A tribute to David Harry Wheaton (1930-2018)
Posted by Gerald Bray, 17 Apr 2018
Gerald Bray pays tribute to David Wheaton, former principal of Oak Hill College and sometime vice-president of Church Society.
For many, the recent passing of David Wheaton, former principal of Oak Hill College and sometime vice-president of Church Society, will mark the end of an era in Anglican Evangelicalism. David was born on 2 June 1930 and grew up in the war years, deeply affected by the appalling suffering and deprivation that blighted the lives of so many at that time. On leaving school, he did his national service in the Wiltshire Regiment before going up to Oxford. Converted to a solid and lasting Evangelical faith in his student days, David graduated from St John’s College in 1953 and went on to take the London BD two years later. By then he was a tutor at Oak Hill College, a place he came to love and to make his own. In 1956 he married Joy Forrer, a happy union that lasted for well over half a century.
David was ordained in 1959 to a curacy at Christ Church, Enfield, while continuing to teach at Oak Hill. Three years later, he moved to become rector of Ludgershall (Oxfordshire), the parish that had been served by John Wyclif from 1368 to 1374. He greatly enjoyed the rural setting and in later years never tired of sharing stories from his time there. In 1966 David was called to St Paul, Onslow Square, and a very different kind of ministry in one of the better-off parts of London. The church had long been an Evangelical bastion and David continued that tradition. The parish has now been amalgamated with Holy Trinity, Brompton, best-known as the home of the Alpha Course.
In 1971 David went back to Oak Hill as principal, and remained there for the next fifteen years. The college he inherited was old-fashioned to the point of eccentricity. Married students were expected to live away from their wives during the week, and everyone had to help with chores on the college farm, including milking the cows. David quickly turned all that around, and in his time the college underwent a much-needed modernisation. He was also an enthusiast of the new liturgies that were then being produced by the Church of England, and saw to it that they were introduced both in the chapel and in the classroom.
David’s willingness to move with the times transformed life at the college, but he never lost his Evangelical faith, which remained central to his life and ministry. First and foremost, he was a pastor to his students, many of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds and found life in a theological college quite alien. He kept in touch with the graduates as long as he could, and was a great counsellor and support to everyone who sought his assistance. David was one of the last representatives of a traditional Evangelical piety that was both paternalistic and deeply pastoral. Whilst solidly middle class himself, he could reach out to people of all backgrounds and overcome deeply-rooted social divides. It was the same with his theology. He was a strong Evangelical and a strong Anglican, but he never identified himself too closely with subgroups of either category. He remained on good terms with charismatics, ‘Calvinists’ and people of different churchmanship, though unfortunately his breadth of spirit was not always appreciated (or reciprocated) by those to whom he reached out.
To some superficial observers David could appear to be out of touch and ineffective, but in reality he was close to the ground and deeply involved in both college and church affairs. He became a canon of St Albans and did his best to align the college more closely with its home diocese. He loyally attended services in the cathedral as often as he could, and in his time successive bishops became visitors to Oak Hill both formally and informally, regardless of their churchmanship.
David also served for many years as a vice-president of Church Society, where he made a significant contribution to the patronage division. His wide knowledge of people and parishes was invaluable
in helping the Society to make good appointments, and in that respect his legacy was to be enduring.
In 1986 he left Oak Hill to become vicar of Christ Church, Ware. His wife Joy had become ill, and once his children finished school there was no need for them to remain in London. During his time at Ware he was made a chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen, an honour that he much appreciated. Joy’s health improved and they were able to have an effective ministry in an important suburban parish. On retirement in 1996 they moved first to Buckinghamshire and then to Dorset, where David remained until his death after a short illness on 10 April 2018. Joy predeceased him in 2014, but he bore his widowerhood with great fortitude and grace. He is survived by his three children, Mary, Mark and Jo.
David was not a scholar, but he contributed to several Biblical and theological dictionaries, as well as to popular books reflecting the state of the church in the 1980s. In retirement he wrote articles for Churchman on the 1552 Prayer Book (116/4, 2002), the heavenly work of Jesus Christ (119/4, 2005) and most recently, the pastoral ministry of the leaders of the eighteenth-century Evangelical revival (123/2, 2009).
In his later years David became increasingly alarmed at the heterodox drift of the Church, and that drew him more closely than ever to Church Society, Churchman and their mission to preserve classical Evangelical orthodoxy. His ministry has been appreciated by hundreds of people, including many who are now full-time clergy themselves, and he will be greatly missed by all who were privileged to know him.
For details of the thanksgiving service for David Wheaton, please contact Oak Hill College.
Gerald Bray is the Director of Research for the Latimer Trust and the Editor of Churchman.
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