Canon Thomas Christie writes:
THE FLAG of Peterborough Cathedral has been flying at half-mast this past week to note the passing of one of the most eminent deans of the 20th century, Dick Wingfield Digby, who died on 29 January, aged 95, nearly 27 years after he retired.
When he arrived at Peterborough in 1966, he vigorously set about the task of bringing order and restoration to this great cathedral. Much needed to be done, not only with the fabric of the ancient abbey church itself and the buildings in the precincts, but also with the intangible task of nourishing the congregation and establishing the links with the diocese and beyond.
With the help of an energetic committee, headed by James Crowden (who had done much for Ely Cathedral), he established the cathedral preservation trust to raise funds for the restoration of the organ and the cathedral fabric. One of his last acts, before he left in the summer of 1980, was to announce on St Peter’s Day that the appeal target of £500,000 had been reached. Much of the success of that appeal can be directly attributed to Dick Wingfield Digby, who gave enthusiastic support to all the appeal events. Since then, under his successors, there have been three further appeals, culminating in the emergency appeal after the fire in November 2001.
Born in Hertford, on 19 August 1911, he was educated at Pangbourne Nautical College, and served two years as a midshipman before going to Christ’s College, Cambridge, under Charles Raven, to read economics and theology. His athletic prowess enabled him to win a fencing blue. He trained for the priesthood at Westcott House, where B. K. Cunningham had a profound influence as Principal. His curacy at Rugby Parish Church, one of the great training grounds, was interrupted by war service as an army chaplain with the 1st Rifle Brigade in France. He was captured in May 1940, and ministered in several camps (my father, a regular soldier, was a prisoner-of-war with him in the same camps).
On Dick’s release, he resumed his curacy briefly, before being offered the living of All Saints’, Newmarket. There he was a conscientious parish priest, and established the parish communion as the main act of worship; at Rugby there had been the innovation of a successful parish breakfast after the early service. This was to be the mainspring of his ministry throughout his life.
After seven years, he moved on to the important parish of St Mary’s, Bury, where his administrative skills came to the fore. He was patron of 14 parishes, and served on several school governing bodies. He played a lively part in the life of the town and the diocese. He took great pride in the work he did with the local Trustee Savings Bank; he was president and chairman throughout his incumbency of 14 years. He also acted as Rural Dean of Bury, and was made an Hon. Canon of Manchester Cathedral shortly before he moved to Peterborough.
The energy he showed at Peterborough was phenomenal. He was prepared to tackle any task to get the cathedral and the precincts “shipshape and Bristol fashion”; his early naval training showed through in his attention to detail. He became his own (unpaid) clerk of works, and had a very happy relationship with the cathedral builder, Lewis Samworth. Together, they attempted — and achieved — great feats, not least coping with the aftermath of the great storm on 2 January 1976, when a 13ft spirelet, on the south tower of the west front, became dangerously lodged. It weighed more than two tons, but was brought down safely without any injury.
He revitalised the life of the cathedral at a time of increasing liturgical change. Series 2 was quickly followed by Series 3, and experiments were made for the Sunday eucharist. ASB Rite A was introduced at the earliest opportunity. He would always occupy his stall, fully robed, ready to read the second lesson; the daily office and eucharist were his lifeblood.
He ruled the cathedral with fairness and authority. Everybody knew where they stood, and gave him due respect. Within the diocese, he was keenly interested in education, chairing the schools committee of the DBE and the governing body of the King’s School (part of the cathedral foundation). He oversaw several building projects at the school, and was glad when it went co-educational and comprehensive.
He had an unhesitating belief in natural justice, and would always champion the underdog. In a conservative diocese, he was always ready to espouse the cause of church unity, the marriage of divorced people, and the ordination of women.
He enjoyed the social life of the city and county, particularly his membership of the Burgh Society, the oldest dining club in Peterborough.
Throughout his ministry, he was loyally supported by his wife Rosamond, whom he married in 1936, and who survives him with their three children. There was much rejoicing when Dick and Rosamond celebrated their platinum wedding anniversary last year. Not only was she president of the diocesan Mothers’ Union, but she was also a founder member of the Samaritans. They both signed up to Inclusive Church soon after its inception.
As a tailpiece, I wish to add that it was my privilege to serve on the Chapter with Dick during his last year in Peterborough, and also see his incisive chairmanship in action as a fellow member of the Council for Places of Worship in London. He delighted in learning fresh things about church architecture from the distinguished architects who formed the nucleus of the Council. I recall that when he discovered the word ferramenta, he used it as often as possible.