The Rt Revd Stephen Platten writes:
CANON Wilfrid Browning, who died on 23 February, aged 98, will have been known to scores of clergy from the dioceses of Blackburn and Oxford, in which he was successively the Director of Ordinands for the best part of 30 years. Indeed, he was in effect a pioneer of that position.
Wilfrid came from an impeccable Anglo-Catholic background: there is an extant photograph of him, at the age of nine or ten, acting as a boatboy for Fr Henry Fynes-Clinton, at the non-communicating high mass at St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge. His father, the head of foreign exchange at the Westminster Bank headquarters in the City of London, declined to attend the wedding, when Wilfrid married Elizabeth in 1948, as he believed firmly in a celibate priesthood.
Wilfrid and his sister, Barbara, were brought up in Charlton, in south-east London, and he attended a prep school near by. His father had, as a young man, lived in the Mission House at St Michael’s, Woolwich, not far away. So devout were the family that both children were penitents already before they reached double figures; each would rehearse their confession to the other for fear of not doing things properly.
Wilfrid went on to Westminster School, where among his fellow students were Michael Flanders, Donald Swann, Peter Ustinov, and Christopher Lees-Smith (later Brother Edward, SSF. Wilfrid’s interest in theology was kindled
in his final year at Westminster. Many of his friends were reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian, and Wilfrid was keen to know why he himself was, and if it made sense.
After Westminster, Wilfrid became a Squire Scholar at Christ Church, Oxford, before he trained for the priesthood at Cuddesdon, under Eric Graham as Principal.
Having been a member of the Peace Pledge Union, alongside Dick Sheppard and others, in the 1930s, Wilfrid recalled a letter from Ernest Bevin, then Minister for Employment, while he was at Cuddesdon, encouraging all students of medicine and engineering, and ordinands to continue in their studies.
After a curacy at Towcester, he spent a short time as curate of Christ Church, Woburn Square, where he met Elizabeth, who was then studying at King’s College, London. Woburn Square was Wilfrid’s lowest point in ministry, in the middle of the war and with Bloomsbury as something of a desert. After the war, Alec Vidler, then librarian at St Deiniol’s Library, Hawarden, invited Wilfrid to join him on the staff there.
From there, he became Rector of Great Haseley in Oxfordshire, and lecturer in New Testament at Cuddesdon for some eight years, followed by six years as Canon Residentiary of Blackburn Cathedral, and Warden of Whalley Abbey for six years; he was also Director of Ordinands and of Post-Ordination Training in the diocese.
From Blackburn, Wilfrid moved to Oxford, again to a Residentiary Canonry at Christ Church. During his 25 years in the city, he was Director of Ordinands, and of Post-Ordination Training, and then pioneered non-stipendiary (as it was then known) training, with the Oxford NSM Course.
Wilfrid remained an active scholar throughout his life, even as an ardent member of the theological group at St Barnabas’s College, Lingfield, over the past seven years. In 1960, he published a short commentary on St Luke’s Gospel, which went into a sixth edition in 1981.
Alongside his Meet the New Testament, The Anglican Synthesis, and A Handbook of Ministry, perhaps his most illustrious piece of work was A Dictionary of the Bible, first published by Oxford University Press in 1996, when he was 78, and now in its third edition.
Ultimately, however, it will be for his personal qualities that Wilfrid will most be remembered. His warm, understated personality was the foundation of a life devoted to God, to others, and to their pastoral care.
His children Hilary, Sarah, Simon, and Tim all speak of his fun and his love. He outlived their mother, Elizabeth, who died in 2009.
Carol Williams was a great companion to him in his final years.