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Obituary: The Very Revd James Atwell

31 December 2020

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne writes:

GROWING up on a Wiltshire farm inculcated in James Atwell a deep and lifelong wonder at creation. But, as second son of a tenant farmer, James had to look further afield for his life’s work. Schooled at Dauntsey’s, he went up to Exeter College, Oxford, to read theology, quoting Archbishop Michael Ramsey to override his headmaster’s aversion to the subject.

Sadly, James’s father died in his first term. Eric Kemp, his kindly tutor, advised that he seek healing through rowing as well as study. Robert Runcie, his Princeps at Cuddesdon, encouraged a World Council of Churches scholarship at Harvard: James completed a two-year Master’s degree in just one year, bolting dinner with his Episcopalian hosts on Christmas Day before ploughing on, parsing Ancient Greek.

Ordained in 1970 by Mervyn Stockwood, James enjoyed South Bank religion at St John’s, East Dulwich, teaming up with a West Indian bus conductress to set up a highly successful reggae club, complete with an annual carnival. In 1974, he became curate of un-reggae Great St Mary’s, Cambridge, but, during his vicar’s sabbatical, sneaked Mother Teresa of Calcutta in to preach the University sermon. She urged the packed congregation to forget India and instead be kind to each other. “Please be generous,” James urged, announcing the collection. The collection plates overflowed, and even gold rings were donated. “God bless you in your vocation,” Mother Teresa whispered.

In 1977, James brought the flavour of Great St Mary’s to Jesus College as Chaplain. First-rate preachers prompted discussion long into the night, and the line was held for an authentic, homely faith when The Myth of God Incarnate and Don Cupitt stalked the land. “Single man preferred, married men may apply,” Jesus had advertised. James was appointed, alongside his radiant new wife, Lorna, soon to be with child; his four-year tenure also brought two dozen vocations to birth, including mine.

In 1981, a pharaoh-who-knew-not-Joseph thwarted James’s plan to return to Southwark: “Borders closed, foreigners not welcome.” Instead, he went to be Vicar of Towcester, a Northamptonshire market town. Taking on the Church Commissioners, archdeacons, and sundry other miseries, he retained the Queen Anne vicarage, reordered the church, installed 12 bells, transformed the Chantry House into a parish centre, and opened a youth coffee shop.

In 1994, Bishop John Dennis appointed him Provost of St Edmundsbury, after a rigorous interview process in which James won the heart of the cathedral’s churchwardens. The place had just inherited £3 million from its former architect, Stephen Dykes Bower, which James used to generate local support, arm-twisting Tony Blair (with a little help from Private Eye) to grant Millennium Commission funding. The £12-million project topped the unfinished cathedral with a tower, which Prince Charles, the Appeal’s patron, hailed “a spiritual beacon for a new millennium”.

In 2006, James became Dean of Winchester. Whenever I visited, I was impressed by how he had brought tremendous light and given the place an inclusive, friendlier feel. He also built an education centre, a new South Transept display area, and strengthened links with the excellent university, which awarded him an honorary DD. In 2015, countryman James, who had occasionally missed school to bring in the hay, relished being President of the New Forest Show, his Land Rover happily parked alongside other farm vehicles.

Time fails me to tell of his leading numerous tours to Taizé, the Holy Land, and Near Eastern holy sites; of every August spent in his beloved Castle Combe bolt-hole, writing The Sources of the OT (for which he was awarded an Oxford BD) and The Second Temple (finished the very week he died).

Hyperactivity notwithstanding, his strength was in being rather than in doing: the courage of his own tenderness, contagious spirituality, and pastoral warmth enabled life in all its fullness. James embodied The Sound of Music: he repeatedly stole away from unswinging Sixties Cuddesdon to watch what was quintessentially Vatican II: The musical. Lorna, who “waltzed on her way to mass” was definitely his Maria, who, with their children, Luke, Elizabeth, and Mary, brought song to places previously devoid of music. People who had signed up just to “do a small favour” suddenly found themselves totally, joyfully, immersed in the “Family von-Atwell”.

In 1987, James commissioned a boisterous hymn about Lawrence (Towcester’s patron saint) played by the town’s brass band:

The treasures of the church are we. (x2)
Each child and grown up in his sight
are treasures in their very own right.
Everyone’s a VIP,

for the treasures of the church are we.

James, although much sought after, gave you such undivided attention that you felt truly one in a million, a treasure. He died on the eve of Gaudete Sunday, aged 74: supremely fitting, since he was a Gaudete sort of guy, lock, farming stock, and barrel. I pray that he rests in peace — although I suspect that heaven may soon sport a tower, drawing us to that true home that James so energetically made incarnate.

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