let fireworks off had been forgotten! There was a memorable performance of the Mystery Plays at St Mary’s, with members of all three churches, in which Fr Kirk played the Devil – complete with a pair of red tights under his cassock. When a member of the cast fell and suffered a damaged leg, he helped to get her into Lewisham Hospital casualty, where a member of St Stephen’s congregation was on duty. She had quite a problem explaining that the chap with red tights was actually her parish priest.

Eventually the excitement quietened and another drama took over. The Ordination of women entered the life of St Stephen’s as Fr Kirk led Forward in Faith into battle. We all went to the rallies to support him and found them very moving. When he retired he went to the Ordinariate.  There is no explanation of why St Stephen’s folk did not leave. I think perhaps Fr Kirk had given them a church to be proud of, and there they stay.

Ailsa Temple is the Churchwarden of St Stephen’s, Lewisham