12 September 2007

The Very Revd David L. Edwards writes:

Eventful incumbency: Dean Webster at St Paul’s on 3 March 1981, the day Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding was announced

Eventful incumbency: Dean Webster at St Paul’s on 3 March 1981, the day Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding was announced

THE renewal of its cathedrals has been one of the (not many) great successes in the Church of England since 1970, the year when Alan Webster became Dean of Norwich. He was so creative that the advice was given to his successor (me) that a period without changes would be acceptable; but Webster was elected chairman of the National Conference of Deans and Provosts, and Norwich became something of a new model. Paradoxically, when he was appointed Dean of St Paul’s in 1978 as a compliment to this achievement, he met hostility. When he retired in 1987, beginning 20 years of happy retirement back in Norfolk, he was denied the honorific title of Dean Emeritus, and it was left to a more gracious Bishop of London to make him again “Very Reverend”.

Webster’s key ideas were two. One was that the people who worship in a cathedral regularly must be regarded as a congregation, not as mere guests of the Dean and Chapter or as mere fans of the choir. The heart of the worship became a Sunday eucharist with an altar in the midle and the new “alternative” words entering the minds. And, at regular but informal “consultations”, the laity were invited to say what they wanted to the clergy.

As the number of visitors grew, so did the welcome, with the invitation to use the great church as a “momentary monastery”. Volunteers made it possible to begin a canteen with an informative exhibition next to it, and to develop a well-stocked shop selling souvenirs that were not unworthy of the cathedral’s majestic beauty.

The second key idea was that the cathedral must demonstrate a practical willingness to serve, not dominate, its city and county. A riverside walk opened up the 40-acre Close; one of the handsome houses became a home for the elderly; another became a library and a congenial background to many discussions; a “night shelter” was sponsored as a refuge for men who would otherwise have slept in doorways. And special services for diocesan or civic groups multiplied.


Inevitably, Webster faced some hesitation or criticism, but, on the whole, the cathedral’s canons were happy to have among them a priest with inexhaustible energy as a pioneer and pastor, and the county’s élite, headed by Sir Edmund Bacon, KG, and Earl Ferrers, were proud that history was being made.

But in St Paul’s the canons vigorously defended their right to make the decisions or indecisions, with the Dean as a quiet and gentle man whose sermons should be rare in their quality and frequency. Accordingly, in 1984, the Chapter passed a resolution that Webster must go.

But he stayed; and the membership of the Friends of St Paul’s climbed to 4000, while countless visitors sensed that there was a new humanity in a cathedral built to overwhelm. One of the individuals befriended in these years was Princess Diana, whose wedding was made not only a spectacle for 800 million, but also a display of love and hope.

In 1982, Cardinal Hume and a leading Free Churchman strongly supported Webster’s determination (in union with his close friend Archbishop Robert Runcie) to make the service marking the end of the Falklands War a visibly ecumenical occasion and also an acknowledgement that there had been death, pain, and mourning on both sides.

In 1985, the report Faith in the City raised, or implied, some sharp questions challenging the City of London as well as the public and the authorities who had accepted the poverty of many “urban areas”. Webster was courageous in drawing the attention of bosses and workers in the City around him, whether or not they liked it.

But in London his most effective contribution to Church and society was made through his marriage. Margaret Webster had been equally active in Norwich, but soon saw that there would not be a similar role for her in St Paul’s. Instead, she became executive secretary of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, and that pressure group’s eventual triumph owed much to her very hard work and her very feminine niceness. Had Alan Webster been made a diocesan bishop outside London (which would have been sensible), this would not have happened.

He had, of course, been shaped in earlier years. The only child of a long-staying village priest, around whom the parish revolved, he was educated in Shrewsbury School and Oxford, and wrote a good book that earned an Oxford BD, on Joshua Watson, a layman once prominently active in good works. But he had no vocation to be an academic. Instead, being a curate and youth leader in wartime Sheffield, and years later being an incumbent in County Durham, led him to work in which he excelled, in the training of others for an outgoing ministry. For seven years he was on the staff of Westcott House in Cambridge, and for 11 years he was the Warden of Lincoln Theological College.

In Lincoln, he spread enthusiasm; he appointed a Methodist to the full-time staff; he invited a Roman Catholic to give eye-opening lectures; he made sure that wives were fully included; he welcomed women as students; and he looked at a cathedral. Then everything came together when in Norwich he discovered the legacy of the medieval mystic called Julian, who, in a cell not far from the cathedral, had visions of God in the crucified Christ. That gave him his own theme: love was, and is, God’s unchanging “meaning”; so, in the end, “all shall be well.”

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