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Obituary: Arthur Robert Donald Wright

09 November 2012

The Rt Revd Roger Sainsbury writes:

DONALD WRIGHT, who died on 19 July, aged 89, had already made his mark as soldier and educator, most recently as a housemaster at Marlborough, when I first met him in November 1963. He had driven from Shrewsbury School to Liverpool with Helen, his wife, during his first term as Headmaster, to see the work of Shrewsbury House, the school's Mission, founded in 1903.

I had been appointed Missioner by the previous Headmaster, Jack Peterson, earlier in the year. We were told that Donald had come to Shrewsbury School "with fresh eyes and without traditional preconceptions", and that he might suggest that Shrewsbury House should be closed, as it was a hangover from the Victorian era, like other public-school missions. But, when he saw our engagement in Christian mission in one of the most socially disadvantaged communities in England, it led to his becoming an outstand-ing supporter of our work and that of the Beacon Group Ministry, of which Shrewsbury House was a partner.

He later described this journey to Liverpool as his "Damascus-road conversion". Together, we started social-studies courses, based at Shrewsbury House, for boys from the school, which opened many eyes to the challenge of the inner city; and a number of those boys have since become important pioneers in various forms of work in urban areas.

He took a leading part with the diocese of Liverpool in building a new Shrewsbury House, in partnership with a new St Peter's Church, opened in July 1974 by Princess Anne.

One of my abiding memories of Donald is at the gate of Shrewsbury School, at the end of a sponsored walk with boys from the school and boys and girls from the club. He asked one of the club boys as he approached the gate, "Are you last?" He received the angry reply: "I'm not last. I am just at the back," as in Scouse "last" means "useless". In fact, the club boy was at the back because he was helping a struggling schoolboy to finish the walk.

Eddie Cartwright, a former club boy and voluntary helper in the 1960s, who became a professionally qualified youth worker, Field Officer for the Merseyside Youth Association, and Reader in the diocese of Liverpool, commented: "Donald Wright always looked stern, but his heart was in the right place, and he loved Shrewsbury House and West Everton."

Humphrey Corbett, the present Warden of Shrewsbury House, says that the social-studies courses are still going, and nearly 50 sixth-formers from the school visit Everton over three days each year. Donald's conversion to "the Shewsy", and his vital support of the new Shewsy, are well remembered.

Donald was the youngest boy of a Wolverhampton family described as "Church of England, but still touched by a Methodist past". I also believe that he was touched by the Quaker tradition; for, as a boy, he went to a Quaker school, where he was taught by the young W. H. Auden; later, when he was a teacher, one of his first posts was at Leighton Park, a well-known Quaker school in Reading.

Perhaps, however, his experience in the Second World War, when he was a captain in the Royal Artillery, involved in the landing in Normandy, and later stationed near the Russian line in the East, where he saw at first hand some of the horrors of modern warfare, also helped to shape the compassionate Christianity that so many in Shrewsbury School, Liverpool, and, during his retirement, Wiltshire appreciated.

In a family tribute at the funeral, his son Patrick said: "Early in life, my father developed a sense of what education could and should be. His was a Christian idea, and also a liberal one. He was convinced that education was about finding and releasing potential in people, opening doors in minds, equipping people to make their own decisions in the future."

This understanding of education was to be very important in his time as Headmaster of Shrewsbury School, and in 1971 as Chairman of the Headmasters' Conference.

One of his staff at the school emphasised that his primary concern was to revitalise the religious life of the school, and he invited a range of distinguished speakers to preach in the chapel, including Henry Chadwick, David Edwards, David Jenkins, Dennis Nineham, Harry Williams, Stuart Blanch, and Donald Coggan. Coggan later invited him to be Archbishop's Patronage Secretary, and Secretary to the Crown Appointments Commission.

When Coggan retired, according to Henry Carpenter's biography of Robert Runcie, Donald played an important part in "consulting a wide range of people about the type of person who should be chosen as the next Archbishop of Canterbury".

He still held that position when, in 1983, Runcie appointed the Commission on Urban Priority Areas to "look into ways in which churches can more effectively help those who live and work in our inner cities", a Commission that was to produce one of the most significant church reports of the past 50 years, Faith in the City. I believe that Donald, because of his experience at Shrewsbury House, may have had some involvement in the Archbishop's very important initiative.

During his time at Lambeth Palace, Donald also chaired the William Temple Foundation, and he shared Temple's concern about the impact of unemployment: "The gravest evil and the bitterest injury of the unemployed is the spiritual grievance of being allowed no opportunity of contributing to the general life and welfare of the community."

Helen, whom he married in 1948, was a great supporter of his work, both at Shrewsbury School and Lambeth Palace. They enjoyed 20 years of retirement in Coulston, in Wiltshire, where he was a very active member of his parish church, and a campaigner for defending the local environment.

He is survived by Helen and their children.


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