Many of post-war generation believed that it was axiomatic that at the heart of English life was the parochial system of the Church of England, and the only way to safeguard it, was the provision of a sufficient number of full time priests.
Wilfrid Browning was in formation during this period, and with a keen mind and strong sense of mission, brought this insight with him when he was appointed Diocesan Director of Ordinands and tutor at Cuddesdon Theological College in 1965.
Here, he became strongly influenced by Professor Owen Chadwick, one of the distinguished brothers Professor Henry Chadwick, who was made Dean of Christ Church in 1969. Owen Chadwick argued that one of the failures of the parochial system was that it did not penetrate the place of work.
‘The church must accept the factory as a new source of community, and use its sense of fellowship in creating a Christian fellowship. Therefore we must have priests who are factory workers; who do not in the first instance make any attempt to associate the workers with the parish church, but who gather round them a Christian fellowship within the working community. We must have our altar in the house of one of the workmen, and let that be the first centre of the new Christian community.’ (A paper by Owen Chadwick re-printed in ‘Tentmaking’ Perspectives on Self -Supporting Ministry, edited by M. M. Francis and L. J Francis, Gracewing, 1998: pp. 81-90).
Wilfrid Browning was convinced by this approach, and visited Pontigny, the seminary of the French worker priest movement, to explore how they went about training such priests. He set up a course for men experienced in the world of work, who would meet one evening each week at St Stephen’s House, supplemented by a number of residential weekends each term, to prepare them for ministry in the place of work, as auxiliaries to the parochial clergy.
As this ‘NSM Scheme’ (as it was titled) developed, Browning established a link with the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education, which advised on the structure of the course, and offered accreditation.
In the 1980’s with commendable foresight, he recruited women as well, some of whom eventually were among the first to be ordained to the diaconate and then priesthood. The numbers at any one time were restricted to thirty.
He was a formidable presence in the Diocese and during Sir Henry Chadwick’s time as Dean, a proposal was considered that a new residential Canonry be established to increase links between the Diocese and its Cathedral Church, which in its unique dual role was not able properly to serve the needs of the post war generation. Wilfrid Browning was the obvious person for the post; and the Governing Body approved his nomination. It was the beginning of a fruitful development in the attempt by the House to combine its roles as College Chapel, while being a focus and resource for the people of the Diocese; a project that continues to this day.
In 2008 Rowan Williams, who had been appointed Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Christ Church in 1986 at the end of Wilfrid’s ministry, took an initiative by honouring him with the Cross of St Augustine, which was in his gift as Archbishop of Canterbury. It was given in recognition of his ‘outstanding service to the Church of England.’
In his retirement Wilfrid continued to minister and preach, offering friendship to his successor, as the old NSM course transformed into the Oxford Ministry Course and then the St Albans and Oxford Ministry Course, becoming an alternative to residential training rather than a supplement. It was a development of which he never really approved, and he was delighted when in the new millennium, responsibility for the course was located at Cuddesdon.
It was a mark of his modesty that for the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, he invited his friends and former students to the church in Botley where he was currently assisting. He presided and preached to the affectionate delight of the large congregation.
It is fitting that his contribution to the Church should now be recognised by the House which provided the setting for such an important part of his significant ministry. A Memorial Service for Wilfrid will be held at Christ Cathedral in Oxford on Saturday 27th May at 3pm.