The Dean and the spark


David Conner - Dean of Windsor. An inspiration

I have a confession to make. I only half-watched the Duke of Edinburgh's funeral. As a pretty staunch royalist, this was unusual. Instead, Rebecca and I were dodging through the crowds of Southport on our Hobeck away-weekend in Merseyside, and all I saw were a few snatched minutes of the ceremony streamed on my phone while I ate an ice cream. Very 2021.


I'm told by those who did see the service that it was simple, moving and a great reflection of the Duke himself who had revised the ceremony many times over the years. Of course, like so many, I was moved by the Queen's isolation in that choir stall. It was stark, poignant and sad. It's easy to forget the human dimension within the Royal family, that behind the ceremony, the pomp and the wealth there are people as prone to frailties and emotions as the rest of us.


At the centre of proceedings was the Dean of Windsor, David Conner. I owe David a great debt, one that he will be unaware of, and one that he would be too modest to acknowledge too.


Why?


Well, I first met him back in the late 1980s, when I was 16 and studying for my A-levels. David was one of the potential candidates for the newly vacant position of vicar of Great St Mary's church in Cambridge, aka The University Church. My father was church warden of GSM, and I'd previously been the head chorister of the church. The search for a new vicar was a complex task. Whoever succeeded would be in line for high office within the C of E; the previous incumbent, Michael Mayne, had just been made Dean of Westminster.


As part of the selection panel, Dad had an idea. Why not bring all the candidates to our garden to enjoy freshly picked soft fruit, and show the panelists their relaxed side? David, and his wife Jayne, duly spent time on a rug under our old apple tree in dappled sunshine, trying to act as naturally as they could, despite the weird confection of the setting and searing questions about his approach to the gospel. What made them both stand out, and made my father a staunch advocate for his appointment, was their down-to-earth humanity. They took great and genuine interest in myself and my sister, who was 14 at the time. It was clear to the both of us, that David and Jayne were the perfect partnership to take our church community into the next phase.


Fortunately, the panel, including the mighty fellowship of Trinity College, agreed. Parish ministry, despite the collegiate setting, was a departure for David, having spent his early years as a chaplain to an Oxford private school. He was, predictably, brilliant at it, and it was no surprise that seven years later he became a Bishop, and then Dean of Windsor.


My own churchgoing faltered during his time at GSM. Not his fault. Now in my late teens, the attractions of the pub, my job as a tour guide around Cambridge, and my first serious relationships all deflected me from worship. (For the record, I'm still deflected.) But there was one moment where David Conner changed my life. It's taken until now, seeing him again at the centre of our national life for a brief moment, to recognise his impact.


Early on after his installation as our vicar, he hosted a garden party at the vicarage. I'd been there many times before, a fifties-built rectangular house on Madingley Road opposite the playing fields of Churchill College. The event itself was fairly routine. The great and the good of the church milling around in that middle-class Cambridge way, gently probing each other about their intellectual assets as much as their financial ones. What struck me though, awkwardly teenage as I was at that point, were the new bookshelves that seemed to turn the ground floor into a new extension of the University library. David owned thousands of them.


I was slightly awe-struck. David, being as observant as ever, noticed me staring at the collection.


'Have you read all these?' I asked, concluding they must be for show.


'Yes I have, Adrian. I have a few boxes more in storage. There wasn't room for them all,' he replied.


I don't remember what I said next, but for the next few minutes he showed me the ten books he most valued. I'm afraid I can't recall them, except for a Dickens of some sort. That encounter planted a seed. I began to collect books myself. A modest collection at first, but one that grew from that one chance conversation.


Here I am now. 35 years later. A publisher of crime, thriller, suspense and mystery fiction, in partnership with a book lover every bit as passionate as the current Dean of Windsor.


While we reflect on the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh, and the grief of Her Majesty, be assured. The Queen has the support of a truly great man in David Conner, someone I owe a great and until now, unrecognised debt.

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