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Obituary: The Revd John Wickens

03 October 2014

A correspondent writes:

THE Revd John Wickens, who died on 31 August, aged 81, had been a pastoral theological educator for 29 years at the Richmond Fellowship.

Born at his grandmother's home in Norfolk, he was brought up by his parents in Edgware, and attended St Lawrence's, Whitchurch, a fine Baroque building with a connection to Handel through the Duke of Chandos, who lived at Cannons. The result was a fine musical tradition; and John had a good voice. From there, after audition by the Trinity School of Music, he went on to be a member of the Chapel Royal choir at St James's Palace, a formative influence on the rest of his life.

The Chaplain, W. H. Eliott, who had lost his own son, took an interest in this working-class lad, whose father was away on military service during the Second World War. An inspiring broadcaster, Elliott became John's father-substitute.

As the only probationer to be admitted to the choir in December 1945, John had a memorable private conversation with King George VI at Buckingham Palace. The King asked him about his interests, which then included Scouting and stamp-collecting, both subjects dear to the King's heart. They had an animated discussion. Subsequently, Queen Elizabeth wrote to the Dean to say how pleased she was that the King's speech impediment was so little in evidence while he was speaking to "that boy".

After his voice broke, John left the choir, and attended Willesden Technical College. From there, he went to work for the de Havilland aircraft engine company as an office boy. He was granted an apprenticeship under extraordinary circumstances, for uncovering a fraudulent scheme that was costing the company thousands of pounds.

Drawings on blueprints were being bleached and sold for the fabric they contained. John discovered what was happening when he prepared flow charts to help him with the distribution of supplies to various departments. It soon became evident that one department was using far more blueprints than the rest.

At the end of his apprenticeship, he was required to do his deferred National Service. By then, aged 21, he was certain that he was being called to the Church's ministry; but, without the qualifications for university, he decided to sign on to the RAF for three years as a Service Engineer, while he took advantage of the educational opportunities that the service provided.

At 24, he began his theological education at King's College, London, followed by a year at St Boniface College, Warminster, at the beginning of which he was married to his wife Olive. A three-year curacy at St Catherine's, Hatcham, under Allan Auckland, followed.

It was during this time that John began to feel that his future ministry lay not in the parish, but as a pastoral theological educator. Four years' academic theology had left him, he felt, ill-prepared for the personal challenges of parish ministry. Much affected by the work of Dr Frank Lake, he read about a training course for clergy in Winston Salem. Encouraged by his area bishop, John Robinson, he was accepted on a Fulbright Scholarship for one year's training, eventually extended to two. The family sold possessions to buy tickets on the old Queen Mary for New York.

The people of Winston Salem, especially the people of the Episcopal Church, took them to their hearts. John and Olive became founding members of St Anne's, Winston Salem, the first racially integrated church south of the Mason-Dixon line, and John served for several months as Priest-in-Charge of the Church of the Redeemer in Greensboro.

After qualifying as a Chaplain Supervisor in the US, he returned with his family to the UK, where he became Senior Tutor of the Richmond Fellowship College, a position that he held for the next 29 years. Courses in human relations and pastoral care exposed students to the realities of experiential learning, during placements at the Richmond Fellowship's mental after-care homes. Learning by doing rather than reading or listening was a new concept for many. Students were required to write up their pastoral encounters verbatim every week, and group work was developed using a model developed by the Tavistock Clinic.

During his time at the Richmond Fellowship, John and his family lived in Sutton, Surrey, where for 12 years he assisted at Christ Church. For 15 years, he helped at All Saints', Benhilton, and covered a two-year interregnum there.

John's health was never robust, and in 1995 he suffered a heart attack. Early retirement to Malvern in Worcestershire followed, where he continued his ministry, filling in for several interregnums.

John's final illness, pulmonary fibrosis, was ascribed by doctors to his time as a teenager working for de Havillands. He felt that he was fortunate to have reached almost 80 before the symptoms developed during a geological holiday in the Shetland Islands in 2012.

John is survived by his wife Olive, his son, the Revd Andrew Wickens, and his daughter, Alison Lockton, an engineer. He was proud that each of his children followed one of his career paths.

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