The Right Rev Peter Walker: Educator, scholar and former Bishop of Ely

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The Independent Online

As the Church of England drowns itself in an ever-enlarging sea of paper and political correctness, so certain individuals from its history emerge, like figures from a skilfully restored painting, and we begin to realise that if the faith is to flourish in the 21st century we need to find once again deans of the stature of Michael Mayne and Michael Stancliffe, and bishops of the calibre of Robert Runcie and Peter Walker. Faith was not a simple matter for Walker, but he succeeded in communicating the excitement of the pursuit. He appreciated the poetry of R S Thomas – "such a fast God" – and of his beloved Geoffrey Hill. He relished the teasing out of the message – "the meaning is in the waiting".

When Walker came to preach in Brasenose Chapel at my invitation for Remembrance Sunday, he began his sermon by quoting in Greek a First World War memorial quatrain written by Edgar Lobel for his gremial college, Queen's, where he had achieved a First in Greats. I prayed that Walker would translate the lines: he did eventually, but not before he had pointed out the oddity of two Homeric forms! Yet what the congregation recall as the most memorable phrase in a profound meditation on the nature of Christian service was his description of the wartime sinking of HMS Broadwater – the ship on which Walker himself should have been serving – "with all the watch below", a phrase he tellingly repeated. Walker's naval service, at first as a rating, formed a vital part of his priestly formation, and also brought him into fruitful contact with Bishop George Bell.

To meet Peter Walker was to experience the grace of God in action; to know him was to gain an understanding of the costly, sacrificial love of Christ. There was the serenity which came from what the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews calls "the assurance of things promised". There was the compassion which came from suffering shared and offered up. There was the warmth which came from a rich enjoyment of all sorts and conditions of men. My pignus amicitiae, or token of friendship was, as for many others, a signed copy of an off-print of Walker's article in Classical Quarterly on the Pentecontaetia, the 50-year period leading up to the Peloponnesian War. He was delighted when the Thucydides scholar Simon Hornblower recently alluded to this piece in his monumental edition of the historian.

Scholar, priest, pastor, friend. Walker combined these attributes in a seamless ministry which began when he was a schoolmaster (still today affectionately remembered by his pupils from the King's School, Peterborough and Merchant Taylors', Northwood). It continued when in 1958 he became Fellow, Tutor and Dean of Chapel at Corpus, Cambridge, and blossomed when he was appointed in 1962 as Principal of the theological college Westcott House.

Distinguished ordinands, such as John Oliver, a future Bishop of Hereford, who knew the earlier Westcott regime, tell of the sea-change Walker effected: quietly but firmly he turned the house from being a finishing school for young gentlemen into an institution which exposed its members to the challenges of 1960s theology while grounding them in the disciplines of the Book of Common Prayer and the Daily Office.

After his consecration as Bishop of Dorchester, Walker proposed marriage to Jean Ferguson, and so began a partnership of 37 years which enriched his ministry and enlarged his humanity. Their house became a home; learning and teaching were tempered with humour and conversation. One might chew over Bonhoeffer and Hill and Augustine with Peter, but afterwards there was always a cup of tea with Jean to bring us gently back to earth. Walker also relished his canonry at Christ Church, Oxford, dining with an increasingly debilitated W H Auden and also with cultivated colleagues such as Ron Truman and Christopher Butler.

Translated to Ely in 1977, he proved that fire and ice (to quote another favourite poet of his, A E Housman) were as much part of his nature as sweetness and light, when the Dean had to be removed, £4m had to be raised for the Cathedral fabric and parochial clergy had to be laid off. Yet Walker, through his attentiveness and concern for individuals, retained the affection even of those whose roles he had to modify – or, on occasion, to abolish. Twenty-five years after I had left his diocese, Walker recalled my rector in Willingham, the quiet and scholarly John Francis: "A prayerful priest and a keen collector of John Piper prints." Walker always remembered that sort of detail – he cared deeply about people and places. Attentiveness, as John Beer said in the course of a memorable funeral address, was his hallmark.

In retirement, Walker's ministry expanded through his assiduous letter-writing and those telephone conversations, so much enjoyed by their recipients, characterised by the delighted chuckle when something or someone amused him. And then there was the deft addition of the significant adverb: was such and such a manuscript reading entirely correct? Should we be wholly satisfied with a certain solution? Walker's was a ministry of encouragement; he was the master of the encouraging letter and the soothing telephone call.

With Peter Walker's death, the Church of England loses a precious son. Where are we to find that perfectly judged tact and meticulous attention to detail? That feeling for the dignity of worship but the provisionality (an ugly but precise, Peterish word) of the Revelation? Who is left to teach the Church of England to rejoice, to pray and yet not to take itself too seriously?

Richard Smail

Peter Knight Walker, priest: born 6 December 1919; Bishop Suffragan of Dorchester, and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford 1972–77; Bishop of Ely 1977–89; an Honorary Assistant Bishop, diocese of Oxford 1989–95; married 1973 Jean Ferguson; died Cambridge 28 December 2010.