THE RT REVD JOHN DENIS WAKELING

by
02 November 2006

ON A Sunday afternoon in January 1985, when snow was falling and Nottinghamshire roads were treacherous with ice, more than 1000 people turned up at Southwell Minster to say farewell to the Bishop, the Rt Revd Denis Wakeling, and his wife, Josephine, as they prepared to move to Porton, near Salisbury, in retirement.

After evensong, there were presentations. Sir Gordon Hobday, then Lord Lieutenant of the county, said: “In every respect he is our Bishop.” These words summed up the feelings of many who had known the Bishop over the previous 15 years.

Denis Wakeling came to Southwell at a difficult time. His predecessor’s sudden departure, widely publicised by the national press, had caused extensive criticism of the Church, not least in the diocese, and the clergy and people in the parishes needed support and encourage-
ment to have confidence in their ministry.

This Bishop Denis provided; and the joyful, confident, spirit in which the diocese celebrated its centenary in 1984 spoke volumes about him.

John Denis Wakeling was born in Leicestershire, the son of a parish priest who moved with his wife and family to work with the Church Missionary Society in India. After his mother’s death, Denis returned to school in England, where, after attending Dean Close School in Cheltenham, he read classics at Clare College, Cambridge.

At school and university, he excelled at hockey and cricket. He had a Cambridge Blue for hockey before and after war service, which interrupted his university career. He continued to play cricket, and played for the diocese in the Church Times Cricket Cup after coming to Southwell.

His war service in the Royal Marines took him to Iceland, West Africa and then Italy, where he distinguished himself as the commanding officer of A Troop, 40 Royal Marine Commandos. His outstanding courage, exemplary behaviour, and organisational skills under fire on several occasions in 1944 brought success to his troops, and he was awarded the Military Cross for his endeavours.

The fact that he never spoke of his war service, or of his award for bravery, was a mark of his humility; but anyone working closely with him in later years saw the hard work and self-discipline, as well as the outstanding organisational skills, of someone who had been influenced by his military training.

After training at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, he was ordained to a curacy at Barwell in the diocese of Leicester, where a sympathetic vicar allowed him to continue playing hockey for the county and East Midlands. He moved back to Cambridge to be Chaplain of Clare College, and also to the Cambridge Pastorate, and then was successively Vicar of Emmanuel Church, Plymouth, and Vicar of Barking. There, his organisational skills enabled him to administer a parish of more than 36,000 people, and train numerous curates for their future ministry. They speak with affection for him and gratitude for his insights in the priest’s tasks of leading worship, preaching, pastoral care, and service in the community.

His skills were soon used in the wider life of the diocese of Chelmsford, when he became Archdeacon of West Ham.

What made Denis Wakeling a memorable Bishop of Southwell? Someone wrote to him on his retirement: “You have restored to Southwell the dignity and dimension it had lost.” He achieved this in a quiet, unassuming style, but with clear aims and objectives, strong faith in God, a serious commitment to and a thoroughness in every task he undertook, and a deep sense of the Holy Spirit’s guidance and direction.

Sometimes his leadership and pastoral care were misunderstood by clergy and lay people. He would not act as a nanny to them. He would not do their work for them, but encouraged them to do it thoroughly and effectively.

He wrote in an article in the diocesan magazine on the ministry of a bishop: “Care implies knowing and being known, and everyone wants to be sure that his bishop cares for him in this way. There is, of course, nothing that a bishop loves more than being loved, but the desire for this close relationship with every member is both self-defeating and, at times, destructive.

“A bishop can fail his people if he seeks to be popular, by going along with the idea that it all depends on the bishop. His task is to make men out of his children and enlist them in the task of the Church.”

Denis Wakeling never sought popularity. His emphasis was always on seeking to know God’s will and doing it faithfully to the best of one’s ability: “Happiness lies in accepting the call of God and his Church to whatever job you are called,” he wrote to a priest moving to new work.

He was a man of integrity and openness. You always knew where you stood with him. He recognised the boundaries between one person’s work and another’s. He never trespassed on an archdeacon’s territory or a parish priest’s. He understood the place of a cathedral in the life of a diocese, and respected the boundaries.

Denis had a strong faith in God, but his preaching revealed a practical, down-to-earth approach to Christian living, and an appreciation of others’ doubts and difficulties.

Preaching at the conclusion of the diocesan centenary year, he said: “We walk by faith, not certainties. Without any doubts we would be stagnant thinkers. Doubt is the essential ingredient in all research. It is doubt that leads us to explore new depths of experience; the Christian life is a journey of faith from doubt to doubt. But our confidence is in the living Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who never deserts us and whose call to us is not ‘Believe this or else,’ but ‘Follow me.’”

He became a bishop as synodical government was being introduced into the Church of England, and
he was determined that the clergy and people should understand the changes. He chaired the Archbishop’s Council on Evangelism for three years, and the Council of Lee Abbey for eight years. He was Visitor to the Society of the Sacred Mission, and preached at the eucharist when the Society left Kelham. He had sympathy with the founder’s advice — advice he, too, could give: “Go out into the world. Find what is best worth doing as God shall lead you. Work at it reverently and carefully. Everything, big or little, has in it the substance of eternal glory. You will do what God lets you do.”

Although an Evangelical by upbringing and persuasion, he had much in common with the Anglican tradition of John Keble: “The trivial round, the common task, Would furnish all we ought to ask.”

He was not a man for gimmicks or the spectacular, but for faithfulness in the routine work of building God’s Kingdom. Evangelism was “not a flash in the pan, once-for-all activity, but the direction of all our normal activities”. He could be blunt in his criticism, if he thought the Church misused its resources or its energies. If at times he appeared stern, he had a warm and friendly nature — caught in the smile on
John Townsend’s official portrait of him.

Denis Wakeling knew that, as a bishop, he was a man under authority, but also one in authority. He exercised it wisely, and with humility and sensitivity. Constantly, he reminded himself and the diocese of our need to depend not on ourselves, but on the grace of God: “Our comfort lies”, he maintained, “in the fact that those whom God calls he sustains in the work to which he has called them.”

He worked as an incumbent and as an archdeacon during the years of the debate after the publication of John Robinson’s Honest to God. He never lost his faith in God, but was also open to discovering God’s presence and activity in his own life, the Church, and the world.

“The end of all things is God himself. He is the ultimate reality. God alone is our judge and our hope. The Church is in the business of evoking faith in God. . . The only estimate of our lives that matters is that they were pleasing to God. . . God alone matters,” he said in his final sermon as Bishop of Southwell.

Many thank God for him. We remember also with gratitude his wife, Josephine, who died earlier this year. As well as supporting Denis in their home and in all his work, she had a distinctive place in the life of the county as a magistrate and through Family Care.

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