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17 January 2014


Devout Anglican: Geoffrey Wheeler

Devout Anglican: Geoffrey Wheeler

Canon David Ashworth writes:
WHEN the Vicar of St Peter's, Hale, in Chester diocese, came home from a Parish Stewardship of Time and Talents meeting, he burst out indignantly to his wife: "Geoffrey Wheeler of Songs of Praise and Top of the Form has filled in a pledge form offering an hour a week to mow the churchyard grass. I can't let him do that: it's not a use of talents; it's a waste." So began the process that led Geoffrey to 40 years' service to the Church of England as a Reader.

Three successive incumbents of that parish had reason to be deeply grateful that he was one of the team of Readers who supported them faithfully throughout their own ministry.

Geoffrey, who died on 30 December, aged 83, was educated at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and went on to read law at Manchester University, where his future wife, Sheila, recorded in her diary (romance was already blossoming) that "If Geoffrey doesn't do some work soon, he is not going to get a degree." Geoffrey, of course, was busy developing other talents, which later were to be put to good use in the Church he served and for the God he worshipped.

By the time he graduated, he was already a seasoned broadcaster, whose clarity of diction and warm voice had quickly gained the attention of BBC producers and listeners; with his sharp intelligence, they were the foundation of his work in Church and broadcasting.

For many people, Geoffrey was the public face of religion. In my experience, working in a Manchester overspill-estate parish, where the Church was yet to fully establish its presence, there were many people uprooted from home and community and church life who found in Songs of Praise, and especially in Geoffrey Wheeler's presentation and interviews, a continuing link with their faith and past observance - an anchor to secure their faith until they had settled into their new home and re-established their church links.

Geoffrey brought the same high standards of professionalism to leading worship and preaching as he had developed in broadcasting. Meticulous preparation lay behind everything he did, even down to voice exercises just before a service. One incumbent was a little alarmed to hear honking noises coming from the small porch by the vestry, only to find Geoffrey, who sheepishly explained that these were the exercise that his voice coach had encouraged him to use before public speaking.

His sermons bore all the marks of careful attention to the scriptures, and wise reflections on their meaning for us in the 20th century. A former churchwarden has quoted Geoffrey as saying, "Unless butterflies are working in the tummy before a broadcast or service, I know I won't connect with the congregation."

His children's addresses were memorable, particularly because he had a knack of making them accessible to children from five years of age to teenagers, this at a time when it was not unknown in that parish to have 150 or more Sunday-school children, Brownies, Cubs, Scouts, and Guides at a family service. One vicar's daughter observed: "Doesn't God sound lovely when Mr Wheeler speaks about him!" Her older brother said: "What I like is that it doesn't sound like the Bible when he reads it."

How right he was: Geoffrey's reading always managed to bring the situation or the story alive and real in the present moment, a precious gift making the persons of our Lord and his followers more concrete in our own imagination and understanding.

The choir of Geoffrey's parish once accepted an invitation to lead a "Songs of Praise Service", not for broadcast, but in a small Yorkshire parish church. The service ended, and a man came to the incumbent to thank him, and also to say how very sad he was that his bedridden wife had not been able to be present, as she found her faith much assisted in her illness by watching Songs of Praise. Geoffrey immediately offered to take the short time still available before the coach left for home to visit her, to her very great delight. How typical this was of the man we all knew. To the world at large, he was a TV star. To us in the parish, he was friend, mentor, fellow worker, and fellow traveller on the road to God.

When the parish centenary was looming, Geoffrey seemed to be the obvious person to turn to for writing the history. With the help of two researchers, he produced an admirable little book, telling the story from its foundation to the present time. In it, he seemed to capture the essence of each incumbent's ministry, highlighting the ways the parish and people had developed during each period.

Later, in his ministry as Reader, and as a result of seeking healingfor his wife during her final ill-ness, Geoffrey developed, with his incumbent, a ministry of heal-ing. Together, they established a monthly Sunday-afternoon service of prayer for healing. Geoffrey usually gave the address. Together they visited the hospitals, and, in one notable instance, a young man, who had been very seriously injured, made an unexpected recovery, and eventually invited Geoffrey to take part in his marriage ceremony.

Geoffrey's prayerful life, his warmth and natural empathy with people in distress, and, above all, his sense that this was the work of God the Holy Spirit were undoubtedly the source of his ability to bring comfort and healing to many who turned to him in this period of his life.

Many are the letters that his family have received: from BBC colleagues, from those who have experienced his healing ministry, and those who shared the life of St Peter's, Hale, and who remember with great affection a man of God, a public man loved by many who never met him, and a much loved friend of those among whom he lived.

His son Robin, daughter Juliet, a granddaughter, and three grandsons survive him.

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