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Obituary: the Rt Revd John Michael Wraw

18 August 2017


Facing death: the Bishop of Bradwell, the Rt Revd John Wraw

Facing death: the Bishop of Bradwell, the Rt Revd John Wraw

The Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, writes:

THE Rt Revd John Wraw, Bishop of Bradwell, in Chelmsford diocese, since 2012, died on 25 July. He was 58. He had lived with cancer for the past three years. In his online tribute, the Bishop of Chelmsford wrote that other people with John’s diagnosis would have retired; but John continued to minister until the last few weeks, a vivid example of a life and vocation lived to the full. John’s abundant faith and trust in Christ meant that he never contemplated being defined by waiting to die: as always, he sought to be defined by the life of Christ, crucified and risen.

John grew up in a loving family that reached out to others, as his parents ran Barnardo’s children’s homes. This meant that, from a young age, John knew not only the love of parents and siblings, but also the care and the needs of cared-for children. At least one of those children, who cared for John, attended his funeral. This formation shaped John’s character, and his readiness to pay attention attention to people, whatever their circumstances, and make them feel special.

John won a place to read law at Lincoln College, Oxford. It was there that he met Gillian, the love of his life. He promised her a rich life, but not much money. They formed a wonderful partnership for the rest of John’s life. His children confirmed, in their funeral tribute, that all that John accomplished in ministry was made possible by their parents’ partnership in marriage.

John had a strong calling to ordination, and he and Gillian set up home in Ely, while he trained for ordination at Ridley Hall. For John’s generation, the third year at theological college, after the intensity of study for a theology degree, could prove an anticlimax. John typically and imaginatively engaged with this by bringing together his deep and lifelong concern for young disciples, and for ecumenism, by going to Egypt for three months, to research the Sunday-school movement in the Coptic Church. He was nationally involved in ecumenism until very recently, particularly with the Methodist Church.

Throughout his ministry, John was a champion of children and young people — not as the Church of tomorrow, but as decisive disciples now. As a parish priest in Rotherham, and as a bishop, he had taken a lead in promoting the clear voice of children and young people in the counsels of the Church. For three years he chaired the Board of Education in Chelmsford, and had a particular brief to draw out the gifts and wisdom of younger Christians.

John always felt called to urban ministry, but tested this by serving a rural curacy at Bromyard, before moving to Sheffield diocese, and Clifton and Wickersley in Rotherham, where he was also Area Dean. This mixed experience was the perfect providential preparation for becoming an outstanding Archdeacon of Wilts in 2004, in which post he was called upon to support rural parishes north of Salisbury Plain, and across the Ridgeway, as well as challenging urban centres like Trowbridge and Melksham.

This, in turn, was creative preparation for the very mixed area he served as Bishop of Bradwell from 2012. The large attendance of clergy and lay people at an August funeral testifies to how he was loved in the parishes, and by the priests, whom he deeply loved and for whom he had prayed.

His service as a bishop distilled all his gifts and experience. Throughout his ministry, he supported the homeless and was a champion of multi-culturalism and interfaith dialogue. Faith in Christ was never a private matter for John: he was always cultivating community, and speaking courageously and attentively in the public square. This has been demonstrated everywhere that John has served, but most conspicuously, perhaps, in his unique work in the development of the Wiltshire Assembly with the leader of Wiltshire Council.

John was one of the finest strategic thinkers of the Church of England. His acute mind, and systemic gifts, were always at the service of the Kingdom of Christ, which meant that he was passionate about the vocation of all disciples, not least those called to be ordained. During his time as the lead bishop for ministry in Chelmsford, the number of ordinands almost doubled.

In February this year, he wrote to the clergy of the diocese about his illness, and about his hope for the Church, from the perspective of a disciple close to death, and to the hope of eternal life. The letter illustrates the profound integrity and honesty of this bishop and pastor, challenging all of us to a deeper intimacy with Christ and acceptance of one another.

John leaves Gillian and four children. He was devoted to his family, and rejoiced to welcome Theo, his first grandchild.

The Revd Laurence Powell adds: I first met John ten years ago when he was the Archdeacon of Wilts. Meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time can be a terrifying prospect. Everything that could go wrong did, and culminated in my accidentally poisoning the cat. Fortunately, the cat survived; and John, with his quiet but constant giggle was gracious about the unfortunate incident. It was immediately evident that John adored Gillian, and his four children, and those of us who are an addition were fondly accepted.

John loved good food, which was at the heart of any family gathering. He was an excellent cook, with a passion for fish. Yet, despite being a vegetarian, he also grilled a mean steak. Most evenings would comprise board games and laughter and conclude with a stiff whisky.

John enjoyed long walks. During a holiday in France, one morning we ventured for ten miles, as the warm-up for a hike he had planned in the afternoon. Needless to say, he set off on the hike alone. During his time at Cambridge, John had been a keen rower, and he rediscovered his passion for the water while on sabbatical in 2009, when he competed in the Round The World Clipper Race.

Many have spoken of John’s unique candour and gentleness, which could, in the same breath, be coupled with an air of interrogation and mischief. This was as true of his family life as of his professional life.

In his last days, he loved nothing more than watching his grandson Theo toddling around the garden of their home. I believe the promise of young life, full of potential, brought John hope and enjoyment.

An inscription above the front door of the Bradwell Bishop’s house reads: “Occupy until I come.” Christ has come and gathered John into his loving arms. May he dwell this day in peace.

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