Obituary: The Revd Dr John Wilkinson

by
16 February 2018

The Revd Stanley Cann

The Revd Dr Stephen Need writes:

THE Revd Dr John Wilkinson, who died on 13 January, aged 88, was a leading English scholar-priest of his generation. Although ordained in the Church of England, his name will always be associated with Jeru­­salem and the Anglican Church there.

He was a formative influence in the early years of St George’s College, where he was a tutor and Dean. Later, he was Director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (re­­named the Kenyon Institute in 2001). In the academic world, he will be remembered most for his work on texts left behind over the centuries by Chris­­tian pilgrims to the Holy Land.

John Donald Wilkinson was born in Wimbledon, south London, the first child of the Revd Donald Wilkin­­son, Vice-Principal of the Bishop’s College, Cheshunt, and Hilda Mary Wilkinson (née Smyth, and the daughter of a cleric). John had a younger sister, Mary Primrose Anne, who died in 2004. He at­­tended the Dragon School, in Oxford, and Haileybury College, in Hertford­shire, before National Service in Malaya (1948-50), and going to Merton College, Oxford, in 1951.

He trained for ordination at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and served a three-year curacy at St Dunstan’s and All Saints’, Stepney. He received an L.Th. degree from the University of Louvain, Belgium, in 1959.

After a brief period teaching at Ely Theological College in 1960, John went to Jerusalem in 1961 as a tutor at St George’s College. He was then based at the diocesan offices and Guest House at St George’s Cathed­ral. The college needed its own space, and John played a significant part in overseeing the construction of a residential building. It opened in 1962, and John himself carved the foundation stone.

The short courses that he designed and developed consisted of visits to biblical sites and holy places, and engage­ment with local Chris­tians and people of other faiths. The courses still follow the pattern that he laid down, and bear his stamp to this day. In 1963, he was awarded an Honorary STD (Doctor of Sacred Theology) degree from the General Theological Seminary in New York.

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In the same year, John returned to London to become General Editor for the Society for the Pro­pagation of the Gospel (SPG, soon to become USPG). In that post, he published articles and small books, and, in 1968, edited Catholic Anglicans Today; this re­­flected his place in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England.

While with USPG, he got to know Canon Sam Van Culin, later Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, who introduced him to the developing Anglican world. In this time, he also worked on a translation of Egeria’s Travels to the Holy Land (1971), for which he is now mostly remem­bered.

In the 1950s, John had already met his future wife Alexandra (Alix) Helen McFarlane, who had been digging in Jericho with Kathleen Kenyon. He and Alix were married at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, London, in 1966, and celebrated at the Vintners’ Hall. John was a member of the Vintners’ Company for many years. Alix was an Egyptologist, who later wrote books on Egyptian jewellery and gardens. Together they became a dynamic and hospitable couple.

John became Dean of Studies at St George’s College in 1969. Having missed the Six Day War of 1967, in which the Israelis took East Jeru­salem, he maintained that his abs­ence helped him keep a neutral stance on political issues in the area. He became a Canon of St George’s Ca­­thedral (1973-75), besides refin­ing the college courses.

In the mid-1970s, he returned to England as Priest-in-Charge of Holy Trinity and All Saints, South Kensing­­ton, and the Bishop of Lon­don’s Director of Clergy Train­ing. During this time, he published work already done at St George’s College: Jeru­­salem Pilgrims Before the Crusades (1977); Jerusalem as Jesus Knew it; and Archaeology as Evidence (1978, and published in 1983 in the United States as The Jerusalem Jesus Knew). The latter book was subse­quently used by dozens of students at St George’s College.

In 1979, John became Director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, a position that he held until 1984. These were challenging years for the school, and John wasn’t an archaeologist. He sup­­ported sev­eral significant archaeo­logical projects, how­ever, and significantly im­­proved the library. He also worked on a revision of Egeria’s Travels (1981), and on Jerusalem Pilgrimage 1099-1185 (1988). Continuing his attach­ment to St George’s Cathedral, he could often be seen there celeb­rating a Sunday or early-morning week­day eucharist.

One of John’s longstanding in­­terests was the connection be­­tween synagogues and early church build­­ings. In 1982, he was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of London and the Courtauld Institute of Art for a thesis, “Interpretations of Church Buildings Before 750”. A re­­vised version was published in 2002 as From Synagogue to Church: The traditional design: its begin­­ning, its definition, its end.

Time at the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research, at Tantur near Bethlehem, was followed by a Fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, and several years in the US. At Dumbarton Oaks, John met the Head of the Institute of Manuscripts from Tbilisi, Professor Zaza Aleksidze, who invited him to Georgia.

He took up the offer in the early 1990s, while serving in London as an NSM at St Mary Abbots, Kensing­ton. Several of his visits included giving lectures and contributing to international conferences. Becoming increasingly aware of the dire con­­ditions in Georgia during the civil war, he was determined to help. On one occasion, after a fire at the Institute of Arts in Tbilisi, he per­­sonally oversaw the transport of a large number of books to begin re­­building the library.

In 2000, John founded the Friends of Academic Research in Georgia (FaRiG) which has supported aca­­demic projects in that country. He travelled and researched widely over the years in several other countries, including Tunisia.

On his first visit to Georgia, John met Mzia Ebanoidze, with whom he later translated and annotated two books on Georgian pilgrims to the Holy Land: Timothy Gabashvili: Pil­gri­­m­age to Athos, Constantinople and Jerusalem (2001) and Petre Konchoshvili: Travels to Jerusalem and Mount Athos (2014).

In 2011, John’s wife, Alix, died in London, and he married Mzia (who later became Mia) in Tbilisi.

In retirement, John helped at St Cyprian’s, Clarence Gate, near where he lived in Bayswater, west Lon­­don, and continued writing and travel­­ling. After two falls at home in recent years, he deterior­ated slowly, and was nursed by Mia to the end.

John was not only a priest and a scholar, but a true “scholar-priest”, whose vocation to teach and re­­search was part of his wider minis­try. He shared his love of Jerusalem energetically and en­­thusiastically with others. He influ­­enced a variety of people through the churches that he served, and through his teaching and many writings. He will be sadly missed, and re­­mem­bered with great affection.

There were no children. He is survived by Mia.

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