Alec Vidler: master of theological midwifery

Alec Vidler, who was a canon at Windsor from 1948 to 1956, enjoyed an interesting, influential, and sometimes controversial career in the Church of England spanning more than four decades. His name may not ring so many bells today, but in his time he became something of a household name, and his remarkable life is well worth revisiting.

Alexander Roper Vidler was born in Rye, Sussex, in 1899, and always retained a deep affection for his native county. His father Leopold worked in the family shipping business, later becoming its managing director. His mother Edith undertook bookbinding and leatherwork to supplement the family’s income. The novelist Henry James was a neighbour of the Vidlers and once kissed Alec in his pram, remarking on his intelligent looks. Alec was educated at Sutton Valence School in Kent and after a short spell in the Royal Field Artillery towards the end of the Great War, he went up to Selwyn College, Cambridge to read theology. At Cambridge, he met the future journalist and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-90), who became a lifelong friend. After Cambridge he went to Wells Theological College, but finding it unsatisfactory, he transferred to the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, a small Anglo-Catholic community of celibates in Cambridge.

Following ordination in 1922 he briefly served at the Mission of the Holy Spirit, an Anglo-Catholic slum ministry in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There followed eight years as a curate at St Aidan’s, Small Heath, in Birmingham. There he had his first brush with controversy when he clashed with the theologically modernist Bishop of Birmingham, Ernest William Barnes, on the issue of reservation of the sacrament. In 1931, he returned to the Oratory of the Good Shepherd. By this time, he was moving away from liberal Anglo-Catholicism and becoming more inclined to criticise political and theological liberalism. The worsening situation in Europe during the 1930s reinforced his feelings of cultural pessimism.

1939 brought a welcome change, when he was appointed warden of St Deiniol’s Library (founded by W E Gladstone) at Hawarden in Flintshire. The post was ideal for Alec as it gave him the freedom and time to research, think and write. He was also an admirer of Gladstone, whose books formed the core of the library’s collections. Alongside his writings, he was now building a reputation as a popular Christian apologist and one of the finest university mission speakers of his generation. Whilst at Hawarden, he became editor of the journal Theology, a role he retained until 1964.

In August 1948 George VI invited him to become a canon at St George’s Chapel, an invitation which he was pleased to accept, and on 20 December he was installed canon of the 11th stall. Much of his time at Windsor was devoted to the Christian Frontier Council, a body which sought to take a fresh theological look at the boundaries between Christian faith and secular work. At the same time, he ran his own theological college for middle-aged ordination candidates (known as “the doves”), at his spacious house in the cloisters. Nearly fifty men received training under him.

He might have stayed longer at Windsor, but in 1956 he received an unexpected invitation to become dean of King’s College, Cambridge. King’s was then a centre of strong intellectual unbelief, but this was a challenge which a man of his cast of mind surely relished. At Cambridge he launched a group of radical theologians and in 1963 gave a series of lectures to undergraduates on the theme “Objections to Christian belief”. By this time he was much in demand as a speaker and also appeared on television. He came to be regarded as a master of “theological midwifery”, which essentially meant he could facilitate dialogue amongst diverse thinkers. In this way he could influence evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics and liberals. A gregarious man with many friends, he cut a distinctive figure with his flashing eyes and “Van Dyck” beard. He did not favour wearing clerical dog collars, preferring a black shirt with white necktie. This briefly set a fashion amongst radical clergymen in the 1960s.

Alec Vidler retired from the Church in 1967. Perhaps echoing the words of T S Eliot, “in my end is my beginning” he returned to live in his birthplace, a 13th century priory in Rye, and in 1972 was elected the town’s mayor as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had been. The same year, together with Malcolm Muggeridge, he presented a television series about the life of St Paul. His twin retirement passions were bee keeping and writing tongue-in-cheek letters to The Times. He died at a rest home in Kent on 25 July 1991, aged 91. His Daily Telegraph obituarist referred to him as “one of the more picturesque priests in the Church of England” but he was far more than that. His old friend Malcolm Muggeridge (who predeceased him by a year) probably summed him up best as a man who believed with all his heart and doubted with all his mind.

Simon Harrison (Archives volunteer)

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.