THE Very Revd Dr Robert Willis will no longer be Dean of Canterbury, but his international ministry online would continue in some form, he said this week.
“It’s all right, they’ve decided to carry on without the Dean”
“We’re not saying goodbye at this stage,” he said in his final Morning Prayer on Monday, delivered against a glorious backdrop of wisteria. “We’re saying farewell — until we meet again.”
It was announced in February that Dr Willis would retire on the eve of his 75th birthday, after two decades in office, something he described as “a great disappointment” (News, 18 February).
The standard retirement age for clergy is 70, but the Archbishop of Canterbury granted Dr Willis special permission to continue in office until 75, the maximum age permitted by canon law. Dr Willis had hoped to extend his tenure to cover the Lambeth Conference this summer (News, 25 January), but this was ruled impossible earlier this year.
Besides overseeing the ministry of the mother church of the Anglican Communion, Dr Willis became an unexpected YouTube hit during the pandemic. He broadcast daily from the grounds of the Deanery at Canterbury Cathedral, attracting viewers in large numbers around the world.
Dr Willis began his outdoor ministry during the first national lockdown when the cathedral — along with all churches — was forced to close to worshippers. The initiative was his own, supported by his partner Fletcher, as a way of not breaking the 1400-year tradition of the daily Office at the cathedral.
He started with Midday Prayer; his first Morning Prayer video followed a day or two later; and since then he has recorded a new video daily without a break. Fletcher planned the garden backdrop and wove in clips of music, art, and film to complement the commentary.
The “garden congregation” (their own name for themselves) have grown from a few dozen to tens of thousands of people around the world. Morning Prayer videos now average between 17,000 and 18,000 views per day on YouTube, and regularly reach as many as 20,000 daily views.
The quality of videos evolved with practice, but the popularity of Dr Willis’s broadcasts really took off thanks to the frequent impromptu appearances of his cats, Leo and Tiger, and other members of the Deanery menagerie.
It began when Leo walked between Dr Willis’s legs and into his cassock (News, 29 May 2020). Then the Deanery cockerel — the aptly named Russell Crowe — delivered a perfectly timed intervention to the reading of Peter’s denial of Christ.
But the occasion that drew the most viewers — 174,000 and counting — took place in July 2020, when Tiger began to drink from the jug of milk on the table beside Dr Willis.
Statistics collected by the cathedral show that only about one third of viewers are in the UK. Another third are based in the United States; and the final third tune in from Canada, Australia, and the rest of the world. Google analytics suggest that three-quarters of viewers are female, one quarter male.
Almost 90 per cent are aged 65 or over. Yet Dr Willis has noted that some of the highest praise that he receives is from young adults. He told an online conference in Canada last year that they sometimes sidled up to him at smart cathedral wedding receptions and said: “We’ve tuned in to the things you’re doing and some of them are very cool.”
He suggested that watching the service in the privacy of one’s home offered people who were shy about their spiritual yearnings “a place safe from ridicule at doing something that is grossly unfashionable” in a secular society. A favourite email came from one such viewer: “I tuned in for the cat and stayed for the catechism.”
Members of the garden congregation delivered their own appreciation of Dr Willis, recording a 30-minute video from “a tiny fraction” of viewers around the world. “Hundreds of thousands have come to know the love of Christ through this ministry; it is not for us to know the full extent of its full impact,” a message at the end said.
The video ended with “Happy birthday” sung by a mother and daughter in Chennai, South India.
Dr Willis has now set up a dedicated new YouTube channel to continue his garden ministry. In his final broadcast on Monday, he expressed gratitude to all those who had shared the journey. “It has been a real time of enjoyment, especially this unexpected time with you,” he said.
On Sunday, at his farewell service in the cathedral, the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, said “a huge thank you” to Dr Willis, paying tribute to his YouTube ministry. “It is not just what goes on in this building, but also what goes on in the garden,” she said.
Archbishop Welby praised Dr Willis for his “exceptional ministry”, which included bringing “the comfort and hope of Jesus Christ to many thousands of people around the world through his daily Morning Prayer videos”.
The Archbishop said: “Today we say goodbye not to just to a Dean of Canterbury, but to one of the great Deans of Canterbury, indeed to one of the great Deans of the last 100 years.”
The Very Revd Dr Jane Hedges, who retired this month as Dean of Norwich, has been appointed Acting Dean of Canterbury.