FAITH PERSPECTIVE – MAY 1, The Very Reverend David Edwards

Gifted clergyman who served the Church by writing dozens of books interpreting its message

THE VERY REVEREND DAVID EDWARDS, who has died aged 89, was Provost of Southwark Cathedral from 1982 to 1994. He was one of the most intellectually able and highly regarded priests of his generation and held a number of glamorous and much-coveted posts – Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, Canon and Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey, Rector of St Margaret’s, Westminster, and Dean of Norwich.

It was a disappointment to some that he never produced the major works of scholarship expected of him after he had carried all before him at Oxford. He chose instead the path of interpreter and journalist, for he had a strong sense of calling to serve the Church by making its message more credible and accessible.

His books – more than 40 in number – were all pitched at the level of the average clergyman or intelligent layman. They were the fruit of wide interest and extensive reading, and most of them were publishing successes. The most substantial were Religion and Change (1969), based on his Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge, Christian England in three volumes (1981-84), The Futures of Christianity (1987), which was researched in Africa, Asia and North America, and Christianity: the first two thousand years (1997), which compressed Christian history into a single volume and was widely considered to have been an astonishing achievement.

Edwards was also editor and managing director of the Student Christian Movement Press during the heyday of religious publishing in the 1960s, and was responsible for putting on the market a long list of paperbacks to stimulate the reforming movement of that time.

His greatest coup was Bishop John Robinson’s controversial Honest to God (1963), which had an initial printing of 6,000 copies for the home market and 4,000 for overseas, but became an international bestseller with well over a million copies in 14 languages. This helped to finance the SCM Press’s operations for several years, not least its scholarly hardback list, and Edwards was closely identified with the book, though in fact he did not at the time of its publication share all of the author’s views.

Later he served as an adviser to Lady Collins when she was presiding over an astutely run and flourishing religious books department of the William Collins publishing empire, and was also leader writer and chief book reviewer of the Church Times. A somewhat hesitant manner of speech precluded his entering the world of broadcasting and he was in fact a highly strung, sensitive man who would have been an admirable pastor had he ever found time for this aspect of ministry.

David Lawrence Edwards was born in Cairo, where his father was an inspector of schools, on January 29 1929. He won a scholarship to King’s School, Canterbury, where he was much influenced by the headmaster, Canon John Shirley, whom he described as “almost a second father”, and who introduced him to writing by enlisting his aid with a book on the Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker. Edwards subsequently wrote a short biography of Shirley and also a history of the school.

National Service in the Army took him back to Egypt, where he helped to guard the Suez Canal, and on demobilisation he went up to Oxford as a scholar of Magdalen College. There he took a First in Modern History, was awarded the Lothian Prize and then elected to a Fellowship of All Souls on the strength of a remarkable examination essay on Oxford.

Edwards was, however, destined for Holy Orders. During his years at school he had been influenced by the dynamic ministry of Joseph McCulloch, the Rector of Chatham, and it was this, together with the directions of John Shirley and an innate religious sense, that took him to Westcott House, Cambridge, in 1954 to complete his training. On his ordination the following year he became only the second Fellow of All Souls in the 20th century to enter the Church of England’s ministry.

He stayed on at Westcott House for a year as a tutor, but then moved to London to join the headquarters staff of the Student Christian Movement, which was still flourishing in colleges and schools. He visited its branches and organised conferences for students, before taking over in 1959 the editorship of its Press, which at that time was one of the leading theological publishing houses in Europe.
Six years later, when the Movement itself was faced with a leadership crisis, he added the duties of the General Secretary to his responsibilities. Since 1958 he had also been an honorary curate of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, an experience that he regarded as formative in his ministry.

Edwards soon became well known in all the churches and in 1966 was asked to become General Secretary of the British Council of Churches, but the opportunity to become Dean of King’s College, Cambridge was more alluring, and he was also appointed to a university assistant lectureship in Church History.

In 1967 he gave the Hulsean Lectures in Cambridge and in 1969 Archbishop Michael Ramsey made him a Six Preacher (a college of clerics created by Thomas Cranmer) in Canterbury Cathedral.

But he was not happy in Cambridge. The tension then existing between the deep religious tradition expressed in the glorious King’s Chapel and the aggressive secular humanism of the College high table was much too great for him to bear.

He was too much of a churchman to be really at ease on the frontier of the Christian faith, and it was with a marked sense of relief that in 1970 he accepted the Crown’s offer of the Rectory of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, to which was attached a Canonry of Westminster Abbey.

All was not well at St Margaret’s. The parish church of the House of Commons was virtually bankrupt and its fabric was in urgent need of repair. After his initial hope of raising a large sum of money from MPs had been dashed, Edwards persuaded the Dean and Chapter of the Abbey to take St Margaret’s back under the jurisdiction and financial wing from which it had been removed in 1837. This required an Act of Parliament and much other legal work, but when all this was accomplished the future of the famous church was secure.

Although Edwards had gone to Westminster primarily as a means of escape from Cambridge, he grew to love both St Margaret’s and the Abbey, of which he became Sub-Dean in 1974. Yet writing was his first love and, while it would not be true to say that he neglected any of his considerable ministerial responsibilities or his duties as chaplain to successive Speakers of the House of Commons (Selwyn Lloyd and George Thomas), he was inclined to let things continue on their established lines rather than take many new initiatives. He was also becoming drawn into the life of the wider Church, serving as chairman of the Churches’ Council on Gambling from 1970 to 1978, and also the much heavier chairmanship of Christian Aid (1971-78).

He was well informed on political and economic matters and, being a fine preacher and lecturer, was in constant demand for conferences and training courses. Books and articles continued to pour out and had an appreciative readership.

When the Deanery of Canterbury fell vacant in 1976, Edwards had hopes of returning to the scene of his happy schooldays, but this was not to be and he went instead in 1978 to the Deanery of Norwich. It was envisaged that after the reforming and somewhat hectic Deanship of Alan Webster, who had moved to St Paul’s, Norwich would value a scholar-Dean who might exercise a more relaxed style of leadership. This suited Edwards, who took to his study and started several new books, but after a time the cathedral community started to look for something more dynamic.

About the same time his wife Hilary (née Phillips), whom he had married in 1960, left him – they were divorced in 1984 – and he found himself responsible not only for a cathedral and a large deanery, but also for the upbringing of four children. He was devastated but was strongly supported by friends and in 1982 the Church came to the rescue by appointing him Provost of Southwark Cathedral.

This was an unusual move designed to meet an unusual need and it worked. The previous Provost, Harold Frankham, had got the cathedral’s administration shipshape and raised most of the money required for the building of a new Chapter House and a Visitors’ Centre.

The Vice-Provost was also an able administrator, so Edwards was able to settle in his new home on the South Bank of the Thames, immediately opposite St Paul’s, and, while keeping a close eye on the smaller cathedral, turned once again to his literary pursuits.

His concern for reconciliation led to a published dialogue between himself and John Stott, the Evangelical leader, Essentials (1988), and his editing of Christianity and Conservatism (1990) was a brave attempt to bridge the gulf then existing between the leaders of the Church of England and the Conservative government.

In 1984 he had been joined by Sybil Falcon, who had spent many years in South Africa as a missionary, and following their marriage she provided the Provost and his family with the love and domestic stability for which they yearned.

A London base also proved to be useful and, besides serving on the General Synod, Edwards was sought after for advice to archbishops and bishops, and served on various commissions and committees. In 1990 he was made an Honorary Fellow of South Bank Polytechnic and was also awarded a Lambeth DD. Five years later he was appointed OBE.

He retired to Winchester in 1994 and was immediately appointed, as the only clerical member, to a commission charged with the reorganising of the Church of England’s finances and central administration.

Many more books were written and of these John Donne: A Man of Flesh and Spirit (2001) took him into a new field, while his final work, Yes: A Positive Faith (2006), testified to a personal faith which had moved in a more liberal direction and spoke of the Resurrection of Christ in the language of visions.

His wife Sybil predeceased him, as did a daughter; and he is survived by a son and two daughters.

The Very Reverend David Edwards, born January 20 1929, died April 25 2018