17 January 2007

Unconventional Evangelical: the Rt Revd Hugo de Waal in 1992

Unconventional Evangelical: the Rt Revd Hugo de Waal in 1992

The Rt Revd Peter Nott writes:
WHEN Hugo de Waal, who died on 6 January, aged 76, became Bishop of Thetford in 1992, many people assumed it was a conventional appointment of a traditional Evangelical.

Some features of his background might have suggested this: a conversion experience through the influence of Billy Graham, a subsequent change of degree course from medicine to theology, training for the ministry at Ridley Hall, then a curacy at St Martin’s-in-the-Bull- Ring, whose Rector was the famous evangelist Bryan Green.

He was certainly rooted in a firm biblical theology, and loyal to his spiritual origins, but he was neither conventional nor traditional. This was due in no small measure to his early background.

Born in Java of Dutch colonial parents, he was a young boy when the Japanese occupied the island in 1942, and the experiences of those years affected him deeply and permanently, as did the experience of being a refugee in Australia at the end of the war.

This was graphically illustrated in a sermon he preached in Norwich Cathedral to mark the 50th anniversary of VJ Day, of which an observer wrote: “The highlight was Bishop Hugo’s sermon, which was one of the most moving I have ever heard. With little reference to notes, he spoke eloquently, painting pictures like icons, which drew people in and beyond them. It was a long sermon, but everyone was totally gripped from beginning to end. It had been an emotional week or two for Hugo, as memories of those awful experiences were revived for him, and the sermon was obviously forged at considerable cost. But it was a great gift to the people there, which they will remember and treasure all their lives.”

His perspectives were broad, and his sympathies were deep and wide. The introduction of his “God on Monday” project, while he was Principal of Ridley Hall, was typical of his commitment to a real engagement and dialogue with the community outside the Church, which was always central to his ministry.


As a chaplain in Cambridge in the ’60s, he was part of a lively theological scene. It was the era of Honest to God (as well as the perhaps more significant book of essays Soundings). Chaplains were engaged daily in lively discussions with both students and dons, and his friends cherished the story Hugo told of a long conversation after dinner with a young science lecturer about the existence of God. Hugo was clearly winning the argument, and, in the end, the young man became exasperated. “For God’s sake, Hugo, shut up. You’re paid to love me.”

He was a fine teacher both of bright young students and of parishioners of all kinds, but at heart Hugo de Waal was a pastor. His gifts, like those of the best pastors, were also related to his own vulnerability; for he never hid the anxieties and occasional depressions he suffered. But this enabled him to relate to people at a deep level.

Unusually, he combined the chaplaincy at Pembroke College with the care of a parish, and afterwards undertook a pioneering ecumenical ministry at Bar Hill from 1968 to 1973, which became a model for other such projects.

So when, after another four years as Vicar of Blackpool, he returned to Ridley Hall as its Principal, he brought to that ministry not just theological expertise, but the rarer qualification of solid parochial experience. This was one of the factors that gave bishops great confidence in the Ridley students whom he trained, and who, during that period, were ordained to parishes of a wide variety of traditions.

For those who knew Hugo, his appointment to the episcopate was a natural next step. As Bishop of Thetford, he was able to exercise the kind of pastoral and teaching ministry he loved, and work closely with a team of bishops and archdeacons who greatly appreciated his wisdom, were taught by his wide sympathies, and were firmly corrected when he suspected that their vision was too narrow or ecclesiastical.

He was always a thinker whose ideas often took him to explore horizons others barely glimpsed. The artist and the visionary were never far beneath the surface. It was no surprise that, in later years, he wrote poetry, while at the same time engaging actively in charitable work, especially with refugees and asylum-seekers.

Hugo de Waal was a wise and dedicated pastor, whose warmth and personal vulnerability inspired both trust and affection. The twin rocks of his life were his faith in Christ, and the love of his wife Brigit and their children. Home and family were enormously important to him, which was not the least of the endearing qualities of this good and gracious man.

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