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Obituary: Canon Jeffry Wilcox

09 March 2018

Ann Morisy writes:

CANON Jeffry Reed Wilcox, who died on 11 February, aged 77, had retired to Ludlow with his wife, Claire, after 24 years as Rector of St Leonard’s, Streatham, in south London. Jeffry enjoyed 12 years’ retirement, during which he was active in the church life of Ludlow, steering the church through two interregnums, besides chairing the trustees of the Ludlow Mascall Centre. Jeffry also took an active part in the life of the town itself, becoming a councillor and serving as Deputy Mayor.

Jeffry trained for the priesthood at King’s College, Warminster, and was Priest-in-Charge of St Luke’s, Pallion, in Sunderland, from 1971 for 11 years. During his time in Pallion, Jeffry ministered to a community that faced the rundown and, ultimately, the closure of the local shipyads. It was here that Jeffry was introduced by friends to Claire, a social worker from London. A year later, they were married. Claire and Jeffry’s children, Laura, Eleanor, Gregory, and Luke were all born in Pallion.

Jeffry became Rector of Streatham in 1982, and served until 2006. Over these 24 years, he was parish priest to a series of Bishops of Southwark: Ronnie Bowlby, Roy Williamson, and Tom Butler. Jeffry was the Area Dean of South Lambeth from 1992 until 2000. This was a fraught period in the life of the Church of England, and the deanery reflected this burden, with liberals and traditionalists, high Anglicans, and conservative Evangelicals. Jeffry’s integrity and resistance to point-scoring were precious contributions to holding the chapter together.

While Jeffry carried out his duties, and more, in relation to his episcopal parishioners and the deanery, his gift was to the everyday people of Streatham. The ’80s and ’90s were a lean time in south London, and Streatham shifted in character from well-off to hard-bitten. Jeffry’s sustained generosity of spirit and open-heartedness were precious gifts to a community that might easily have become fractious and callous.

It was Jeffry’s early friendship with leaders of the local Muslim and Jewish communities that contributed to a sense of solidarity between people of different faiths in the face of the war in Iraq and 9/11. In particular, Jeffry was able to call together local imams, rabbis, and leaders of Christian churches for an exceptional public act of commitment. The promptness with which this unity was achieved is to be credited to Jeffry’s capacity for building trusting friendship, and his absence of self-promotion.

Jeffry had a great intuitive understanding of liturgy, and brought this gift to St Leonard’s, which, when he arrived, had just been rebuilt and reordered after a fire. The simple whitewashed walls of the church and uncluttered space have led St Leonard’s to become renowned for its “infectious calmness”, a precious asset in the midst of the intense traffic pollution from the main London-to-Brighton road. Jeffry laid the foundation for this calmness, designing a liturgical pattern that was both dignified and accessible, and expressed openness, welcome, and acceptance.

In 1995, Jeffry and Claire’s eldest daughter, Laura, aged 21, died after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. Through this enduring worry and grief, Jeffry maintained his active ministry, and bore witness to a faith that can endure all things. With hindsight, this very special precious journey was made by the congregation at St Leonard’s as well as the Wilcox family.

Jeffry’s contribution to the wider community was always important. He became the chair of trustees for Crossroads Care, an innovative venture for supporting carers. This scheme has now extended its provision across the south-east. Through this involvement, Jeffry became a member of Lambeth Community Health Council. In 2000, he was invited to chair the Lambeth Democracy Commission, to consult local people about modernising local government, and to make leadership and decision-making more accountable. In 2005, he was appointed MBE for his services to the community, both in Streatham and in the London Borough of Lambeth.

The year before his retirement, Jeffry was appointed an Hon. Canon of Southwark Cathedral. There was something admirable about this recognition late in the day. Jeffry was his own man, and put gospel values to the fore, no doubt at the cost of any ecclesiastical elevation. His priestly ministry focused on what was happening at ground level rather than on church structures or hierarchy.

One suspects, therefore, that he would have warmed most to the simple tribute made as news of his death travelled quickly around Streatham. It simply said of Jeffry: “One of the nicest, kindest people I ever met — he shall be missed.”

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