by Jean Mayland
from Signs of the Times No. 27 - Oct 2007

Imaginative Dean of two cathedrals, committed supporter of women priests and admired Vice President of the MCU.

Alan Webster became a Vice President of the MCU in the 1990s. Although he had received many honours he warmly appreciated this one as the MCU represented many of the concerns and attitudes for which he had struggled during his life and ministry.

He was born in 1918, the son of a clergyman and educated at Shrewsbury School and Queen's College, Oxford, which gave a special welcome to northern young men as I came to know well when I was an undergraduate at LMH!

Alan trained for the ministry at Wescott House Cambridge, to which he returned as Vice Principal. While he was there he met and married Margaret Falconer who was then working for the Student Christian Movement, a movement that stimulated many of us who were at University in the 50s and 60s. He then spent six years as Vicar of Barnard Castle in County Durham, before being appointed Principal of Lincoln Theological College. There he introduced innovative courses, encouraged the ministry of women and entered vigorously into ecumenical affairs.

In 1970 he became Dean of Norwich Cathedral, where he established a welcoming eucharist as the main Sunday worship, opened a visitors' centre and initiated a night shelter for vagrants. In 1978 he accepted an invitation to be Dean of St Paul's where, in the face of fierce resistance, he did in London what he had established in Norwich - only now it was on a much bigger scale.

He was a member of General Synod, a supporter of the Open Synod Group and, along with his wife Margaret, at the forefront of the campaign to ordain women.

Meetings of the Central Council of the Movement for the Ordination of Women took place at the heart of the establishment - in the cellar of St Paul's Deanery, which was brightly painted and decorated with postcards. We went up to the dining room to eat our sandwiches at lunch time!

He was always a kind and generous host. Once when I arrived back from a meeting in Thailand, still feeling dreadfully airsick and with the wrong suitcase, he insisted on paying for a taxi to take me back to Heathrow to exchange it for my own! Later that afternoon we both went across to General Synod to defend David Jenkins from a resolution of censure.

On one occasion when I was staying in the Deanery he came into breakfast with a huge pile of letters and said, 'You know, when your heart sinks when you see the morning mail, it is probably time you retired!' Well, he did retire from St Paul's but not from work. He remained active, thinking, working and encouraging right to the end. He never became a bishop, but cathedral deans often have more opportunities than bishops to remain radical and innovative and take risks.

Alan was always ready to do these things and it was not always easy. I remember him writing a dialogue for a MOW service based on Mother Julian. It contained the reminder

You know well it was no raving, no empty dream but take it, believe it, hold to it, comfort yourself with it and trust it. You will have pain and affliction, trouble strain and doubt. But you will not be overcome and all shall be well.

Alan always held on to his dream for cathedrals, for the Church and the world. He held on to it and followed it whatever the cost and all of us are the richer for it. May all be well with him and may he rest in peace and rise in glory.


Jean Mayland is a retired priest and former Co-ordinating Secretary and  Assistant General Secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.