Jim Cotter, priest, poet, writer (he preferred ‘wordsmith’), publisher, gay man, liturgist, psalmist, traveller, pray-er, pastor, cairn-builder, friend of many, one of the nicest and best people I have had the privilege to know. It still seems hard to think of him as dead, he had so much life and love in him.
Jim nearly died once before. A stressful time brought on a depressive breakdown so severe that he nearly shut down completely, physically as well as mentally, and was very close to death. He pulled through and slowly came back to life with the gentle support of a few close friends – it took a few years for him to recover completely, and such a traumatic experience inevitably changed him. Typically of Jim, he found the courage to revisit what had happened and to write a book about it, entitled Brainsquall (www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0853054223/), which has been of enormous help to many sufferers from depression, including me.
In the end it was leukæmia that got him. He was diagnosed in 2011, and responded well to treatment, but the disease took its course and he became very ill again at the end of 2013. He thought he would live to see Easter Day this year, but died peacefully at home in Llandudno, with friends around him, on the Wednesday of Holy Week, 16 April 2014 – two years to the day after my friend and former partner Andrew Shackleton, an EF member for many years, died, also of cancer.
It was through Andrew that I got to know Jim. Andrew read Modern Languages at Downing College, Cambridge, where Jim was then college chaplain. Andrew was going through that familiar struggle to come to terms with being gay, and as a Christian he went to Jim for help. He could hardly have made a better choice! He was always deeply grateful to Jim for his wise and loving guidance. A few years later, when Andrew and I had got together, I remember we went to visit Jim in a suburb of Watford, where he was then a curate, and that for me was the start of a long friendship which has meant a great deal to me.
Andrew and I got to know Jim better when in the 1980s he gave up parish ministry to concentrate on his writing and speaking ministry. He moved to Sheffield and bought a huge Victorian semi, a former vicarage with the name ‘Qui Habitat’ (the opening of Psalm 91 in Latin) carved over the front door – very appropriate, as Jim went on to write wonderful modern versions of all 150 Psalms. We often used to hold Yorkshire LGCM meetings there, which would end with a time of prayer in the simple chapel that Jim had made in the attic room. It had an awe-inspiring view over much of Sheffield and the hills beyond. Later Jim moved to Wales, first to Harlech, and then to Aberdaron, where he returned to parish ministry; he was delighted to follow in the footsteps of the poet R. S. Thomas, who had been vicar of Aberdaron decades previously.
Jim was one of the greatest modern writers of liturgy in the Anglican tradition, using fresh, inclusive language that felt – and feels – meaningful to today’s believers. As a poet he could pack much insight into few words, and breathe new life into traditional formulae. Who else could have re-formed the patriarchal Trinitarian phrase ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ into ‘Life-giver, Pain-bearer, Love-maker’? He made five different modern versions of the Lord’s Prayer, and new forms of morning, evening and night prayer.
Although perhaps primarily a contemplative, with a deep spirituality, Jim was also an activist. One of the first out gay clergy in the C of E, he was a founder member and first honorary administrative secretary of GCM (as LGCM was then known) in 1976. I remember he once proudly showed me his membership card with its membership number 001! He was a forthright advocate for the full inclusion of lesbian and gay people in the churches. For some years he wrote a column for Gay News called ‘Our God Too’, in which he was able to show that Christian faith was able to embrace everyone, despite the homophobia of many in the hierarchy.
Finally, I’d like to quote from Malcolm Johnson’s obituary post on the LGCM website, a paragraph that is 80% Jim:
Jim describes [R. S.] Thomas as ‘somebody who was asking difficult questions about the life of the spirit, about faith, about religion, long before most people were asking them.’ One could say the same of Jim. He describes himself as ‘sharing meals, stories and laughter with friends; enjoying theatre, walking the hills, shaping words, deepening solitude, silence and simplicity’.
May he swive in heaven* and rise in glory.
*Hugh Dawes, a friend of Jim’s, wrote ‘… he told me that he was looking forward to heaven because the sex would be wonderful there. I looked back at him somewhat circumspectly, but he repeated that again. I hope that heaven will by now be living up to his expectations! Simply resting in peace would not be Jim’s style.’