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Girton Parish News - October 1999
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Obituary -William Ernest Purcell, May 25 1909- September 19, 1999.William Ernest Purcell was born in Bradford, in 1909, the son of a Yorkshire commercial traveller. He was educated or mis-educated he would say at Bridlington Grammar School from which he frequently played truant and later at Cardiff High School. Many years later he gave his education in “Who's Who” as “the cinema” and from this time he harboured an aversion to schoolmasters. He was, however, much influenced by an English teacher in Cardiff who introduced him to Tennyson's poetry and this inspired a self taught education in English literature, particularly the classic novels of W.M. Thackery, Sir Walter Scott and R.L. Stevenson. These served as the basis of his own writing.
After an unhappy period working as an advertising copywriter in London he returned to Cardiff, took a correspondence course with Wolsey Hall, passed matriculation and entered Cardiff University to read English in 1931. Life in South Wales during the depression was grim and this awoke William's social conscience. He worked for the International Voluntary Service providing summer camps for unemployed miners and their families. Through admiration for Bishop William Temple, a love of church services and the influence of a fellow student who was the daughter of two ardent Methodists, Margaret Clegg, whom he later married, he became a Christian. There was no divine revelation, though; this, he said, was an invention of Victorian romantics.
There was no sudden shining light. Some have seen it; some haven't; I didn't; but I developed an understanding of the faith, that is to say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and this has deepened over the years.
William went on to Keble College Oxford in 1934 where he read English again before attending theological college in Birmingham (was it Springhill?) and becoming ordained in 1937. He was appointed a curate of Keighley parish in Yorkshire because the Diocese of Bradford had paid for his training. At this time William, quite separately, was making a name for himself as a writer. He wrote many short stories published on the back page of the Manchester Guardian from 1937 onwards.
In 1940 William was appointed Curate of St. Mary's Dover and this is when he first became known to a wider audience than his parish or readership. Under the stress of war the vicar soon left town and the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened, begging William to remain at his post rather than become a chaplain to the Royal Navy which was his intention. William coined one of his many memorable phrases, perhaps influenced by his time as an advertising copy-writer, “the last parish in the free world”, and this caused a procession of VIP's such as the American Ambassador and journalists to visit the church.
“The Diary of a Front Line Church” became a familiar press headline; the Daily Mirror on 9 September 1941 ran a story on “front-line brides”.
Ten minutes before the time fixed for a wedding German cross channel shelling began. Mr. Purcell, who is an air raid warden went to his post. “Half an hour later there was a lull”, he said,” so I went to the church and found the bridegroom, a sailor, puzzled because he was alone.” “Is the wedding off?” He asked. “The bride came along twenty minutes later. She had completed her trousseau in a shelter and they were married”.This is when William established his reputation as a preacher. He had the gift of holding an audience by a combination of popular and worldly story telling with theological exposition. He preached to the troops in Germany immediately after the war and began his radio broadcasts of the “People's Service” for the BBC.
Up until the very end of his life William maintained his extra-ordinary vitality and curiosity. He wrote another biography “Portrait of Soper” (Lord Donald Soper, the Methodist minister, 1972), more books of Christian guidance such as “A Time to Die” and his standard of preaching almost at the end of his life, though he was losing his sight, was such that students from Westcott Theological College, Cambridge, were sent along to Girton Church (William and Margaret had retired here) to study his style. His own faith had deepened. He said he had developed from being a country parson to the vocation of priest which in later years meant most to him. At the end of his life he was listening to a Talking Tape of Homer's “Iliad”. He wrote in his diary the saying of St Thomas Aquinas: Never be entirely idle; but either be reading or writing, or praying or meditating, or endeavouring something for the public good. He is survived by his wife Margaret, whom he married in 1939, three children and six grandchildren.
Reproduced with the permission of Mrs Margaret Purcell.
PREPARING FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM
For the truth is that one day, Jesus will return. That is something that the whole of the Bible is pointing towards. One day the Lord will come again, but there is nothing to say exactly when it's going to happen. Yes, we know in a sense the Lord has never left us, the presence of God the Holy Spirit is with us now, but even so there will come a day, a time, when Jesus will return, will be seen, will be recognised as Lord. Jesus himself talked of his return; at his trial, before crucifixion he said, “In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Has this happened already? No, it is yet to come, and on that day Jesus will welcome those who know him into his presence, just as in the present he welcomes believers who die into heaven.
Jesus will return, that's certain, that's promised, but there is nothing to say exactly when its going to be. It is true that the last book in the Bible, Revelation, does make something of a thousand years, which is why some people think that AD 2000, the year of the Lord 2000 will be a significant date. Generally though, when the Bible mentions time, it doesn't mean an exact measure. Jesus is coming, but the time-scale is more flexible. After all, our dates are very much man made; that's why we can trick the video into continuing to work beyond the new year by re-setting it back to the seventies. One thing is certain though, Jesus is returning and the date is nearer now than it was last year, one day He will come again.
Something that amazes me is how much some people are planning for the new year, stocking up on the essentials, for fear of cuts in services and food running out. Some families have even moved all the way up to the North of Scotland to try and escape - from something that might never happen. Are you ready though for Jesus’ new millennium, that day when you die or when Jesus comes again, because as sure as autumn follows summer, that day will happen and then it will be too late to make any plans, for it will come suddenly like a thief in the night at a time when we do not expect it. You don't guard the house after the event do you. No, you get ready beforehand. Have you made your millennium plans?