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Obituary: The Rev Canon Philip Crosfield, OBE, soldier and priest

  • by ALISON SHAW
 

Born: 9 September, 1924, in London. Died: 13 March, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 88

WHEN Philip ­Crosfield set his mind to doing something, there was really very little likely to stop him achieving his goals. The notion of giving up was not in his psyche.

At the age of just 19 he had been in charge of a unit of gunners taking part in the invasion of Normandy. At 22, he was a major, serving in a Muslim ­battery in Bombay.

Like many men of his generation, he was profoundly affected by his experiences during the Second World War and had had to grow up fast. But he always took his responsibilities as a young officer extremely seriously and cared deeply for the men in his command.

It was an attitude and sense of duty he carried with him from the battlefield throughout the remainder of his life, wherever he found a need to be fulfilled, or a job to be done – be it among the deprivation of Pilton, at Gordonstoun in rural Morayshire, or at Edinburgh’s St Mary’s Cathedral, where he was the powerhouse behind its specialist music school and founder of a workshop for the young unemployed.

Though born in Barnes, London, he spent most of his life in Scotland after moving to Edinburgh as an eight-year-old, through his father’s work as a civil servant. He attended George Watson’s College, where he became an accomplished rugby player and coach and, when war was declared just after he turned 15, he vowed to sign up as soon as he was old enough.

In the meantime, he served in the school’s Officer Training Corps, defending its armoury at night with a loaded rifle. He spent six months at Glasgow University, studying science and engineering subjects, and joined the army as soon as he was 18.

He had developed a lifelong loathing of bullies while at school and, during his basic training, was threatened with court martial for defying an order to yell “I hate the Germans” during bayonet drill. He said he would charge but would not shout the offending phrase. “I hated everything that Hitler and his gang were doing and would gladly do my bit in defeating them but hatred wasn’t my line,” he reasoned. “I was enough of a Christian to know that.”

The court martial never materialised and he was posted to 13 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, setting sail for Europe as the D-Day campaign progressed. However, his arrival on foreign soil did not go entirely as planned.

Ordered by his commanding officer to keep the gunners entertained en route, he organised and participated in a boxing match, only to be knocked senseless by his opponent. He came to as they were about to land. Then, while leading the guns ashore by truck, the vehicle hit a crater and he was catapulted out, landing in France headfirst. “This did the general morale a great deal of good,” he later observed.

Many such stories were accompanied by much guffawing and thigh-slapping but his war memories, while matter-of-fact and devoid of histrionics, also ­recorded some harrowing encounters during the advance on Germany. He saw action at the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, followed by the operation to cross the Rhine, then the push east through Germany. He was horrified when, having mustered the men of a village to prevent them betraying his position, the locals knelt and licked his boots. “I was disgusted they should think we would shoot unarmed non-combatants.”

One of the saddest episodes was when emaciated former concentration camp inmates appeared through their lines and he had to restrain his gunners from giving them food. In their weakened state, and without medical help, it could have proved fatal to the starving.

After VE Day, he was sent to Bombay to teach field gunnery to a Royal Indian Artillery Regiment, which he did in Urdu, before being demobbed in November 1946.

Since his early teens, when he was influenced by the rector of St Cuthbert’s, Colinton, he had felt a vocation for the priesthood and, on his return home, he attended the Scottish Episcopal Church’s theological college in Edinburgh. He then won a place at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a first in theology in 1951. He became a curate at St David’s, Pilton, before moving to St Andrews in 1953 as curate of St Andrew’s Church and Anglican chaplain of the university. There he met Anglican Society president Sue Martin, whom he married in 1956.

He spent five years as rector of St Cuthbert’s, Hawick, before becoming chaplain of Gordonstoun School, where he was known as “Moral Phil” to his pupils, who included Prince Charles with whom he kept in touch and whose charity, the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust, he supported.

Appointed vice-provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, in 1968, two years later, he became provost, a post he held for two decades. His first task was to save the closure-threatened choir and, seeking a creative, sustainable solution, he came up with the idea of a specialist music school. Two years later, fuelled by his own determination and vision, plus the help of the organist and an enthusiastic board, he succeeded. The school continues to flourish today.

In 1976, convinced that the choir would be enhanced by female voices, he and the organist introduced girl choristers, a first for a UK Anglican cathedral.

Fiercely passionate about causes he believed in, when he became deeply concerned about unemployment and the plight of the young he founded the cathedral workshop, enabling young apprentices to gain stonemasonry skills by working on the cathedral building. It constantly needed repair and, in 1985, when the tallest spire’s cross was refitted he scaled its 275ft to conduct a rededication ceremony, later wincing at the headlines he spawned, including “Inspiring” and “Provost Really Is Nearer My God To Thee”.

Above and beyond the call of duty, it aptly illustrated the devotion of a man who also put sensitive pastoral care and congregational visiting at the top of his priorities.

On retirement in 1990, he was made an OBE for services to music and an honorary canon of the cathedral. After moving to Silverburn, he continued his ministry as part of the team at St James, Penicuik, and St Mungo’s, West Linton, and indulged his love of gardening and walking in the hills.

He is survived by his wife Sue, children Fiona, Maggie and Paul and four grandchildren.

 
 
 

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