The Right Rev Hugo de Waal

Former Bishop of Thetford


Hugo Ferdinand de Waal, priest: born Jember, Java 16 March 1935; ordained deacon 1960, priest 1961; Curate, St Martin's in the Bull Ring, Birmingham 1960-64; Chaplain, Pembroke College, Cambridge 1964-68; Rector, Dry Drayton 1964-73, with Bar Hill Ecumenical Area 1967-73; Vicar, St John's, Blackpool 1974-78; Principal, Ridley Hall, Cambridge 1978-91; Honorary Canon, Ely Cathedral 1986-91; Bishop Suffragan of Thetford 1992-2000; Honorary Assistant Bishop, Diocese in Europe 2002-07; married 1960 Brigit Massingberd-Mundy (one son, three daughters); died Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk 6 January 2007.

Hugo de Waal, Bishop of Thetford from 1992 until 2000, was the first bishop to be consecrated by George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury. He brought a wide variety of gifts and experience to the episcopate, not least those of a wounded healer.

He was born and brought up in Java in the Dutch East Indies, where his father, Bernard, was an executive with Shell. His family, Dutch and patrician, had to flee to Australia as refugees at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1942. Hugo was turning seven and this experience left him with a deep sense of aloneness, which never left him.

Coming to England, they settled in Crowborough, East Sussex, and Hugo was a day-boy at Tonbridge School, perfecting the art of doing his homework on the school bus. Like his cousins Victor, later to be Dean of Canterbury, and Henry, afterwards First Parliamentary Counsel, he went up from Tonbridge to Pembroke College, Cambridge, cementing the family links there by, in 1964, becoming Chaplain under the indomitable Dean, Meredith Dewey, in the heady days following the publication of John Robinson's Honest to God.

Ordained in 1960, he completed his theological studies at the University of Münster, where he specialised in the New Testament. He always retained the faint hint of a Dutch accent, which became more pronounced when he was tired.

From its beginning at St Martin's in the Bull Ring under the great evangelist Bryan Green, Rector of Birmingham (several of whose curates were later to become bishops, including Peter Vaughan of Ramsbury, Peter Hall of Woolwich and Christopher Mayfield of Manchester), Hugo de Waal's ministry was marked by fertility of ideas and his own personal sensitivity.

He was an avid ecumenist. While he was at Cambridge in the 1960s the Bar Hill Ecumenical Project was founded, which was eventually to flourish under the care and leadership of one of de Waal's later protégés, James Newcombe. In the 1970s during his time at St John's in Blackpool, his ministry was valued not only in the town but also by the theatrical profession, to whom he became a trusted confidant. He had the ability to bring together different kinds of people from all ages and backgrounds, a gift that was later to bear fruit with the Cambridge Federation of Theological Colleges.

In 1978 de Waal became Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, his old theological college. This was a place with deep family roots: he had met his wife Brigit at Ridley through her brother Roger Massingberd-Mundy when they were students together. Moreover, their grandfather Paul Gibson had been a distinguished Principal of the hall.

De Waal's time as Principal was challenging. He followed the charismatic and hugely popular Keith Sutton who had gone on to become Bishop of Kingston. Ridley has never been an easy college to lead. De Waal was innovative with the "God on Monday" project (bringing the world of church and work together), daring in his choice of staff, and bold in initiating building work in the college. However the strain began to show as he struggled to cope with the more entrenched evangelical element among the college community. De Waal had moved on from his evangelical roots: his sympathies becoming broader and his spirituality deeper.

After 13 years at Ridley he was appointed Bishop of Thetford in the Diocese of Norwich, following the hymn writer Timothy Dudley-Smith. Possessing a great capacity for prayer, he was a dedicated and hard-working pastoral bishop, with his heart firmly rooted in the parish, taking great trouble in making clerical appointments, caring for the clergy and encouraging them and their people. A sound and solid preacher and teacher, he was frustrated by the burden of administration and the ever-increasing load of paperwork that prevented him from using his academic gifts to the full. A valued spiritual director and listener, he drew on his own experience of plumbing the depths to help others become more aware of their own.

Retiring to Suffolk, he became an enthusiastic advocate of the local Refugee Council, bringing a keen sense of justice and knowledge from his own formative experience of what it was to be exiled. He surprised himself and delighted others by discovering his profound gift for writing poetry in a style not unlike that of R.S. Thomas.

Peter Townley

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