Obituary: The Very Rev Ronald Selby Wright

Click to follow
The Independent Online
At a wedding reception in June, after the 84-year-old bridegroom had walked up the aisle in the beautiful medieval church at Aberlady, in East Lothian, with his grandson by his side as Best Man, I had my last conversation with the Very Reverend Moderator (for years my family had addressed him as "Moderator", as he liked to be called), Dr Ronald Selby Wright.

"Well, Moderator, have even you witnessed a groom with his grandson as Best Man walking up the aisle with his granddad?"

"No," reflected Selby Wright. "I confess that I do not think that I have." And then, with a flash of that famous wit: "Perhaps I would, if I had been the minister, have married the bride to the grandson by mistake. That would have been awful, wouldn't it!" (Chuckle, chuckle.) Selby Wright then switched, as he so often did in his legendary sermons, from the comic to the serious: "You know, even now I see, observe, or learn something new every day. That, Tam, is the secret of life. Look to the future. It keeps you young in mind."

At 87, Selby Wright was as quizzical and humorous as he had always been. For 40 years he was the minister of the Canongate in Edinburgh, a preacher so entrancing that people flocked to hear him. I asked him the secret of his preaching. "Do you really want to know? In 1940 I was padre to the 7th/9th Battalion of the Royal Scots in France. After a church parade, the RSM said out of the side of his mouth to me: 'Padre, you will fucking have to do fucking better than that for a sermon!' " Selby Wright continued: "So I applied myself and have done so ever since. The answer to your question is that my sermons required hours of preparation. I did not want to encounter another sergeant-major who would say that kind of thing to me."

Thus started the radio padre of my childhood, and 55 years of a very special preacher who was reckoned by the BBC to be second only to the late Tommy Handley in popularity. He had some 10 million listeners. I am authorised by the Queen's Private Secretary to say that he was one of Her Majesty's favourite preachers.

Selby Wright was born into the Church of Scotland. His father, also Ronald, was one of the most gifted organists of the early years of this century. His mother, Sylvie, was the daughter of Major R.E. Selby, coming from a military family which included eminent Scottish divines steeped in the turbulent theological history of the 19th-century Scottish Church. It was partly on account of this background that he edited Fathers of the Kirk (1960), a description of the 19th-century heavyweights of theological Scotland. He wrote in its foreword:

It must be clearly understood that the reformers believe that the continuity of the Church in Scotland was not broken by the Reformation, for it was by the Church herself that the Reformation was effected.

There was never any question of setting up a new church. The intention in the mind of the reformers was not to destroy the Church as a united and visible body, but to strengthen and perfect its organisation by purifying it from corruptions and restoring its Apostolic and primitive form. In the eyes of the reformers there was no real disruption at the Reformation - baptism and ordination were held as valid and the Reformed Minister emerged from the Roman priesthood.

The Church in England and the Church in Scotland recognised each other's orders for years to come. As the Celtic Church had been joined with the Romanists, so the Romanist was in part absorbed into, in part superseded by, the reformed. The

Church of Scotland counts itself as

a branch of the Catholic Church Reformed, members of no national sect, but of the universal kirk. The Church of Scotland is not only reformata, but semper reformanda.

It was no accident that Selby Wright was to be the first Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland ever to make an official visit to a Roman Catholic secondary school (St Augustine's in Edinburgh).

In 1911 the family moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh, where Ronald got rigorous classical schooling at the Edinburgh Academy and Melville College. He proceeded to Edinburgh University, which a quarter of a century later was to bestow an honorary doctorate of Divinity on him, and to New College, the theological cradle in Edinburgh of the Kirk.

Talent-spotted by the Very Reverend Charles Warr, minister of St Giles, Selby Wright was appointed student minister at the Edinburgh Cathedral Church from 1929 to 1936. Then he became assistant minister of St Mungo's Cathedral in Glasgow. Before he had had time to put his feet under the proverbial pew he was plucked back to Edinburgh as minister of the kirk of Canongate, within a stone's throw of Holyroodhouse, immersed in 700 years of Scottish history, but at that time a run-down inner-city parish.

Warr, who had probably earmarked Selby Wright as his own successor at St Giles, thought that he should come to know about the problems of a deprived parish, before succeeding him to the pomp and pageantry of the Dean of the Chapel Royal in Scotland and the Deanery of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle. The fact that Selby Wright was never to become minister of St Giles is bound up with his parish experience and his determination not to desert the poor people of Edinburgh, and his work during the Second World War.

After appalling adventures at St Valery he somehow managed to escape from the oncoming German army - he ascribed it to Divine Providence - but after six days and nights "without one kip", he told me, he got back to Britain on one of the last of the small craft from the Dunkirk beaches.

In 1942 he became senior chaplain of the 52nd (Lowland) Division and travelled to the Middle East and around the Mediterranean, particularly ministering to the British officers and men seconded to the 10th Indian Division. In 1944 his congregation - on account of his skill as a radio padre - was estimated at over 10 million, but perhaps his most moving broadcasts came from the transit camps in Italy, Austria and southern Germany. His book Let's Ask the Padre (1943) - he was a prolific pamphleteer and polemicist - was a brilliant summary of questions that "jocks, and anybody else" might ask before going into battle and facing the all-too-real possibility of death.

After hostilities had ceased, Selby Wright returned to the Canongate church, though he could have had a choice of wealthy parishes throughout Scotland. With demonic energy he launched himself into the problems of people in the post-war world, and particularly the mending of families of servicemen who had been away for some years and returned to family situations very different from those they had left. Given that his own church was in terrible disrepair, he launched an appeal for the restoration of the Canongate. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, now the Queen Mother, were leading subscribers. Selby Wright set up a modest clergy house where he could welcome people beside his manse, and devoted most of the money to a new youth centre.

In 1961, to commemorate his 25 years' ministry in the Canongate, Selby Wright was appointed by the Queen as one of her extra chaplains in Scotland. In 1963 he became Her Majesty's Chaplain and served the Royal Family until 1978.

Just before he reached his 65th birthday Selby Wright was made the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. By every criterion of scholarly preaching and pastoral care, he had deserved to become Moderator in any of the previous 15 years. The trouble was the whisper, "But are we sure Ronnie is not too fond of his boys?" The question transfixed and enthralled Edinburgh society.

In the early 1970s, for my mother and many others of her generation, entry into the European Community was nothing like as difficult, or indeed as urgent, an issue as to whether Ronnie Selby Wright should accede to the Moderatorship of the General Assembly. Since there seemed to be little question and certainly no evidence that he had ever taken advantage of any of the innumerable boys who had benefited greatly from his care, the Kirk took the plunge and elected its first bachelor Moderator.

Cosmopolitan readers of obituaries in the Independent in 1995 might raise an eyebrow as to what on earth all the fuss was about, but it was a huge issue in the Scotland of 1972. Good sense and Selby Wright triumphed, and it was something of a landmark in progress.

Selby Wright used his moderatorship to great advantage for the Church. He made a three-week tour to India and brought home to the Church of Scotland the horror of the slums of Calcutta and Old Delhi. He revived the link between Scotland and the Church in India and breathed new life into the overseas connections of the Scottish Church. He made a point of visiting the Roman Catholic monks at Nunraw Abbey, a very ecumenical act before ecumenism was as fashionable as it is now.

But most of his official engagements concentrated on groups of young people. It encapsulated Selby Wright's attitude that his New Year message in 1973 as Moderator was that he objected to criticism about the youth of the day. Modern youth, Selby Wright said, was very much more concerned with people than his generation had been when they were young and he asserted that they were more honest and more straightforward.

In his retirement he continued to accept the obligations of a much sought- after preacher, and he took on many of the tasks to reinstate the Old Town of Edinburgh, of which he knew a great deal.

Let the last word be with his successor, the Rev Charlie Robertson, himself a truly excellent minister of the kirk: "Selby Wright's style of ministry was idiosyncratic. But the principles of his ministry were faithfulness, compassion, loyalty to the truth, a welcome for everybody and diligence to the work of the parish. As far as the Church is concerned and society was concerned, he was Canongate for 40 years when it was on its uppers. When I came to Canongate nobody could have been a truer friend or a better person to follow. He was a great encourager." A great encourager could be his epitaph.

Tam Dalyell

Ronald William Vernon Selby Wright, minister of the church: born Glasgow 12 June 1908; Minister of the Canongate, Edinburgh, and of Edinburgh Castle 1936-77 (Emeritus); Extra Chaplain to the Queen in Scotland 1961-63, 1978- 95, Chaplain to the Queen 1963-78; CVO 1968; Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1972-73; Chaplain to the Queen's Bodyguard for Scotland, Royal Company of Archers 1973-93; died Edinburgh 24 October 1995.

Comments