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Obituary: Pauline Mary Webb

26 May 2017


Profound faith: Pauline Webb arrives back at Heathrow, in 1971

Profound faith: Pauline Webb arrives back at Heathrow, in 1971

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.

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