In his 14 years at Westminster Cathedral, Canon Christopher Tuckwell became a fixture of the Catholic world, his booming voice and sturdy presence bringing consolation to many. From afar his solidity could give the false impression of someone in danger of being boring, but Canon Tuckwell was anything but. A master of the raised eyebrow, he was a skilled mimic whose fellow clerics unwittingly provided him with comic material – but there was never a trace of unkindness in his imitations.
One Cathedral regular remembers Canon Tuckwell’s habit, whenever he ran into her daughter Cecilia, of launching into Simon and Garfunkel’s song of the same name. While no flatterer, he always had a compliment on hand when introducing people.
Christopher Tuckwell was born in Kingston upon Thames in 1945, soon after the war ended. After attending Malvern College he went on to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, before joining the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment and serving as a platoon commander in Germany and Bahrain. He exchanged the military for Chichester Theological College in 1970, and was ordained an Anglican clergyman four years later. After stints in Clapton and St Vincent in the West Indies, he returned to London and became Vicar of St Mary’s, Tottenham, in 1986.
For Tuckwell, as for many others on the Anglo-Catholic wing of the CofE, the decision to ordain women to the priesthood was a clarifying moment for what it said about the CofE’s ecclesiology. In 1994, Tuckwell resigned from the ministry of the Church of England and, following a pilgrimage to Lisieux and a retreat with French Cistercians, he was received into the full communion of the Catholic Church on November 3, 1993 – one of the first 11 Anglican priests to do so. In December 1995 he was ordained to the sacred priesthood by Cardinal Hume.
After two decades as a parish priest, first at Our Lady Queen of All Creation in Hemel Hempstead and then at St Scholastica’s in Clapton, he was received by Westminster Cathedral in 2006 as Sub-Administrator and then Administrator, roles in which Tuckwell – by now Canon Tuckwell – excelled. He got on well with the rich variety of the Cathedral’s regulars as well as the many occasional visitors the diocese’s mother church naturally attracts, and could give hour-long, richly-detailed tours of the building entirely from memory. His responsibilities were many, from being mandated as the diocesan exorcist in 2004, to employing his skills as a quizmaster at Friends of the Cathedral evenings.
He was also active in prison ministry at HMP The Mount and HMP Pentonville. As Cardinal Nichols recalled in his funeral homily, “At each stage of his ministry Christopher put himself in the company of the poor and the needy.”
Always a military man, Canon Tuckwell was often seen at Wellington Barracks and the Royal Hospital Chelsea, and was made Honorary Regimental Chaplain of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (successor to the Royal Surreys). The civic role of welcoming visiting royalty is among the Administrator’s many duties, but the high point of Canon Tuckwell’s tenure was undoubtedly the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
While Canon Tuckwell never doubted nor regretted his decision to become a Catholic, he maintained strong friendships from his Anglican days, and formed new ones – including with Dr John Hall, the Dean of Westminster Abbey down the road. He was made an ecumenical member of the abbey’s college, and the current dean, Dr Hoyle, issued a statement following Canon Tuckwell’s death recalling his “warm and slightly teasing affection”.
It is a testament to the man that despite the limits on the number of mourners allowed inside the Cathedral, a small crowd still gathered outside to bid Canon Tuckwell farewell at his funeral on July 7. Seeing him leave for the final time as Elgar’s Nimrod played from the Cathedral organ, many must have felt they were witnessing the disappearance of a great and much-loved landmark.