Canon Hugh Wybrew celebrates 60 years of priesthood

Born in Essex in 1934, the Reverend Canon Hugh Wybrew was priested on 24 September 1961. After leaving school he spent two years in the RAF on National Service, most of which was spent on a Joint Services Russian Language course at Cambridge and Bodmin. He then studied theology at The Queen’s College, Oxford, spent an academic year at the Russian Orthodox Theological Institute of St Sergius in Paris, and completed training for ordination at Lincoln Theological College.

Hugh’s family were not church goers, and it wasn’t until his mid-teens that Hugh started to attend church. “I heard the local church bell ringing one Sunday evening, and something moved me to go to church.” Hugh continued regularly attending Evensong at his local church in Newbury Park, Ilford, Essex, going on to be confirmed and become a server. At the age of 17, the vicar asked if Hugh had ever considered being ordained and he said he hadn’t. But from that time on the idea of ordination was in the back of his mind, and it came to the front during National Service.

Father Hugh completed a four-year curacy at St John’s, East Dulwich, and assumed he would spend the rest of his ministry as a parish priest. However, he was invited to spend a year as the Anglican Priest Student at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. While there Hugh received a letter from the principal of St Stephen’s House inviting him to join the staff. He taught there for six years, during which he had a close connection with the Russian Orthodox community in Oxford.

Out of the blue he was offered the post of Chaplain in Romania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia, and spent two years “beetling round the Balkans” in his VW Beetle. The Chaplain at the Church of the Resurrection in Bucharest was also the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the three Patriarchs of the Romanian, Bulgarian and Serbian Orthodox Churches, and so Hugh broadened his knowledge of Orthodoxy.

Hugh returned to England in 1973 and became Vicar of Pinner, on the western edge of London, where he served for over ten years. In 1974 Archbishop Michael Ramsey appointed him a member of the Anglican/Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Discussions. He kept up contact with Romania and the Romanian Orthodox Church, and led five parish holidays to Romania.

In 1984, Hugh became secretary of the informal Anglican-Orthodox Fellowship of St Albans & St Sergius, and then in 1986 went for three years to Jerusalem as Dean of St George’s Anglican Cathedral. In 1989, he returned to Oxford as Vicar of St Mary Magdalen’s.

Fr Hugh Wybrew seated and smiling

Canon Hugh retired in 2004 just before his 70th birthday but now at 86 he admits “I’m not really retired… I’m still a director of the Jerusalem and Middle East Church Association; at the moment I celebrate and preach most Sundays at the Convent of the Incarnation at Fairacres, and regularly at the Convent of St Mary the Virgin at Wantage, and in the village of Tubney.” He kept away from St Mary Magdalen’s for five years, and then his successor, Fr Peter Groves, invited him back to be on the weekday Mass rota. Since 2018 Hugh has been Visiting Lecturer in Liturgy at St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

Hugh has many fascinating stories to tell from his years of very varied ministry, beginning with the presence in the front row at the Ordination service of the late Princess Margaret. He has an uncertain recollection that it was she who distributed Bibles to the newly-ordained priests.

The celebration of Hugh’s Diamond Jubilee has been organised by the Revd Canon Dr Peter Groves. It takes place on Sunday 26 September at St Mary Magdalen, Oxford. Fr Peter has invited Hugh to sing the High Mass, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, will be the preacher.

Canon Hugh Wybrew in clerical robes, preaching from pulpit by candlelight