SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Canon Arthur Quinn, for 32 years the vicar in Shirley, recently had his diamond anniversary of being a priest celebrated in a service at Croydon Minster. DAVID MORGAN spoke to him about Philip Larkin, Ronnie Corbett and the ideal length for a sermon
“I think I always knew I was going into the priesthood,” Canon Arthur Quinn said after 60 years’ service as a vicar.
As a boy, Quinn was taken by his father to morning and evening Sunday services in a church on the outskirts of Belfast. He attended the Sunday School, too. He remembers choosing to take Greek instead of German at school because he thought it would probably be more useful.
Quinn spent a year after school working in an insurance office before he went up to Trinity College Dublin to read Hebrew and Oriental Languages. He still holds a great affection for the university.
“There was a porter there who had worked at Trinity for many years,” said Quinn. “I asked him about the changes that he had seen over that time.” The porter laughed that “when he first started work there, everyone who went to Trinity was a gentleman”.
Quinn chuckled as he thought he was living the life of a gentleman while he was at Trinity. “We had three terms each year with eight weeks in each.”
At the end of the 1960s, he served as a deacon in Belfast, at the beginning of the Troubles. It was the time Ian Paisley was just beginning to flex his political muscle alongside his religious beliefs.
An invitation from the Archbishop of York to take up the Anglican chaplaincy at Hull University soon followed, so Quinn took his wife and daughter off to England for a new challenge. The first caller at their new home in Hull was the Roman Catholic chaplain, carrying a crucifix in one hand and a bottle of whisky in the other. He and Quinn were to become firm friends.
It was while Quinn was at Hull that he met and befriended Philip Larkin, the poet, who worked as a librarian at the university.
Larkin was the first brilliant wordsmith Quinn was to encounter in his career. “I never knew about his darker side,” Quinn told me, “but we all have a darker side in one way or another.
“We enjoyed the times we had dinner together.”
Quinn remembered an encounter with Larkin in the university bookshop one Christmas Eve. They were both in there looking for last-minute presents.
Turning to the priest, Larkin, a renowned non-believer, said, “You know an anagram of ‘Santa’ is Satan don’t you?”
While Quinn was a vicar in Shirley, one of the nicknames he was given was “the golfing vicar”.
He’s not altogether comfortable with the moniker. “I don’t think that was really fair,” he said.
“I worked very hard to build up the church there and Monday was my day off. My hobby was golf, so off I went.”
Quinn first played golf when growing up in Northern Ireland and when he moved to south London, he was fortunate to play at The Addington, noted as one of the best golf clubs in the country.
It was through his rounds of golf that he became firm friends with Ronnie Corbett. “It so happened that he often had a free diary on a Monday, which was why we shared rounds of golf together. In all the many years I played golf with him, I think he only ever told me one joke.
“He was a comic actor really rather than a comedian. I very good one.”
Quinn’s friendship with Corbett extended far beyond the 19th hole. Their families got to know each other and Quinn went many shows and met Corbett’s showbiz friends.
“Ronnie Barker was one of the shyest people I ever encountered. But he was a wonderful wordsmith. Ronnie C was terribly upset when Ronnie B died.”
When Ronnie Corbett was in hospital with his final illness, he asked for Quinn to come and visit him. At his bedside, Corbett asked Quinn to take his funeral at St John’s in Shirley. “It was a great privilege to be able to do that for a friend.”
There was also a memorial service held at Westminster Abbey, where four candles were placed on the altar. Quinn remembers that the final words of the blessing were: “It’s goodnight from me and it’s goodnight from him.”
Quinn had another chaplaincy post after Hull, at Keele University in the early 1970s. While there, he was invited for lunch at the Athenaeum Club by Donald Coggan, then the Archbishop of York and soon to be the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury.
They discussed a new job opportunity for which Coggan thought Quinn was eminently suited. But Quinn didn’t take the opening which the Archbishop offered. Instead, he came to Shirley and spent the next 32 years there until his retirement.
“The average age of the congregation was pretty high when we arrived, but we worked hard to attract a lot of younger families and we became a thriving church.”
Although he has lost count of the number of sermons and homilies he has preached, Quinn holds very firm views on the ideal length.
“Ten minutes, no more. That’s ample.
“People’s concentration starts to wander after five minutes, so there’s no point in rambling on.”
Previous articles by David Morgan:
- Martin How: organist who devoted his life to church music
- Mustard keen to unravel the mystery behind Minster memorial
- Hannah and her sisters: faded gravestone gives up its secrets
- Proms composer Demuth’s music is overdue an encore
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
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