Obituary: The Right Rev Gordon Wheeler

Robert E. Finnigan
Saturday 07 March 1998 00:02 GMT

IN HIS book The RCs, published in 1967, George Scott remarked of Bishop Gordon Wheeler that "in his familiarity and sympathy with the cultural and educational background shared by the majority of his fellow countrymen, he differs from most of his fellow bishops. His style of living is English . . . he had a different background from the other bishops - Manchester Grammar School and University College, Oxford." That this was the case reflected the course of Wheeler's journey of faith.

Born into the Church of England, in his youth he was greatly influenced by the Anglo-Catholic regime at his parish church in Worsley, near Manchester. After his graduation in 1932 he entered St Stephen's House, Oxford, to train for the Anglican priesthood and from there he went on to curacies in Brighton and Chesterfield before becoming Assistant Chaplain at Lancing College, Sussex. Throughout this period he was moving ever closer to Roman Catholicism, and he later admitted that by 1932 he had become "intellectually convinced" of the Roman Catholic position.

The turning-point of Wheeler's life came in 1936 when he finally decided to become a Catholic and was received into the Church at Downside Abbey in September that year. Soon afterwards, he travelled to Rome and entered the Beda College as a student for the Archdiocese of Westminster. He was ordained priest in 1940, and for the next four years was a curate in Lower Edmonton, until he joined the staff of Westminster Cathedral in 1944. In 1950, he became Chaplain to the Catholic students of London University and in 1954 was recalled to Westminster as Cathedral Administrator.

The next 10 years were, probably, his most enjoyable as he directed the liturgical and pastoral life of the cathedral with great style and dedication. Wheeler's leadership enhanced the cathedral in many ways, not least by overseeing the successful implementation of some of the architect J.F. Bentley's original plans for the interior decoration of his masterpiece.

His years as Cathedral Administrator established Wheeler's reputation not just in London but further afield and in 1964 he was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Middlesbrough. In this capacity he was eligible to attend the later sessions of the Second Vatican Council. He expected, in due course, to succeed Bishop George Brunner in Middlesbrough and was surprised to find himself translated to the Diocese of Leeds in 1966, to succeed George Patrick Dwyer, who had been appointed Archbishop of Birmingham. Wheeler became the seventh Bishop of Leeds just a few months after the end of the Vatican Council and from the start, the aim of his episcopate was to "implement the Council".

To that end, Wheeler established the Wood Hall Pastoral and Ecumenical Centre in 1967, the first Catholic diocesan council. With hindsight, in later years he was apt to regret that this initiative did not achieve more by way of disseminating the authentic fruits of Vatican II, and to speculate that it would have been better to concentrate on promoting this aim in the parishes, among priests and people at the grass roots. Nevertheless, Wood Hall epitomised Wheeler's vision of a church enriched by careful reflection on the work of the Vatican Council, in contrast to what he saw as the frequent, and sometimes deliberate, misinterpretations of conciliar teachings.

His loyalty to the Second Vatican Council was also apparent in 1980 when he was largely responsible for creating the Diocese of Hallam, by the separation from Leeds of 50 parishes in South Yorkshire to form the larger part of the new diocese, centred on Sheffield. This move conformed to the principle that dioceses should be of a size which permits effective pastoral care and administration by a single bishop; but, for a man with a keen sense of history, the division of a diocese which had existed since 1878 caused not a little sorrow.

Shortly before Wheeler's retirement in 1985, on reaching his 75th birthday, a parishioner in Bradford wished the bishop a "happy redundancy". He would have been the first to see the amusing side of her misconception, yet it contained a grain of truth large enough to cause a certain unease as he neared the end of his "working life". But his proved to be a very full and active retirement, until the onset of his final illness last summer.

He was a much loved and respected figure in his own diocese, and far beyond. The motto on his episcopal coat of arms was "Veritas et Caritas" and the essence of Gordon Wheeler's life as both priest and bishop was his abiding desire to serve the Church in truth and love.

William Gordon Wheeler, priest: born Dobcross, Yorkshire 5 May 1910; ordained priest 1934; Curate, St Bartholomew's, Brighton 1933-34; Curate, St Mary and All Saints, Chesterfield 1934-35; Assistant Chaplain, Lancing College 1935-36; ordained priest of the Roman Catholic Church 1940; Assistant, St Edmund's, Lower Edmonton 1940-44; Chaplain, Westminster Cathedral and Editor, Westminster Cathedral Chronicle 1944-50; Chaplain, London University 1950-54; Ecclesiastical Adviser, Union of Catholic Students 1953-60; Administrator, Westminster Cathedral 1954-65; Coadjutor Bishop of Middlesbrough 1964- 66; Bishop of Leeds 1966-85 (Emeritus); died Leeds 20 February 1998.

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