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Obituary: The Very Revd Trevor Beeson

by
27 October 2023

Winchester Cathedral Trust

THE Very Revd Trevor Beeson, who died on 16 October, aged 97, was a journalist and cathedral administrator of great effectiveness who remained always a man of God.

From 1987 until his retirement at 70 in 1996, he was Dean of Winchester. In his book A Dean’s Diary (1997), he tells the story of how in his first spring there he came on two cathedral guides indignant on his behalf at a reference in a Daily Telegraph obituary to his predecessor: it described Michael Stancliffe as “perhaps the last of the Church of England’s ‘gentlemen’ deans”. The loyal guides thought this reflected badly on Dean Beeson. He hadn’t the heart to tell them he had written the piece himself.

He was in fact, for many years, in the midst of other tasks, the Telegraph’s main obituarist of Anglican clerics, with Who’s Who and Crockford in his bag when he travelled. His professional success began from his ease and lucidity as a writer. And his strength as a reformer came in part from his readiness, on chosen issues, to question gentlemanly conviction.

Trevor Randall Beeson came of plain origins in Nottinghamshire (he was born on 2 March 1926) and was in many ways self-educated. As the Second World War was ending, he joined the RAF Met Office, then worked for two years at the Westminster Bank in Nottingham, before he was accepted by Eric Abbott for ordination training at King’s College, London. He was deaconed in Durham Cathedral in 1951.

After a curacy in a coalmining village near Consett, he was, for 11 years, the popular vicar of a big new council-estate parish in Stockton-on-Tees: he kept contact with his old parishioners long afterwards. There, he became persuaded of the urgency of Christian mission in post-war Britain, and of the centrality of the parish eucharist for the purpose (a tenet he reconsidered at Winchester, out of concern for the half-committed). For two years, he was general secretary of the Parish and People movement, which pressed this cause.

In support of it, he began to write. His writing was noticed. To his surprise, he was summoned to London in 1965 to edit New Christian, a fortnightly magazine founded by Tim Beaumont with an ecumenical board. Trevor Beeson was its editor through the five years of its life.

He was a gifted editor: assured, open to ideas, writing expertly himself, drawing on a wide range of contributors. (His favourite was John Robinson.) He could be over-forceful: he reproached himself later with having been too hard on the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan. On Sundays, he was a busy curate at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Yet, although the paper caught a mood of the time, relating an engaged and unschismatic Christianity to the whole of life, not enough people wanted to buy it. When it failed, Trevor Beeson returned for another five years to the parish ministry, at Ware, in Hertfordshire.

He went on writing. He became the European correspondent of a Chicago-based journal, The Christian Century; he wrote a critical book about the Church of England; as a rapporteur of a British Council of Churches working-party, he put together a workmanlike survey of religious conditions in the then Soviet Union and empire, Discretion and Valour (1974).

In 1976, Downing Street, under Harold Wilson, judged that his skill could be put to broader use from a canonry at Westminster Abbey. After the appointment was announced, the canon-elect was discovered to be short of the MA degree stipulated by the Abbey statues. It was Dr Coggan who came to the rescue with an honorary award from Lambeth.

But cathedrals were changing. Visitors multiplied, funds shrank. A cloistered semi-sinecure was no longer to be had. Canon Beeson kept some of his old interests: always a supporter of intelligent religious publishing, he became chairman of SCM Press; he wrote a book for the British Council of Churches about Britain, and co-wrote another about church life in Latin America; he stayed a journalist, in print and on the air. Yet, the 20 years of full-time ministry that remained to him were claimed in the main by cathedral service.

He soon had more than enough to do (as he detailed in his 1998 book in diary form, Window on Westminster) at the Abbey. Within two years, he was its Treasurer. He and his beloved Dean, Edward Carpenter, were outvoted on a plan to improve the finances, and the local provision for visitors, with a coffee shop in the undercroft. Three years later, he switched to being Rector of St Margaret’s (where he managed a restoration appeal) and Chaplain to the Speaker of the Commons, with a third job still as an Abbey canon. He made friends with his two successive Speakers, George Thomas and Bernard (Jack) Weatherill, and moved regularly as minister among politicians and their spouses.

A neighbour from those years remembered him as a man of the people who loved people and conversation, his strength of character and mind and voice tempered by a large heart, his knowledge of events and books and people encyclopaedic. Making that impression in that place, he could hardly avoid preferment. His appointment to Winchester after 11 years came from Margaret Thatcher. It was a shrewd one.

He was devoted to Winchester Cathedral from the first. That long nave he found a symbol of “infinity made visible”. But, within three years, he was describing himself to cathedral supporters as an impatient dean.

Tensions were anyway likely. Much of the Chapter, and of the place’s ethos, was conservative; the new Dean was a liberal. He had come to believe that the vocation of these great churches was as spaces where a variety of people could worship and pray more or less on their own terms. He had no problem with women priests, co-operation with other denominations or faiths, services for Freemasons or fans of rock music, or the idea that canon and deans should hold their jobs by leasehold rather than freehold.

But even a rigid defender of the old order could not have remained inactive. Financially, the cathedral had been believed to breaking even. In his second summer, Dean Beeson learnt that the accounts showed a deepening deficit. In addition, the building needed expensive repair, and the cathedral’s fine music was shakily endowed. He approved the launch, in July 1990, of an appeal for £7 million.

He chafed at a dean’s limited authority within the chapter, and at the difficulty of forming individualist canons into a team that could press towards agreed goals. A visitors’ centre, provided for in the appeal, was a particular occasion of foot-dragging. But he found to his surprise that he enjoyed money-raising; and in sermons and speeches he continued to proclaim the gospel while he did it.

His achievements stand as his first memorial. The appeal, with first-class lay leadership, to which he always paid tribute, succeeded within three years. In consequence, the biggest restoration programme since before the First World War was put in hand, the choral tradition was made safe, and the visitors’ centre was duly built. Its opening by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip became the climax to the cheerful 900th-anniversary celebrations; it proved handsome and useful.

Besides all that, Dean Beeson put the cathedral’s day-to-day finances back into credit by reluctantly approving a system that made visitors opt out of an entrance contribution instead of opting in. He presided over an increase in the cathedral’s holding of modern works of art. He maintained civilised relations with his bishop, Colin James. And, in A Dean’s Diary, he wrote a book, which, though it raised one or two eyebrows at that time, described in level tones what the late-20th-century opportunities and problems of a great cathedral really were. He had not lost his truthful touch as a reporter.

He remained energetic to the end of his mandate. At the age of 68, in a last-wicket stand for a Dean and Chapter XI against the choristers, he hit the four that broke tradition by winning the match.

The sorrow of his time at Winchester was his wife’s descent into Alzheimer’s. He and Jo Cope had married in 1950. She had been the loved and hospitable mistress of their successive homes; at Winchester, she had put energy and money into furnishing the enormous deanery. She began to fail in 1994. Her husband took over the shopping and cooking, and visited her twice daily after she was institutionalised in 1996. He drew what comfort he could from her seeming happy still. She died in 1997.

He himself (appointed OBE that same year) had retired within the diocese to Romsey, where he wrote regularly for the diocesan newspaper. Several further books appeared, including Rebels and Reformers: Christian renewal in the twentieth century, The Canons: Cathedral close encounters, The Church’s Folk Songs: From “Hymns Ancient & Modern” to “Common Praise” 1861-2011, and The Church’s Other Half: Women’s ministry.

The Beesons are survived by two daughters.

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