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Obituary: The Revd Dr Alan Wilkinson

08 July 2022

The Rt Revd Stephen Platten writes:

IT WAS to the title parish of St Augustine’s, Kilburn, in north Lon­don, that Alan was ordained and where he began his varied and rich priestly ministry in God’s Church. St Augustine’s, one of John Lough­borough Pearson’s greatest parish churches, gave much joy to Alan, as someone whose focus always em­­braced a profound appreciation of the arts, especially English lit­­erature and also architecture.

Alan Bassindale Wilkinson was born in 1931 in the town of Cradley Heath, just nine miles due west of Birmingham. His father, a Methodist minister and academic with his roots in the East Riding, later became a lecturer at Hartley College, in Man­­chester, to where the family moved in the 1930s, and where Alan en­­joyed a northern childhood and youth.

Alan was educated at William Hulme’s Grammar School and was something of a star pupil, gaining a scholarship to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. Here, he read English and later studied for a Ph.D., also in the same subject. From Cambridge, he returned north to train for the priesthood at the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, for which he retained a lifelong love and ad­­miration; indeed some thirty years later, he wrote the standard history of both college and community.

After his curacy, Alan returned to Cambridge as Chaplain at St Catharine’s, and, six years later, he moved to the south-west, where he became Vicar of Barrow Gurney, in the diocese of Bath & Wells, and lecturer in theology at St Matthias, a College of Education in Bristol. It was from there that he was ap­­pointed Principal of Chichester Theological College, where, argu­ably, there was the greatest oppor­tunity to combine his love both for theology and English literature, through scholar­­ship and teaching. Students there still remember lectures with significant stacks of novels and poetry piled on the desk. Invariably, he would begin in his soft northern brogue: “To­day, I’m going to talk to you about pastoral theo­logy in the context of the Victorian novel”. The next week would begin similarly, but this time focusing on Chris­tian theology and spir­ituality.

His spell in Chich­es­ter was relatively brief, and he moved to teach theology at Verulam House in the Dio­­cese of St Albans, before taking up a post as lecturer at Alsager College of Education in south-west Cheshire. From there, he moved further north again, be­­coming Director of Training for the Diocese of Ripon, and finally moving to Darley, near Harrogate, as parish priest.

Alongside this intriguing journey, Alan combined a continual life of scholarship; more than one of his books has become seminal in its own field. His history of Mirfield has already been mentioned, but perhaps most ground-breaking was The Church of England and the First World War, first published in 1978. Although scholarship has moved on and become critical of some aspects of his analysis, his book remains unique in approaching the subject through the poetry and novels that were the fruit of the conflict. Alan later wrote Dissent or Conform, which analysed the Christian com­­munity’s attitudes to war in both the 1930s and in Hitler’s war — again a trail-blazing piece of research.

His Christian Socialism: Scott Holland to Tony Blair was yet another first, of­­fering a focused history of Chris­­tian Socialism. He was proud of his Cambridge D.D., a reward for his pioneering work.

On retirement, he moved to Portsmouth, where he contributed much to the life of the diocese and cathedral, including co-editing with Sarah Quail Forever Building, essays on the completion of the cathedral. He was always a stimulating preacher and, throughout his life, had a great gift for friendship, as this writer can testify through personal experience. He remained a good friend of Frank Field, another “maverick” thinker, and he was a great admirer of George Bell, whose good name he helped to restore. In conversation and debate, he was always stimulating, coming at things “slant”, challenging one to think again, and always bringing together his extensive knowledge of history, literature, and theology to offer a new take on the subject in hand.

Alan was married first to Eva, with whom he had three children — Sarah, John, and Conrad — and then later to Fenella. We shall much miss both his friendship and his fertile and intriguing mind.

The Revd Dr Alan Wilkinson died on 20 June, aged 91.

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