Roger Plumpton Wilson, priest: born Manchester 3 August 1905; ordained deacon 1935, priest 1936; Vicar of South Shore, Blackpool 1939-45; Archdeacon of Nottingham and Vicar of Radcliffe-on-Trent 1945-49; Vicar of Shelford 1946-49; Bishop of Wakefield 1949-58; Chairman, Church of England Schools Council 1957-71; Bishop of Chichester 1958-74; Clerk of the Closet to the Queen 1963-75; KCVO 1974; Hon Assistant Bishop, Diocese of Bath and Wells 1974-2002; married 1935 Joyce Avery (died 1995; two sons, one daughter); died Stanton Drew, Somerset 1 March 2002.
Roger Wilson was successively a much-valued curate, vicar, archdeacon and bishop, serving from 1935 to 1974 when the Church of England was experiencing radical change. For 16 years from 1958 he was Bishop of Chichester.
An able teacher coming from generations of country clergy, this good-looking man, who kept his youth, was consistently kind, always with time to care in practical ways in a crisis and willing to accept any role the Church asked him to fulfil. He believed that religion was so personal that people should make up their own minds and when pressed to make a decision as a bishop would tend to say, "I can't decide for you; I've only just arrived" or "I shall soon be leaving this diocese" – as the case might be.
After Winchester and Keble College, Oxford, he was an assistant Classics master at Shrewsbury, from which he was seconded for two years to St Andrew's College, Grahamstown, in South Africa. Here he joined in cave excavation and diamond prospecting – without success. To the chagrin of his Shrewsbury headmaster he decided to be ordained and, after Westcott House and time at a camp for the unemployed, decided to work in a Liverpool slum parish.
Here he was up against the cultural gap between the young people in his confirmation classes and the teaching he was expected to give. Pausing at the end and pressing them to ask questions about the Gospels, the best he could elicit from, he said, "one of the stupidest but nicest boys" was "Sir, how does your collar fasten at the back?" But there was little bitterness between the haves and have-nots, and real friendship with those who had been to the unemployed camps. Everyone laughed together at the eccentricities of parsons, one of whom put up a notice outside his church: "Lent? Give it back of course."
Wilson was working in a doomed parish and after two years he had to leave, as it could not afford a curate. In 1935 he had married Joyce Avery, who shared his work with sparkling good-humour and was a wonderful support. F.R. Barry, the learned author and priest, invited the Wilsons to join him at St John's, Smith Square, in caring for the back-street London life in those days huddled behind Westminster Abbey. The parish under Barry and Wilson was instrumental in bringing over a number of Jewish refugees fleeing from Hitler, while Sunday by Sunday in his sermons Barry opposed appeasement and foretold the doom that would hit Europe.
Again parish finances dictated a move and Wilson, rejecting several academic posts, went in 1939 to be a Lancashire vicar of a parish of 20,000 in Blackpool. On the outbreak of war his bishop would not allow him to volunteer as a chaplain to the forces, but Wilson returned occasionally to London, sharing the Blitz as a warden to relieve other clergy. He was regarded as a good trainer of curates.
After Blackpool, Barry, now Bishop of Southwell, appointed him Archdeacon of Nottingham and five years later in 1949 encouraged the headmaster archbishop Geoffrey Fisher to have him appointed Bishop of Wakefield, where he spent the nine happiest years of his life.
He struck the members of his diocese as extremely young and they liked the Wilsons' furniture, battered by constant hospitality, and his car with holes in the floor. He spent the staff meetings listening intently and would only intervene to encourage kindness, common sense, ecumenism and the need for a sense of fun. In the changed post-war world he did not forget the gap between the churches and workers and encouraged industrial mission and lay initiatives. He could affirm and laugh – even when his wife accidentally tipped quantities of custard over him at a meal for ordinands.
As in any diocese Wilson was faced with a few prickly priests who were problems in themselves and to their parishioners. In parts of the diocese he was popular and his appointments were often daring. So unprelatical and vigorous, he delighted the laity. When this homely, tolerant bishop, notably understanding of the divorced, was moved to Chichester the Wilsons experienced culture shock. Joyce gave their new address for the redirection of letters to the Wakefield postmistress: "The Palace, Chichester, Sussex." The postmistress asked, "What is that, a cinema or a dance hall?"
Chichester had a tradition of Brighton and South Coast ritualism, of which Wilson's liberal Catholicism was always tolerant. He fought a successful behind-the-scenes battle to save the theological college from closure. But he found the gatehouse in the Close symbolic of a Barchester separateness, and Joyce, who had been so valued for her social hard work in Wakefield, felt banished to the wings. He missed the close friendships he had experienced in the North. The Palace was historic but cumbersome and his office 30 miles away at Hove. Bishop George Bell, in Wilson's own phrase "the last of the greats", was a hard act to follow. But Wilson was friendly, conscientious and prepared to travel long distances.
He spoke frequently, though perhaps not memorably, in the House of Lords. He was a most welcoming Clerk of the Closet for 11 years (appointed KCVO in 1974), Chairman of the Church of England Schools Council and much involved in the Conference of European Churches, with a special concern for the churches in France, which he frequently visited. In all these tasks he would insist that religion is a relationship with God and the neighbour. He believed in deepening and simplifying the core of Faith.
In his farewell letter to the diocese of Chichester in 1974 Wilson wrote,
A bishop's role in some ways isolates him and his household from direct and continuous contacts. In much administration, in obstinate piles of detail, in journeyings often, which makes concentration difficult, he loses something of that fellowship which parish and community can bring: but in other ways he has opportunities of a rich and varied experience.
Roger Wilson brought loyal, humorous, intelligent and personal service to the Church. His long retirement was clouded in his last years by the death of Joyce, his beloved support, and by the onset of blindness.
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