The Right Rev Kenneth Woollcombe: Scholarly Bishop of Oxford
Tuesday 15 April 2008
Kenneth Woollcombe's life fell into two halves. The first, during which he became Bishop of Oxford, was marked by distinguished work in many fields and a widespread expectation that he might eventually move to one of the Church of England's most senior posts. The second half, following the death of his first wife in 1976 and his subsequent decision to retire early from Oxford, involved a gradual and painful adjustment to much less responsibility and more frequent ill health, though this was eased by his second and very happy marriage.
After leaving Haileybury School in 1943, Woollcombe joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and trained as an engineer, later serving on various minesweepers. There is a photograph of him at this time in naval uniform, with his peaked cap set at a jaunty angle, a pipe in his hand and a broad smile on his face. Here was someone who seemed to be at ease in almost any situation, and already he was displaying a warmth which made him many friends in the years to come. He and a colleague both joined the Navy after reading Classics in the sixth form, yet Woollcombe took to this very different discipline easily: he quoted his father (a parish priest in Sutton) as saying that he thought "he was quite dotty to give up engineering for the priesthood".
But give it up he did, having in fact earlier won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford. There he read theology under Geoffrey Lampe, then at the forefront of patristic (early Fathers) studies: Woollcombe absorbed considerable knowledge in this field, and so was well prepared for the two spells of academic teaching which came after two years at Westcott House theological college and a curacy at Grimsby. He returned first to St John's College as Chaplain and Tutor in 1955, and five years later accepted an invitation to become a Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the General Theological Seminary in New York.
Just before his ordination as deacon, Woollcombe was married, in 1950, to Gwenda Hodges. By the time of the move to America, there were three young daughters, and the journey became particularly fraught when Kenneth became ill just before the family were due to embark at Liverpool, and he was rushed into hospital. Further ill health occurred from time to time, not least occasional bouts of nervous exhaustion after intense activity.
While in New York all the children contracted measles quite badly, and Woollcombe was shocked to find how much they would have to pay to see a doctor. In the event they went without, and this personal experience helped to strengthen further the more radical views which he and many of his generation had acquired during and just after the Second World War.
Although Woollcombe enjoyed his time at the seminary and was described as a "great hit" by a member of staff later, nevertheless there were difficulties in finding a satisfactory education for the children, among other things, and so reluctantly they returned after three years to live in Edinburgh, where Woollcombe had been appointed Principal of Coates Hall, the theological college for ordinands from the Episcopal Church in Scotland. Here his many gifts came into full play, notably his skill as a teacher and preacher, together with his openness and pastoral insight.
When, therefore, in 1971 he became Bishop of Oxford at the comparatively young age of 46, it came as no surprise to those who knew him – but unexpected for those who did not. He had spent little time within the normal structures of the Church of England, and he knew Oxford best as a former academic in the university.
The diocese was one of the largest in the country with three suffragan bishops and an enormous expansion of population since the war (e.g. Milton Keynes). Unsurprisingly there had been a proposal to divide it into three, roughly corresponding to the counties of Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. But this did not happen, and so Woollcombe entered into new and heavy work with characteristic zest, determined to relate more directly with parishes and people.
At first all went well: his chaplain at the time wrote, "He received a great welcome from the diocese, and his open personality, coupled with warmth of manner, led to the diocese taking him to their hearts". Difficult problems arose from time to time, notably in connection with one of the theological colleges, but he brought a sharp mind to these and other problems and to their eventual solution.
He was called on to serve as a delegate to the World Council of Churches' assembly at Nairobi and later on their Central Committee, and also as chair of the SPCK (Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge) at a time of considerable change. He found living out at the small village of Cuddesdon, traditional home of the bishops, a particular burden. After a while those closest to him detected signs of increasing strain, despite his ready humour, and began to wonder how long he could continue the pace. And then suddenly his wife became ill and died in 1976.
For a while he struggled on, but 18 months later resigned. Moving to London, he became a full time assistant bishop there for a few years, and in 1980 he married Juliet Dearmer, then a deaconess in Marylebone. This gave him renewed stability and joy, and many hoped that he might return to episcopal ministry in a smaller diocese, which would also have given him a voice in the central councils of the Church of England.
The opportunity was offered, but he chose instead to become a resident canon of St Paul's Cathedral, from 1981 to 1989. Here he worked as a valued pastor to the choir and congregation and preached regularly, something which he saw as the most important part of his ministry there. Once again his gift for friendship and pastoral support to individuals came to the fore.
During this period he continued to be involved with ecumenical work, becoming chair of the Churches' Council for Covenanting, a successor to the failed scheme for Anglican and Methodist Reunion. He cared about this deeply, and when this too failed to obtain the necessary majority he was very distressed. Attempting to mend a chair at the time he heard the news, he broke it up in exasperation.
In 1987 Juliet was made deacon-in-charge of four small rural parishes in Worcestershire, and Kenneth assisted her. He was able to slow down , enjoy time with his young daughter, and carry out various tasks as an assistant bishop. They finally retired to Pershore in 1998, by which time Woollcombe's health was beginning to deteriorate: during the last few years he required constant care.
Kenneth John Woollcombe, priest: born Sutton, Surrey 2 January 1924; ordained deacon 1951, priest 1952; Curate, St James, Grimsby 1951-53; Fellow, Chaplain and Tutor, St John's College, Oxford 1953-60 (Honorary Fellow 1971); Professor of Dogmatic Theology, General Theological Seminary, New York 1960-63; Principal of Episcopal Theological College, Edinburgh 1963-71; Bishop of Oxford 1971-78; Assistant Bishop, Diocese of London 1978-81; Canon Residentiary of St Paul's 1981-89, Precentor 1982-89; Assistant Bishop, Diocese of Worcester 1989-2008; Chairman, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge 1973-79; Chairman, Churches' Council for Covenanting 1978-82; married 1950 Gwenda Hodges (died 1976; three daughters), 1980 Juliet Dearmer (one daughter); died Worcester 3 March 2008.
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