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Obituary: The Revd Dr Lionel Wickham

19 January 2018

The Revd Dr Lionel Wickham with his wife, Helen

The Revd Dr Lionel Wickham with his wife, Helen

A correspondent writes:

THERE are times as a parish priest when a thorough grounding in biblical and patristic exegesis can come in handy. The Charismatic, armed with instant recall of chapter and verse, can be wrong-footed with a wily reference to textual variants; the most routine of Anglican hymns becomes a resource for complex networks of sermon-enriching allusion.

The Revd Dr Lionel Ralph Wickham, who died on 17 December, aged 85, was one such: a scholar and parish priest whose ministries in several parishes and in two universities brought academic understanding to his parishioners, and parochial insight to his students and colleagues.

Lionel was educated at Dulwich College, followed by the Royal College of Music, where he gained an LRAM on piano. After a period of National Service in Germany, he continued his studies at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, reading Oriental Languages and Theology, and being awarded a Jarrett Exhibition. He moved to Westcott House, and was ordained priest in 1960.

Throughout his career, regardless of which type of institution was paying for it, he was fully engaged in pastoral and academic work. After a curacy at Boston Stump, a tutorship at Cuddesdon, and four years as vicar of Cross Stone in the diocese of Wakefield, Lionel took on a lectureship in theology at the University of Southampton, a post he held for 14 years. He returned to full-time ministry, and to Wakefield diocese, in 1981, as Vicar of Honley. But it was his final move, to Cambridge in 1987, as Lecturer at the University, and as Priest-in-Charge of West Wratting in Ely diocese, that enabled him to combine his vocations in the most satisfactory manner.

Lionel was awarded his doctorate in 1982, on the basis of an impressive portfolio of publications in the field of patristics. As a textual critic and exegete he was equipped with a formidable array of ancient languages including Hebrew, Syriac, Georgian, and Armenian, and his main contribution to the field came in the form of translations of, and commentaries on, writers such as Gregory of Nazianzus, Hilary of Poitiers, and Peter of Callinicum. These, and in particular his edition of the letters of Cyril of Alexandria, published by Oxford University Press, remain important resources for scholars of the early church fathers.

The abundance of scholarly arcana at his disposal, combined with a quick wit, made him a virtuosic and entertaining adversary. He is remembered fondly by colleagues and students for a number of piquant encounters, of which one must stand for many: when an ebullient American scholar introduced himself to Lionel as “the radical theologian”, the reply came, “I also am a radical theologian: though I suspect we may have different definitions of our radices.”

Yet neither his writings nor his sermons and lectures were given to verbosity. Indeed, the many editors who appreciated his conscientiously prompt and commission-length reviews — for The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, The Journal of Theological Studies, the TLS, and the Church Times among others — will have noted a terseness to his prose which could take the form of a withering glance, but which could equally bestow unsentimental, authentic approval. An example, from this paper, demonstrates the two exercised in combination, writing about an anthology of sermons by a distinguished cleric: “[The author] has written a good book, in some ways a very good book. I can say that all the more genuinely and credibly because I dislike his style of preaching.”

Lionel moved back to Cambridge in his final years, and was active as a reviewer until near the end of his life. His wife, Helen, four children, and 11 grandchildren survive him.

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