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Obituary: The Very Revd Dr David L. Edwards

04 May 2018

The Very Revd Dr David L. Edwards

The Very Revd Dr David L. Edwards

THE Very Revd Dr David L. Edwards OBE, Provost Emeritus of Southwark, who died on Wednesday of last week, aged 89, was long regarded as one of the Church of England’s brightest intellects.

In the course of an industrious and varied ministry as historian, theologian, writer, publisher, journalist, administrator, and, above all, Christian prophet, he exercised much beneficial influence, both direct and indirect, in the corridors of ecclesiastical power.

The author of more than 30 books on Christian themes, he possessed the rare gift of making profound theological issues intelligible to the ordinary reader. This gift of popular interpretation he employed not merely in his books, but also in his weekly contributions to the columns of the Church Times, for which he was for many years the principal reviewer and leader-writer. He wore his learning lightly. He forbore to show off his intellectual prowess to lesser mortals, or to boast of his achievements and high ecclesiastical position.

One of his great strengths was as an initiator of dialogue between representatives of opposed traditions. Another was as a past-master of the art of delegation without abdication. He was not greatly interested in organisation as such; and, in the successive administrative posts that he held — head of the SCM Press (he achieved fame in 1963 as the publisher of Bishop John Robinson’s radical bestseller Honest to God); Dean of King’s College, Cambridge; Canon of Westminster; Dean of Norwich; Provost of Southwark — he was happy to leave the organisational detail in the hands of capable subordinates while remaining himself fully aware of what was being done in his name. His desire to see things well administered was combined with an unobtrusive tact and personal courtesy that endeared him even to those opposed to his opinions or initiatives.

As a church historian, he never championed any version of the faith which seemed to him divorced from humanity. He was a restless prober, questioner, and seeker after truth. His basically liberal outlook was balanced by a conservatism in minor matters of religion and politics. He shone both as a lecturer and as a preacher, his sermons being conspicuous for their words of encouragement. When Archbishop Runcie resigned in 1990, Edwards wrote to him to point out the successful retirement ministries of Archbishops Ramsey and Coggan, and to suggest that Runcie might well go and do likewise (after, like old port, he had had time to settle down).

Edwards was a shy and sensitive man, but was possessed of a redeeming sense of humour which soon made him the life and soul of any party he graced with his presence. Two of the qualities that endeared him both to the working clergy and to thoughtful lay people were his willingness to take unbelief seriously and his refusal to suggest that reforms in the Church would necessarily produce quick results. In the pulpit, he would often reveal the inwardness of his own faith in a way that his shyness discouraged him from doing in the course of private conversation.

David Lawrence Edwards was born in Cairo on 20 January 1929. His father was an inspector of schools who had been working in Egypt since 1912; his mother was a former nurse. He himself spent his first nine years in Egypt before being sent to boarding-school in England: first to a prep school (Stubbington House, Fareham) that, in his own words, “specialised in embryonic admirals”. At that time, his sights were set on a naval career (he had a childhood crush on Nelson), but poor eyesight helped to ensure that his ministry would be spent in the Church instead.

His next port of call was The King’s School, Canterbury, to which he won a scholarship awarded to the sons of “colonial civil servants” in memory of Milner the empire-builder. He knew the school both in its wartime evacuation to Cornwall and on its return to the cathedral precincts. The headmaster, Canon Frederick Shirley, was a domineering character who exercised a profound influence on the youthful Edwards, becoming to him “almost a second father”. He was able to express his gratitude to Shirley in his first book, a history of the school written in his late twenties, and also in a life of his old headmaster published in 1969.

School was followed by two years of National Service in the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment — and, paradoxically, by a return to Egypt, where he found himself helping to guard the pre-nationalisation Suez Canal. Army life both bored Edwards and provided him with the only period of physical discomfort he was to experience in a life whose bread was otherwise, he later recalled, “buttered on both sides with honey”.

A three-year spell as an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, came as a welcome relief. He studied under A. J. P. Taylor, and emerged in 1952 with a first in modern history. This proved to be the prelude to the academic blue riband of a fellowship of All Souls, which he was awarded at the tender age of 23 (largely on the strength of a brilliant examination essay on “Oxford”), and held till 1959. When dining at high table he would pump his seniors on historical issues: A. L. Rowse, for instance, on the Elizabethans, or G. M. Young on the Victorians.


PAThe Speaker of the House of Commons, George Thomas (right in photo), with his Chaplain, Canon David Edwards, when the latter bade farewell to Westminster in 1978, to become Dean of Norwich

Ever since his schooldays, he had felt a vocation to Holy Orders, and in 1953, overcoming last-minute doubts, entered Westcott House to train for the ministry. Between his ordinations as deacon in 1954 and as priest a year later, he stayed on at Westcott House as Tutor; the Vice-Principal was Runcie. He never pictured himself as a full-time parish priest, but saw his ministry as being more fruitfully exercised in other spheres. He was to serve as a curate in two parishes — St John’s, Hampstead, and St Martin-in-the-Fields — but only as an adjunct to his main work on the headquarters staff of the Student Christian Move­ment in Golders Green.

SCM itself rather than its publishing arm was the great love of his early ministry. His duties included visiting college branches and organising student conferences. In 1965-66, he was briefly general secretary of the SCM after the resignation of Bishop Ambrose Reeves. He had ambitious plans for its reform, but they came to nothing.

From 1959 to 1966, he was deeply involved in the world of religious publishing, as editor and managing director of the SCM Press. In spite of the prestige and revenue generated by Honest to God, he was not an unqualified success, being a dreamer of dreams that often failed to materialise.

He soon became bored with the routine of a publishing house, had visions of turning the Press into a kind of missionary society, like SPCK, and tended to ignore such mundane matters as cash-flow problems. He was not all that interested in the money-making potential of his firm’s books. The runaway success of Honest to God took him completely by surprise: its initial print order was for a mere 10,000 copies. Sales were eventually to top a million, which made the book a runner-up to the Bible in the religious-bestseller stakes.

Its sales were much helped by a pre-publication extract in The Observer provocatively headed “Our Image of God Must Go” — a headline with which Robinson was not happy, and which may have caused him later to observe: “It is a safe assumption that a bestseller tells one more about the state of the market than the quality of the product.” At least the success of Honest to God eased the SCM Press’s dire financial worries.

It was while he was with the Press that Edwards married his secretary, Hilary Phillips. They were to have three daughters and a son.

Edwards remained in touch with the world of publishing on leaving the SCM Press. He became chief adviser to Lady Collins, who ran a flourishing religious-books depart­ment in the publishing house pre­sided over by her husband, Sir Billy. Collins authors in the department included Hans Küng — and eventually Edwards himself.

In 1966, he was faced with a crucial choice. He was a front runner for the general secretaryship of the British Council of Churches. He was then invited to become Dean of King’s College, Cambridge.

He plumped for the latter post, but soon came to regret his decision. The joys of the college chapel and of the Cambridge Backs, and the opportunity to take tea with the aged E. M. Forster, were outweighed by the increasingly sceptical attitude towards Christianity of many of the college dons. This was typified by a series of Reith Lectures in which the Provost, Edmund Leach, dismissed both the faith itself and the morality that went with it without any evident sense that the case against them needed to be argued.

Not even Edwards’s additional post as assistant lecturer in divinity was sufficient inducement to put up for very long with the secular humanism with which he had to contend at high table; and he seized the offer of a Westminster canonry in 1970 as a chance to escape from the constricting atmosphere of Cambridge.

At Westminster, he was able to blossom out in many directions. In addition to his canonry, he was also Rector of St Margaret’s, the parish church of the House of Commons, and, from 1972, Chaplain to the Speaker (first Selwyn Lloyd, then George Thomas), and unofficial “father-confessor” to such MPs as chose to consult him.

At St Margaret’s he followed in the footsteps of Geoffrey Chaucer and of one of his own particular heroes, Hensley Henson. He had first to solve the church’s acute financial problems. He failed to raise enough money from among MPs to restore its ailing fabric, but persuaded the Dean and Chapter to press successfully for an Act of Parliament enabling them to take over the care of St Margaret’s.

His presence in the centre of London encouraged him to tackle additional tasks. He was a frequent speaker at conferences and training courses. He was examining chaplain to a number of bishops — and to Archbishop Coggan at Lambeth. He was chairman both of Christian Aid and of the Churches’ Council on Gambling. He wrote more books; and he became a regular and frequent contributor to the Church Times.

After eight years in Westminster, the time again seemed ripe for a move. The deanery of Norwich fell vacant in 1978 and seemed a suitable possibility.

At Norwich, he was liked and respected without being really understood. For many, his calm reign came as a welcome relief after the hectic innovations of his predecessor, Alan Webster. His lack of interest in organisation as such made him content to let things run on much as before. People recognised the key part that he played on the national church stage, and were proud of it; and they did not resent the fact that much of their Dean’s time and energy found its focus outside the diocese. Adapting the words of another of his heroes, John Donne, he would have said that no diocese should be an island; and he helped to prevent Norwich’s becoming too self-absorbed.

The latter part of his reign in Norfolk was overshadowed by the collapse of his first marriage. As he put it in a “fragment of autobiography” privately circulated among his friends in 1994: “I was left with a broken heart and four adolescents.” It was, therefore, a relief to him in 1983 to be able to exchange the deanery of Norwich for the provost­ship of Southwark. The South Bank was worlds away from rural Norfolk, but Edwards came into his own there — much helped by his supremely happy marriage in 1984 to Sybil Falcon, who had served for 23 years as a missionary in South Africa.

Southwark took him to its heart, and his 11 years there were among his most creative. In a fruitful partnership with the regular congre­gation, he provided the necessary guidance and inspiration to enable them to get on with their share of the cathedral’s work and ministry. He spearheaded the raising of £1.5 mil­lion for physical improvements to the cathedral, including a new chapter house, and helped plan hundreds of special events.

Renewed residence in London gave him the opportunity to plunge once more into the world of central church committees and commissions. He was made a Lambeth DD in 1990, and was appointed OBE in 1995 for services to the Church of England.

He retired to Winchester in 1994 and played a full part in church activities there; and he was not quickly released from involvement in the wider Church. He was the only clerical member of the key commission that was appointed in 1994 to reorganise the Church of England’s central administration, and which resulted in the setting-up of the Archbishops’ Council. And words continued to pour from his pen (literally: he never used a type­writer or its more recent substitutes).

Notable among more than 30 books (plus a dozen or so booklets) were Religion and Change (1969); Leaders of the Church of England 1828-1944 (1971); the three-volume Christian England (1981-84); The Futures of Christianity (1987); and Essentials: A liberal-Evangelical dialogue with John Stott (1988).

He once described his books, taken as a whole, as “one Christian’s attempt to hold tradition and truth together”. While many of them were concerned with scholarly themes, they were never pitched at too high an intellectual level for an intelligent reader to understand. The same was true of the half-dozen prefaces to successive editions of Crockford’s Clerical Directory — in the days before the Gareth Bennett affair brought the tradition to a tragic close.

Edwards’s work for the Church Times over a period of more than 40 years began in a small way in the early 1960s with occasional articles and book reviews. Then came an interruption of a few years after the appearance in the radical Christian magazine Prism of a 12-page article by Edwards attacking the Church Times for its denunciation of a critical broadcast by Alec Vidler on the state of the Church of England. The article, which appeared on the eve of the paper’s centenary, ques­tioned the editorial methods of its then editor, Roger Roberts, and led to a breach that lasted until the late 1960s. By then, tempers had cooled, and Roberts’s successor, Bernard Palmer, was able to welcome Edwards back to the CT fold.

He began contributing reviews of significant Christian books almost weekly, plus occasional special articles. From September 1976 onwards, he became, in addition, the paper’s principal leader-writer, contributing three out of every four editorials and becoming a salaried member of staff, as opposed to a freelance contributor. By then, without being overtly radical, the paper was less rigidly traditionalist than it had been under Roberts. And, without being overtly conservative, Edwards himself now represented a more “centralist” position than he had occupied in the heady days of the 1960s. He seemed to Palmer to be just the man to editorialise in the broader-based Church Times that he had been developing since 1968.

Edwards was a workaholic. His CT writing alone at that time would have been regarded by most people as a full-time occupation, but he was able without difficulty to slot it into his other multifarious activities. He worked with a speed that only a thorough grasp of what he was tackling made possible. When the subject of a leader needed changing at the last minute, he was prepared to sit down at his desk and produce a substitute within half an hour. When he was rung up and asked to write an editorial for a “spoof” issue of the Church Times which the staff were arranging in honour of Palmer’s 50th birthday, he arrived with the copy (a delicious parody of his own style) the same afternoon.

He had a puckish sense of humour, and would chuckle delightedly when discussing whom to “denounce” in the following week’s leader, although his “denunciations” were never malicious. The same self-deprecating sense of humour was shown after his retirement, when his wife Sybil and the Palmers were trying to persuade him to embark on a modest “adventure holiday” to Morocco, involving a brief camel ride. “You’ll make a man of me some day,” he remarked. The trip took place, and on a Christmas card afterwards he wrote: “Wise men don’t go on camels.”

When the Church Times moved from 7 Portugal Street, the offices that it had occupied since the early 1900s, in September 1989, a select band gathered for discreet prayers in the chapel or oratory that had been rigged up at some heady moment in the 1950s in the base­ment storeroom of the building at the instigation of the devoutly Anglo-Catholic editor Rosamund Essex (and, it was said, not particularly to the delight of the proprietor at that time, Palmer’s father, who thought that the staff should be getting on with their work). This room had since become rather forlorn. Edwards wondered aloud whether he had been invited to officiate because it was deemed that his own presence would be enough to deconsecrate it.

After Palmer retired at about the same time, Edwards’s leader-writing ended, because the new editor, John Whale, intended to write most of the editorials himself; but Edwards was retained as a highly valued contributor. He wrote substantial obituaries of leading church figures (an unsigned obituary of Robert Runcie caused him much heartache and rewriting after the headline-making indiscretions of the Humphrey Carpenter biography), as well as book reviews and other articles, throughout Whale’s editorship and for much of his successor’s, until ill-health intervened.

In 2007-08, Edwards found him­self in the early days of Parkinson’s disease. His wife also had health problems; so they left their house in Winchester in March 2009 and moved into a small flat in Manormead, the retirement home for the clergy at Hindhead, in Surrey. The move, however, was not a success. The home was isolated and far from the nearest hospital. More particularly, David found himself out of sympathy with a number of his clerical fellow-residents.

So, in December 2010, the Edwardses returned to Winchester and rented a small Pensions Board house near the cathedral. It proved an ideal final residence, enabling David, whose Parkinson’s was developing rapidly, to totter across to the cathedral for many of the daily services. Life for him was drawing to a peaceful close. Sybil predeceased him in 2015 (Gazette, 20 February 2015).

In the sermon that he preached in Southwark Cathedral on 21 June 1994 at a service to mark Edwards’s retirement, Lord Runcie began with a text from St Mark 2.25 which enquired: “Have you never read what David did?” You have now, in all its fullness.

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