FREDERIC WILLIAM DWELLY, 1881-1957, First Dean of Liverpool

by
02 November 2006

Carnegie Publishing £20(1-85936-133-1)

TO MARK the centenary of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, or more precisely of the laying of the foundation stone on 19 July 1904, Peter Kennerley, who has known the cathedral well through many years, has written a fascinating and well researched biography of Liverpool’s first Dean, Frederick William Dwelly.

He was, in many ways, the liturgical and spiritual architect of that vast edifice that dominates the city.

Dwelly was an extraordinary man. There are mysteries in his life, not least that of his marriage to Mary Dawsin, of whom almost nothing is known.

There was also his long-term relationship of some kind with Christine Wagstaffe, his companion and secretary, and his falling out with his bishop, Albert Augustus David, third Bishop of Liverpool, which brought about a public dispute that did nothing for the reputation of the Church and the life of the young diocese.

Then there was the sadness of his continuing in office when his mind had failed. His successor, Dean Dillistone, wrote that there were parts of Dwelly’s life better not recorded. So it is not an altogether happy story.

Yet the man was a genius, and made Liverpool Cathedral, and particularly its worship, relevant and life-affirming during his long association with it as Residentiary Canon and Dean from 1924 to 1955.

To make liturgies fit for that stupendous building, and which engaged with the life of the city, he combined a passionate concern for historical precedent with a genuine creativity. On the whole, he left the statutory services alone, focusing his energy on creating special services for every conceivable occasion.

His greatest triumph was his first: the consecration of the cathedral in 1924. This earned him the genuine praise of the King and of both archbishops.

Memorable text was only part of his achievement. For the vast spaces of the cathedral he designed magnificent processions of stunningly clothed members of the Cross Guild, walking in patterns to the glory of God. He was the ultimate liturgical choreographer.

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Every cathedral needs a Dwelly every 50 years or so, someone with the imagination to see the potential of the building and its spaces, and to draw together text, music, and movement that bring it alive and communicate the gospel.

Of course, every Dwelly leaves behind a problem: a local custom that it is difficult to challenge or move on. But the moving on has to happen if the cathedral is to continue to be a laboratory of the Spirit; and sometimes a fresh mind needs to go back to the basic questions and start again.

One hopes that the Dwellys of the 21st century, whether deans or precentors, will focus more on making the Church’s mainstream liturgy powerful and relevant than on a slightly idiosyncratic series of “specials”; and will focus also on involving the whole people of God as active participants rather than as spectators of beautiful theatre, however much it is staged for the glory of God.

They should all be made to read Peter Kennerley’s book before they start their work.

The Rt Revd Michael Perham, formerly Precentor of Norwich and Dean of Derby, is Bishop of Gloucester.

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