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Obituary: The Right Rev William Westwood

"BISHOP BILL" was known to millions through his Thought for the Day broadcasts on Radio 4's Today programme. In an era when bishops have become far less important on the national scene than at any time since the Christian faith reached these islands, William Westwood retained the popular ear and was for many the voice of the Church. He had a natural understanding of the interests and language of ordinary people, and could express complex ideas in simple words. You would hear people on the train or the Tube, "I heard Bishop Bill saying this on the radio this morning", and they usually spoke of him with affection as though he were a friend.

He prided himself on what he called his fancy footwork in dealing with the media. When appointed to Peterborough in 1984, he moved into the Bishop's Palace, which for the modern church has unfortunate resonances of remoteness and privilege. Seizing on this, a reporter challenged him: "Bishop, how will you feel about living in a palace?", to which came the quick-witted reply, "Easy. If my son dates a princess, he'll be able to say to her, `Which palace tonight, yours or mine?' "

The reporter, who was no Jeremy Paxman, went away satisfied with this jokey rejoinder, but the reply illustrates Westwood's weaknesses as well as his strengths. He could sometimes be so populist that he seemed to lack seriousness, or would use the politician's manoeuvre of side-stepping an awkward issue. Occasionally he was seduced by the media into speaking on issues on which he was not well-informed, simply because he was the first ecclesiastical name that came to the reporter's mind.

He was appointed to Peterborough by the Thatcher government; there was a period when the Church of England seemed to be the only effective opposition to Margaret Thatcher, but Westwood prided himself on being, in his own words, "the only Thatcherite bishop on the bench". When he appeared on Any Questions with Norman Tebbit, it was hard to decide who was more right- wing. So, far from being the voice of the Church of popular perception, he was at times a somewhat isolated figure in a church which wanted a more compassionate society and a more liberal agenda.

One of the first questions he had to face on taking up the diocese of Peterborough was the request of the Ministry of Defence to purchase a piece of church land at Molesworth for a cruise missile site. For Westwood this was not an issue, but for others in the diocese it was, and he did not find it easy to be opposed publicly by one of his own priests.

As Bishop of Peterborough he followed Douglas Feaver, an old- fashioned autocrat who concealed under a prickly carapace a genuinely warm heart. When Westwood came it was hoped that the management style of the diocese would change, and in some ways it did. He preached about openness, set up a more consultative structure and created a suffragan bishopric, but despite his outwardly affable manner he could be as autocratic as his predecessor. He also had a famous temper, vented more often on the clergy than the laity. With lay people he went down very well. Whereas his predecessor hated bun fights, running away from them as fast as he could, Bishop Bill went round talking to everyone and always thanked those doing the washing-up.

But his real heart lay with the media, where he performed very well. In some ways he was a pioneer. He was the first to do Thought for the Day live, which gave it a certain edge and immediacy, incorporating it into the heart of the programme, sometimes with a little banter with Brian Redhead. His finely crafted pieces were often very effective, getting to the heart of an issue in three minutes. He often made use of poetry, and, though he confessed that he was no intellectual, he was widely read. An affectionate photograph shows him with his feet up reading a detective novel with a glass of Chardonnay at his elbow, and with just the suspicion of a smile on his lips.

Born in Gloucestershire on Holy Innocents' Day, 1925 (he would quip that he was not especially holy and was certainly no innocent), he moved with his family to Wales and attended Wrexham Grammar School. After a short period of military service at the end of the Second World War, in which he said he was taught to kill with six different weapons though mercifully was never required to use this skill, he went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, as an exhibitioner and then on to Westcott House.

He served a curacy in Hull, where he met and married Shirley Jennings. After an incumbency at Lowestoft he moved to St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, near to Anglia TV, where his media associations began. It was during this period that he became involved with housing associations, a cause that always remained important to him. In 1975 he was appointed Bishop of Edmonton within the diocese of London, where he dealt effectively with the ultramontane wing of the Church of England.

Westwood moved to Peterborough in late 1984, staying for 12 years. Because of his media interests, he was invited to serve on the Press Council, the Independent Broadcasting Authority panel of Religious Advisers and the Broadcasting Standards Commission, all of which he took seriously and to which he contributed his usual trenchant views. He loved being a member of the House of Lords and serving as a Church Commissioner. He felt he had received an important regional accolade when he was made President of the East of England Show, but perhaps the honour he most valued was to be elected an Honorary Fellow of his old college, Emmanuel.

He enjoyed being the star of any occasion. Each year he compered the Classical Pops Concert in Peterborough Cathedral with such panache that many said he could have made his living as a stand-up comic. And every year he seemed to get better, though some of his quips seemed surprising on the lips of a bishop.

Though he believed in the principle of synodical government and participated in it right from the start, he did not like the way it developed, feeling that it took up too much time and was too full of its own importance. He rightly said that the Synod is not the Church, and he always insisted on the independence of bishops. He himself had argued for the mandatory retirement of clergy at the age of 70, so it was ironic that when he himself reached 70, still full of his powers, he regretfully had to bow to his own legislation.

His retirement, though short, was happy. He continued to enjoy doing Thought for the Day right to the end with all his natural flair and easy communication skills. He never seemed troubled by doubts. He claimed to be a simple believer, and though he was in reality more complex than that, his faith did remain deep and strong. He believed with all his heart in a loving God whose purposes are good. With Michael Ramsey, from whom he took the phrase, he said he only prayed for one minute a day but it took him half an hour to get there. He also liked to quote Michael Ramsey's aphorism that nothing matters very much. What they both meant was that if you know God loves you, you do not need to worry about anything else. Bill Westwood lived and died in that faith.

He is survived by Shirley, a son - the Radio 1 rap disc jockey, Tim Westwood - a daughter and two grandchildren.

Jack Higham

William John Westwood, priest: born Saul, Gloucestershire 28 December 1925; ordained deacon 1952, priest 1953; Rector, St Margaret's, Lowestoft 1957-65; Vicar, St Peter Mancroft, Norwich 1965-75; Hon Canon, Norwich Cathedral 1969-75; Rural Dean of Norwich 1966-70, City Dean 1970-73; Area Bishop of Edmonton 1975-84; Bishop of Peterborough 1984-95; Chairman, Church of England Committee for Communications 1979-86; married 1954 Shirley Jennings (one son, one daughter); died Cottingham, East Riding of Yorkshire 15 September 1999.