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
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
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
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
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
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
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.