Revd Canon Tony Neal celebrates 50 years since an ordination that almost didn’t happen
Revd Canon Tony Neal will have been ordained 50 years ago on September 21st, beginning his ministry in Ripon and working as a parish priest, teacher, mentor, hospital chaplain and even volunteer for the railways in South Devon. Revd Tony also worked for many years within the education department of Truro Diocese, alongside his ministry as Team Rector in Godrevy and as Chair of the House of Clergy.
An ordination that almost never happened
Yet all of this wasn’t supposed to happen, according to the decision makers of the day. Although Revd Tony was accepted to answer his calling, the offer was withdrawn when he failed his medical. “My mother was extremely upset – she thought it meant I was about to die!” His mother wasn’t the only one. God wasn’t going to let the young man He’d pushed into church get away that easily.
“No-one in my family went to church. My father was an atheist and I’d left school at 16 to start working in John Lewis, in Oxford Street, but for some reason I just wanted to see what it was like behind the church doors.” Revd Tony describes the day as the most tangible sense of God’s presence that He has ever felt. He tried three times to cross the threshold but couldn’t summon up the courage until, on the final attempt, he was fiddling with the door handle, the door opened, and he felt the physical force of a hand on his back propel him into his future life. “It must have been God’s hand as I didn’t have the courage to open the door!”
“It must have been God, as I didn’t have the courage to open the door!”
He decided he wanted to be confirmed, which took a year and by the time he reached that point he knew he wanted to be ordained. All this by the tender age of 17. His mother wasn’t sure about this decision, his father even less. As for his vicar, he didn’t think he would make it through the process.
Reaching out to Father Trevor Huddleston
There was one man however who’d made a huge impression on the young Tony, Father Trevor Huddleston. Nelson Mandela had said about him, “No white person has done more for South Africa.” He wrote a powerful book, Naught for your Comfort, based around his work against apartheid. Tony wrote to him to say how much he’d enjoyed it and was invited to dinner, beginning an enduring mentoring friendship that helped Tony find his voice and stand up for what he thought was right. Including getting a second chance with another medical examination.
It eventually transpired that Tony failed his medical because he’d suffered from Polio when he was a child and although fully recovered, the resulting curvature of his spine was considered enough to bring his longevity into question and terrify his mother. Because of the encouragement and support Tony received, he was eventually granted a second medical and a second chance, paving the way for others in a similar predicament.
Education and ministry
Education has been another strand of Revd Canon Tony Neal’s long career. As a young parish priest in Leeds, Tony was encouraged to take further his skills in working with young people and train as a teacher. Struggling with the social prejudices of education as a young boy, and being helped to overcome that by maverick teachers, Tony found a happy home in teaching.
He stayed in the profession for ten years before taking the plunge and moving to Cornwall, with his wife Pauline and their children, where he combined ministry with education. He looked after a parish in St Erth while also working in the education department within the diocese, helping to advise and oversee church schools.
Escaping by train
During this expansive dual track career, Tony fought for a weekly day off. Not to put his feet up, but to volunteer for an ornamental train station near Tavistock. Driving 120 miles, each way, Tony loved the escape, the tranquillity and the trains. He went there every week for 34 years, stopping only when he became unwell.
Failing health eventually caused Tony to retire from the Godrevy parish where he had become team rector. As you would expect, he’s used the time to pass on the love and care shown to him when he was first starting out by mentoring younger vicars and curates across the county. He’s also written numerous articles and is currently waiting for the publication of a book he has written with Revd Canon Professor Leslie J. Francis that records the experiences of retired vicars and the contribution they can make to rural ministry.
Revd Canon Tony Neal’s advice to his younger self
When asked what advice the older Revd Canon Tony Neal would give to his younger self, he said, “Speak up and stand up for what you think is right. Don’t keep quiet!… I hope I was never rude. I don’t think I was…” Advice he possibly didn’t need as Revd Tony was one of the early voices in Cornwall who spoke up, including at General Synod, and voted for women to become vicars.
Speak up and stand up for what you think is right. Don’t keep quiet!… I hope I was never rude. I don’t think I was…”
Revd Canon Tony Neal, Canon Emeritus of the Cathedral, will be celebrating 50 years since his ordination on September 21st, 2019. In order to mark this, they will be going Tuckingmill Church (Camborne) for their 9.30am Eucharist on the 22nd of September and join the congregation for their service and celebrate with them. If you would like to join Tony and Pauline, please come along but do let them know beforehand so that there will be enough cake for everyone!