The Very Rev Alan Webster

Liberal Dean of Norwich and later of St Paul's who championed the ordination of women

Wednesday 05 September 2007 00:00 BST

Alan Brunskill Webster, priest: born Wrenbury, Cheshire 1 July 1918; ordained deacon 1942, priest 1943; Curate of Attercliffe Parishes, Sheffield 1942; Curate of St Paul's, Arbourthorne 1944; Chaplain and Vice Principal, Westcott House 1946; Vicar of Barnard Castle 1953; Warden, Lincoln Theological College 1959-70; Canon and Prebendary, Lincoln Cathedral 1964-70; Dean of Norwich 1970-78; Dean of St Paul's 1978-87 (Emeritus); KCVO 1988; married 1951 Margaret Falconer (two sons, two daughters); died Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk 3 September 2007.

Alan Webster brought with him a new vision of a modernised cathedral when he became Dean of Norwich in 1970 and then Dean of St Paul's eight years later. At that stage, an appeal for a large sum to restore the historic fabric did not seem urgent. What seemed to be vitally needed was a change in the atmosphere. The great church must appeal to the public as a community with open doors, not as a museum or as a private club for the superior.

In Norwich, the Church of England's new form of Holy Communion, then an experiment, was introduced, with an altar in the centre of the congregation. Many less solemn meetings meant that the choices of the laity were heard and taken seriously. At other meetings, topics then in the news were expounded by experts and freely discussed.

Visitors were invited not only into the famous architecture, but also into a new shop and canteen, unprecedented lavatories and an exhibition which explained the Christian faith. Lawns and handsome houses owned by the cathedral covered 40 acres around it, but now this village was opened to the public by a riverside walk and houses were converted into a home for the elderly and a study centre with well attended conferences and a library. It was said that "The Close" became "The Open".

Webster took special pride in two enterprises: Cathedral Camps, which got young people working merrily on practical jobs in Norwich and elsewhere; and a large hostel for men who would otherwise have slept rough.

The inspiration for this outreach was derived in particular by enthusiasm about a mystic in medieval Norwich, Mother Julian, the first woman to write a book in English and the first saint to insist that Christ's cross means not that God's wrath is satisfied by the punishment borne on behalf of sinners, but that God's love is proclaimed to be mother-like.

Many other cathedrals were stimulated to consider what could be learned and done in their own situations and the achievement was also noted in Downing Street. So in 1978, Webster was asked to apply his energy to the renewal of St Paul's Cathedral as a signal to London, to the nation and to the world. He accepted reluctantly.

As it turned out, he played a key role at several events. In 1981, the wedding between the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer delighted some 800 million television viewers as a magnificent affirmation of love and hope, and the cathedral did its best. And in the next year, the sombre service to mark the end of the Falklands war had undeniable integrity as an exhibition not of nationalism or of militarism but of a Christian response to a costly tragedy.

Webster's close friend Archbishop Robert Runcie preached a courageous sermon then and also commissioned a bold report on Britain's inner-city problems. In the extensive follow-up (including the Church Urban Fund), the message was taken to the powerful in the City of London by Webster. He risked alienating neighbours and benefactors, but instead the Lord Mayors chaired a committee of "advisers" who advised not only the clergy but also their own colleagues, with the ultimate result that a massive sum was raised for the needs of St Paul's Cathedral after Webster's time.

Another campaign of great importance to the Church was the Movement for the Ordination of Women. Alan Webster's wife, Margaret, who had been very active in Norwich and who had wanted to be in St Paul's, poured out her own energy as the movement's executive secretary, 1979-86. In its slow triumph, her hard work and soft charm were vital.

But Alan's wife, and Alan himself, were not entirely happy in St Paul's. In Norwich, a conservative evangelical had been appointed as bishop when the liberal Websters were already installed, and now in London a bishop arrived who was to show where his heart lay by becoming a Roman Catholic. There were limits to what could be done when a diocese had such a leader.

In Norwich there had been some protests, at least in the early years, when the Dean launched his projects without a full consultation with the residentiary canons who with him constituted the Chapter, but in St Paul's tensions and disputes were far worse because the canons were more formidable. It was therefore with relief that in 1987 the Websters retired to Norfolk, first living amid a surviving circle of friends in Norwich and then enjoying a house by the sea. They were never idle.

Alan Webster wrote a book of memories and reflections entitled Reaching for Reality (2002). His other substantial book was a biography of a layman active in good works, Joshua Watson (1954). Alan Webster had seen the reality of a clergyman being the centre of life in a small village, because he was the only child of a person content to be that. When ordained himself, in 1943, after Shrewsbury School and Queen's College, Oxford, he saw how very little the Church could matter in a different environment, for he went as a curate and youth leader to wartime Sheffield, but he did a happy and creative spell as a parish priest in County Durham and threw himself into the training of outgoing priests, first in Westcott House, Cambridge, and then as Principal of Lincoln Theological College, 1959-70.

In Lincoln he had a Methodist on his staff, he invited a Roman Catholic to give regular lectures, he made sure that wives felt included, and he began to see what a cathedral must become.

David L. Edwards

On 13 May 1982, writes Tam Dalyell, as a result of my appearance on Panorama the night before as an opponent of sending the battle fleet to the Falklands, I was branded a "traitor" on the floor of the House of Commons by Sally Oppenheim MP, to the widespread approval not only of Margaret Thatcher's supporters, but also of a swath of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

The same Tuesday, I received an invitation from Alan Webster to go the following week to the crypt of St Paul's, to talk to one of his regular groups. Webster was unafraid to invite the unpopular. This gentle man repeatedly challenged conventional wisdom.

At our meeting (and in many powerful subsequent sermons from May to July 1982) Webster explored the conditions for the "just war", in particular whether everything had been done that could reasonably have been done to avoid war, and whether the response was out of proportion to the original wrong.

His views on the actions of the Prime Minister were laced with the views of St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, on which Webster was a recognised scholar. As Dean of St Paul's, he insisted that the Service of Thanksgiving – to Thatcher's consternation – should be subdued and reference made to the Argentine dead.

In his last letter to me – he was of a generation that believed in the art of letter writing – Webster wrote: "If I was distressed about conflict in the South Atlantic, it is as nothing to my distress over Iraq."

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