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Obituary: Frances Whitehead

14 June 2019

The Rt Revd Dr Michael Nazir-Ali writes:

FRANCES WHITEHEAD, who passed to glory on 1 June, aged 94, was secretary to John Stott, the great Evangelical Anglican, for 55 years. Redoubtable may be the first adjective that springs to mind, but others, such as committed, faithful, and servant-hearted, soon follow. She was someone who got things done.

I met her while I was a young student in 1970. A first impression of formidable competence was gradually replaced by a sense of welcome and hospitality on John’s behalf. At the same time, she guarded his diary with a tigerish fierceness.

Born in Devon in 1925, she knew grief at an early age, when her older sister died of leukemia. After Malvern College, she was recruited into secret war work at the Radar Research and Development Establishment. During this period, her father died suddenly, and, after the war, she worked in Switzerland and then South Africa. She returned to Britain in 1951 and began work with the BBC.

She came to personal faith in Christ at a New Year’s Eve service at All Souls’, Langham Place, next door to Broadcasting House, where John Stott was the Rector. Having assisted at the Billy Graham Harringay Crusade of 1954, she soon joined the staff at All Souls’. In 1956, she had gone to see Stott about the possibility of serving overseas, but, with his eye for spotting talent, he invited her instead to become the parish secretary (in effect, his personal assistant). From then on, they were inseparable, as he moved from Rector to Rector Emeritus and travelling statesman, playing a major part in significant international movements such as the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. For more than 50 years, she organised all his travel.

Frances typed John’s manuscripts from longhand and managed both his massive correspondence and his incredible diary, more complex than that of any bishop. It is no wonder that she was widely regarded as his right hand and as someone who knew his mind better than anyone else. At first, they were a duo, but from 1978 they became the “Happy Triumvirate”, with a succession of study assistants. Her participation in Sunday Worship from John Stott’s writing retreat, the Hookses in Pembrokeshire, recognised the extent of the work done in that remote location.

She supported John in the many study groups that he convened, and was often the first administrator of his pioneering ventures. These include the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC), its English member, the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), the National Evangelical Anglican Congress (NEAC), and the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC). Then there were the Evangelical Literature Trust, the Langham Scholars Programme, and Langham Preaching, later amalgamated into the Langham Partnership.

It is quite amazing to see how much was achieved. In recognition of Frances’s outstanding contribution, Archbishop George Carey awarded her the Lambeth MA in 2001. She continued as John’s secretary until the age of 87, eventually seeing him settled at St Barnabas’s Clergy Home. She was, along with his family, at his bedside when he died, and was the executor of his will. Her secretarial duties concluded with depositing his archives in Lambeth Palace Library. She gave the opening tribute at his memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Perhaps more secretaries should have their obituaries written. Frances Whitehead more than deserves hers: a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (Proverbs 31.30).

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