Margaret Holness writes:
THE first time that Pauline Webb went to South Africa, she was deported from the airport. As Vice-Moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC), she was a banned person. The South African government of the day, along with a body of opinion in this country, deplored the WCC’s Programme to Combat Racism that provided humanitarian aid to those involved in freedom movements.
On her second visit, she was taken almost immediately to meet Nelson Mandela.
Pauline Mary Webb, who died on 27 April, aged 89, was for many years a senior officer and lay leader of the Methodist Church, and in the vanguard of the progressive movements that marked 20th-century church life. She was an ardent ecumenist; an advocate of women’s ordination; and a vocal campaigner for social justice. Her involvement was national and international, and she expressed her beliefs through speeches, through her many books, through broadcasting, and through preaching.
She was a Christian socialist though with a capital C and a small s. All her passionate commitments were underpinned by a profound faith, of which she later told millions as a much-loved broadcaster. For many years, she was a contributor to Thought for the Day, and she presented the Daily Service until well into her seventies.
Pauline was one of the three daughters of Leonard and Daisy Webb. Her father was a Methodist minister and former missionary. One of her sisters, Joy, who became a Roman Catholic and a Dominican nun, also had an international reputation as an expert on early-years education.
After graduating in English from King’s College, London, and teacher training at the Institute of Education, she taught at a grammar school in the Thames Valley, but while still in her twenties became editor at the Methodist Missionary Society, responsible for all its publications. During this time, she spent a year at Union Theological Seminary, in New York, an experience that widened her faith and her political sympathies. She took part in Civil Rights marches and joined the East Harlem Protestant Church.
In 1965, she was elected the youngest-ever Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, the highest office for a lay person. Two years later, she became director of lay training for her Church, and the following year went as a Methodist representative to the World Council of Churches’ Assembly in Uppsala, Sweden. There, after making a powerful speech, she was elected Vice Moderator of the WCC’s central committee.
Her engagement with the WCC, during its most influential and controversial-period in the 1970s and early ‘80s put her on the international stage. In 1983, she raised eyebrows when she preached at the opening service of the WCC Sixth Assembly in Vancouver. Drawing on the healing by Jesus of the women “with an issue of blood”, she set out the various ways in which women “bleed”. The subject was not universally approved.
At home, her ecumenical commitment was expressed through her membership of the British Council of Churches, chairing its community-relations committee, and her membership of the Anglican-Methodist Commission. Believing in Anglican-Methodist reunion, she was afraid that success might be achieved at the expense of the ordination of women. When the unity scheme failed to reach a sufficient majority in the General Synod, she continued to work for the introduction of women ministers in her own Church, a development that was achieved in the late 1970s.
Pauline’s career took a sharp turn in 1979 when, with the backing of her fellow Methodist Dr Colin Morris, head of religious broadcasting at BBC Television, and Canon Colin Semper, head of religion at BBC Radio, she was appointed religious-broadcasting organiser for the BBC World Service. She took to the post like a duck to water, becoming a skilled producer and discovering broadcasting “naturals” from Christianity and other faiths. She also learned to give a voice to Christians whose religious views differed markedly from her own. She demanded only that they be good broadcasters.
At the World Service, she once again encountered the South African government, when it complained about broadcasts given by the South African priest and vociferous anti-apartheid campaigner Fr Michael Lapsley SSM, who had lost both hands and one eye to a parcel bomb. Much later, in an interview with the Church Times (Feature, 25 May 2007), he remembered how his old comrade had consistently toned down his talks.
In her retirement, Pauline was made a Fellow of her old college and received many honours, including a doctorate from the University of Birmingham. She was made President of many organisations that represented her concerns, among which were the Society for the ministry of Women in the Church; Campaign against the Arms Trade; and Feed the Minds. She continued to use her skills in the wider Church, including Churches Together in England. But she was, perhaps, happiest among the diverse congregation at Harlesden Methodist Church, which she had attended for several decades.
Latterly affected by dementia, she spent her last years at the Methodist Home in Muswell Hill, north London, at the official opening of which she had officiated decades before
Her funeral took place at Muswell Hill Methodist Church, where her father was once the minister. A service of thanksgiving is to take place at Wesley’s Chapel, London, in July.