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  Ernest William Southcott (1915–1976), by unknown photographer Ernest William Southcott (1915–1976), by unknown photographer
Southcott, Ernest William (1915–1976), Church of England clergyman, was born in British Columbia on 8 May 1915, the son of Charles Norman Southcott, an employee of the British Columbia Electric Company. He was educated at King Edward High School, and the University of British Columbia, where he graduated BA in 1935. In 1936 he arrived in England to train for the Anglican priesthood at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, Yorkshire; he was a novice in the adjacent Community of the Resurrection in 1942–3.

On his ordination to the diaconate in 1938 Southcott served curacies at St John's, Shildon, co. Durham (1938–40), and St James's, Gateshead (1940–42). He was priested in 1939. In 1942 he served briefly in Henfield, a country parish in Sussex, as temporary curate to Henry de Candole, who was to become bishop of Knaresborough in 1948, as well as being a liturgical missioner. He became active in the Anglican Young People's Association, and with de Candole and S. H. Evans wrote Unto a Full-Grown Man (1942) for Bible study groups. While at Henfield he met Margaret Jane Carpenter (1912–1980), a teacher, daughter of Robert John Carpenter, deceased captain in the Royal Marines. They married on 30 May 1944 and had three daughters and one son.

In 1944 Southcott was inducted as vicar of St Wilfrid's, Halton, Leeds, where he served until 1961, and where he became a leading exponent of the house church movement. With de Candole (who was noted for making lasting friendships with his curates) he became involved in the Parish and People movement, which started life at a clergy conference at Queen's College, Birmingham, in 1949 as an association of Anglicans seeking liturgical renewal. De Candole and Southcott shared a belief that the eucharist should be at the heart of parish ministry; this shift in liturgical emphasis was followed by the realization that all aspects of the liturgy were properly to be found in the homes of ordinary parishioners and not confined to the church building.

From 1949 Southcott held meetings in his Halton parishioners' homes, where services were conducted and, in a few selected homes, holy communion was celebrated, generally at the family table. The principle was to connect church membership (baptism) with worship (eucharist) and the church congregation with non-churchgoing parishioners. In Receive This Child: Constructive Thinking on Baptism (1951) he described the challenge of getting baptism acknowledged as more than ‘getting the baby done’ and the need to find ways of making contact with those who had had their babies baptized, but never subsequently come to church. He asserted the importance of forming ‘cells’ within parish homes, ‘centres of life where the Church's vocation can be seen in terms of Puddlecome Terrace and Aunt Jemima Row’ (p. 39), with the purpose being to ‘bring the Parish to our Lord, family by family and street by street’ (p. 55). During October 1951, 100 house meetings were held in Halton involving 1000 parishioners, a mission that was repeated in October 1952. After spending a long weekend in Halton, Dr John Robinson described finding ‘the church living at a level at which it can seldom have lived since the days of the Acts’ (Theology, Aug 1953, 304).

Southcott's vision, which he set out in his book The Parish Comes Alive (1956), built on the itinerant nature of Christ's earthly ministry, and the practice attested throughout the Pauline epistles of celebrating the eucharist in non-consecrated homes. ‘It is the baptized laity who are the “people of God”, he wrote; the clergy are a minority of the laity who have been summoned to fulfil certain functions in the church’ (pp. 106–7). The involvement of lay parishioners was an exciting venture, but so many pre-dawn or evening meetings on top of a working day placed excessive demands on them; by the time Southcott left the parish the practice was declining. But at the height of his impact at Halton the church was full half an hour before the service began (private information, M. Cameron).

Southcott pushed himself and others hard, dictating to a parishioner who typed his books into the early hours of the morning. The Labour politician Denis Healey, whose Leeds constituency included Halton, recalled Southcott's influence and ‘genius’ for pastoral work (D. Healey, The Time of My Life, 2006, 143). A striking figure, 6 feet 6 inches tall, and with an energetic demeanour, he retained his Canadian accent and used a well-modulated but powerful, booming voice. A jovial and active figure, he was at ease both in his long black cassock cycling around the estates in his parish, or clad for outdoor activities at the parish camps he encouraged with the Church Army. Typical phrases were ‘God wants you to become what you are’ and ‘We must take the church to where people are not where we think they should be’ (private information, M. Cameron). He was made honorary canon of Ripon Cathedral in 1955 and held the post of rural dean of Whitkirk between 1958 and 1961.

In 1961 Southcott moved south to an appointment as provost of Southwark Cathedral and rector of St Saviour with All Hallows', Southwark (1961–70), a centre of radical Anglicanism, which became known as ‘South Bank religion’. His work on the Southwark ordination course was described in his obituary as ‘prophetic’, fulfilling de Candole's vision of him as a future leader in the church possessed of ‘great and very varied gifts’ (Jagger, 140). He made several trips to the United States to disseminate the practices he developed at Halton. At a clergy conference in Norfolk, Boston, he emphasized ‘the domestic nature of the church by cottage services daily’ (The Bee, Donville, 31 Oct 1961) and in 1969 he was noted as an influence upon an experiment in parish renewal involving six Episcopal congregations. His time at Southwark was not, however, an entirely happy one, and he suffered a nervous breakdown. ‘How could a man with the gospel of the “House Church” in his soul be other than a caged lion in a cathedral?’, an obituarist, Eric James, reflected (The Times, 23 Jan 1976, 16).

Southcott resigned from Southwark in 1970 and returned to parish life in 1972 as vicar of St Peter and St Paul's, Rishton, in the diocese of Blackburn, Lancashire. He died suddenly, from a ruptured aortic aneurysm, in the middle of a busy working day at the vicarage, Somerset Road, Rishton, near Blackburn, on 17 January 1976. His legacy can be seen in the greater diversity of liturgy within the Anglican communion and the greater freedom for conducting worship outside the confines of a physical church building. His assertion, ‘We don't go to church; we are the church’ continues to be widely quoted. His innovative approach, whose influence has been compared to that of George McLeod and the Iona Community, inspired subsequent generations of the new house church movement, though these have become more evangelical than the antecedents practised by Southcott at Halton.

Hannah Hunt


The Times (23 Jan 1976) · Crockford (1973–4) · H. de Candole, Lent with the church (1952) · H. de Candole, Being the church today: a collection of sermons and addresses, ed. P. J. Jagger (1974) · D. Coomes, Dorothy L. Sayers: a careless rage for life (1992) · G. E. Kirk, St Wilfrid's Church, Halton, Leeds: past and present, an adventure in pioneering (1940) · P. J. Jagger, Bishop Henry de Candole: his life and times, 1895–1971 (1975) · P. J. Jagger, A history of the Parish and People movement (1978) · private information (2012) [M. Cameron] · m. cert. · d. cert.


photograph, priv. coll. [see illus.]