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  Alexander Roper Vidler (1899–1991), by Bassano, 1967 Alexander Roper Vidler (1899–1991), by Bassano, 1967
Vidler, Alexander Roper [Alec] (1899–1991), Church of England clergyman and Christian apologist, was born at the Stone House, Church Square, Rye, Sussex, on 27 December 1899, the son of Leopold Amon Vidler (1870–1954) and his wife, Edith Hamilton, née Roper (1863–1936). His father worked for, and subsequently became the managing director of, the family shipping business, which dated back to the 1820s. His mother supplemented the family income through bookbinding and leatherwork. Vidler was kissed in his pram by his parents' neighbour in Rye, Henry James, who remarked: ‘What an intelligent-looking baby!’ He was educated at Sutton Valence School, Kent. In 1915–16 he was taken out of school to work for his family firm while his father was in the army, but he later returned, becoming head boy.

Vidler had become aware of a call to ordination in his teens, and after a brief spell as an officer cadet in the Royal Field Artillery in the last months of the First World War went up to Selwyn College, Cambridge, in January 1919 to read theology. As a member of the boat club at Selwyn he met the young Malcolm Muggeridge, who persuaded him to join the Labour Party, and with whom he was to enjoy a lifelong friendship. In July 1921 Vidler graduated with an upper second and transferred to Wells Theological College to receive ordination training, but found it stuffy, and negotiated a transfer back to Cambridge to the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, a small Anglo-Catholic community of celibates founded in 1912. He became a priest-companion in January 1923, and made a life-profession in 1939. He remained a lifelong celibate.

On ordination in December 1922 Vidler served his title at the Mission of the Holy Spirit in Newcastle, a leading Anglo-Catholic slum ministry. Despite the living conditions—he often caught fleas from his parishioners—he found he enjoyed the daily rounds of taking services, attending deathbeds, and house visiting. He continued his political interests, electioneering for the Labour Party, and helping to organize a northern follow-up to the 1924 interdenominational Conference on Christian Politics, Economics and Citizenship, collaborating with Leslie Hunter, later bishop of Sheffield. At this conference Vidler also showed his lifelong capacity for controversy, giving a fiery speech attacking Tyneside shipowners, one of whom was in the audience.

In 1923 Vidler left Tyneside for St Aidan's, Small Heath, Birmingham, where he served as senior curate. It was here from 1924 that he became embroiled with E. W. Barnes, his theologically modernist bishop, on the issue of the reservation of the sacrament. St Aidan's was one of fifteen churches in the diocese that refused to accept Barnes's edict on the issue, which caused Barnes, upon the retirement of Vidler's priest-in-charge, to refuse to institute a successor. During the ensuing court battles Vidler, as senior curate, became de facto priest-in-charge. In 1931, the legal battle won, Vidler informed Bishop Barnes that he was resigning, and received a terse reply attacking him for clerical disobedience, a communication that Vidler had framed and put on his wall. During these years Vidler produced his first book, Magic and Religion (1930), a defence of Anglo-Catholic sacramentalism. He followed this with Sex, Marriage and Religion (1932), which argued that contraception should be allowed within marriage, and which championed economic equality for women.

In 1931 Vidler returned to the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, Cambridge. Already he was beginning to move away from the optimism of his earlier liberal Anglo-Catholicism in favour of a cultural pessimism and criticism of political and theological liberalism influenced by (among others) Reinhold Niebuhr and D. R. Davies. Set against the backdrop of looming European crisis, this trend fully manifested itself in God's Judgement on Europe (1940) and Secular Despair and Christian Faith (1941), books that took a severely pessimistic view of European civilization.

In 1939 Vidler became warden of St Deiniol's Library, Hawarden, a post that left him free to write. His books from this period included Christ's Strange Work (1944) on the concept of law in Christian theology, The Orb and the Cross (1945), a work on the relationship between church and state inspired by St Deiniol's founder, William Gladstone, and The Theology of F. D. Maurice (1948). He had been attracted by the quirkiness of Maurice's theology, and by Maurice's emphasis on church unity; with Michael Ramsey, Vidler did much to revive the Victorian theologian's reputation among twentieth-century theologians.

Most of Vidler's time was occupied by the monthly journal Theology, which he edited between 1939 and 1964. Initially in the liberal catholic tradition of Anglicanism, Theology rapidly broadened its scope under Vidler, increasing circulation significantly. The team of contributors he assembled included T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and John Middleton Murry. During his editorship of Theology he occasionally courted controversy, arguing in October 1939 that the devilry of Nazism did not necessarily imply that the British empire was angelic, and publishing an article in 1951 critical of freemasons in the church, and by implication the archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, who was a freemason.

It was also at St Deiniol's that Vidler set up his first theological network. The St Deiniol's Koinonia grew to a fifty-strong group of younger theologians which produced the St Deiniol's Correspondence, a private theological newsletter and testing-ground for radical theological ideas, which he edited until 1954. During the Second World War he was also (along with T. S. Eliot) on the editorial board of J. H. Oldham's Christian News-Letter, a weekly and subsequently fortnightly correspondence which distilled the results of fresh theological thinking, and had a circulation of over 10,000. He also participated in Oldham's Moot, a heavyweight discussion group focusing on post-war reconstruction.

Alongside his academic writings, Vidler built a reputation as a popular Christian apologist, both in books such as A Plain Man's Guide to Christianity (1936), and as one of the foremost university mission speakers of his generation, addressing missions at Oxford (1938), Liverpool (1941), Leeds (1943), Trinity College, Dublin (1944), Cambridge (1947), and Edinburgh (1948).

In August 1948 Vidler was invited by George VI to become a canon at St George's Chapel, Windsor. He accepted with the express intention of devoting his time to the Christian Frontier Council. This was another of Oldham's creations, which sought to undertake fresh theological examination of the boundaries between Christian faith and secular work. The council's offices were accommodated in his extensive canonry at Windsor, as was his own unofficial theological college, which comprised middle-aged ordination candidates known as ‘the Doves’, or, less charitably, ‘Vidler's Vipers,’ nearly fifty of whom passed through his training.

In 1956 Vidler was unexpectedly offered the deanship of King's College, Cambridge, a post that put him at the centre of the Cambridge ecclesiastical scene, and exposed him daily to full-bloodedly intellectual unbelief, for which King's had a reputation. In January 1958 he launched the most important network of his career, a group of radical theologians in Cambridge. His own Essays in Liberality (1957) had given some hints of the radicalism to come. The Cambridge group had been suggested by Hugh Montefiore and Howard Root, and also included John Burnaby and Harry Williams. After several years of deliberation the group produced Soundings: Essays in Christian Understanding (1962), edited by Vidler, which declared that traditional Christian theology was faced by a range of seemingly insuperable difficulties, and offered suggestions as to how these difficulties might be overcome. It was the most intellectually heavyweight work that the ‘radical ferment’ in the theology of the 1960s produced, and caused a significant stir in the ecclesiastical press—though it did not, as Vidler confessed in private correspondence, ‘turn out anything like so radical as some of us at least had originally hoped’ (letter from Alec Vidler to Roger Tennant, 29 Oct 1962, E. Sussex RO, 5020/2/36).

With three other members of the group, Vidler also gave a series of open lectures to Cambridge undergraduates in February 1963 on ‘Objections to Christian belief’. These drew 1500 listeners each week, and became a best-seller on their publication later the same year. He was by now a national figure, besieged by speaking invitations. He also gained notoriety through his appearances on television, most notably in a BBC Meeting Point broadcast of November 1962 in which he pronounced himself ‘bored with parsons’, a comment that drew criticism in the press and the church assembly (LPL, Ramsey papers, vol. 28, fols. 119–49). He pursued his academic interests while at Cambridge, acting as university lecturer in church history from 1959, producing an edition of George Tyrrell's Christianity at the Crossroads (1963), and writing A Century of Social Catholicism (1964), 20th Century Defenders of the Faith (1965), and F. D. Maurice and Company (1966). He also wrote the highly successful The Church in the Age of Revolution (1961), a volume in the Pelican History of the Church.

Though celibate, Vidler was gregarious, with a wide circle of friends. His writings and public utterances were always beautifully expressed, and often marked by a twinkle of mischief. He cut a distinctive figure, with flashing eyes and a beard that was described as ‘Van Dyck in maturity and patriarchal in old age’ (The Guardian, 30 July 1991). He eschewed the clerical dog collar, instead sporting a black shirt and white necktie. This briefly set a fashion among radical clergy in the 1960s, but he typically insisted that he was merely reverting to tradition, by adopting early nineteenth-century clerical garb.

Although he never held high church office, Vidler was a master of what he called ‘theological midwifery’, facilitating dialogue by bringing together diverse thinkers in informal networks. This ability, and the protean nature of his thought, enabled him to be at the forefront of trends in Anglican theology for three decades, and he influenced evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, and liberals alike. He was also an expert on Roman Catholic modernism, and, with the knowledge of the Vatican and Lambeth Palace, led secret discussions between Catholic and Anglican theologians from 1955 onwards. His career reflects in microcosm the complex shifts and cross-currents occurring in Anglican theology in the mid-twentieth century.

In August 1967 Vidler retired to the house in which he had been born, a thirteenth-century priory in Rye. He was elected mayor of Rye in 1972, proud to hold an office that his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had held before him. He produced an autobiography, Scenes from a Clerical Life (1977), and with his old friend Malcolm Muggeridge made a television series on the journeys of St Paul. He also indulged his passions for bee-keeping and sending tongue-in-cheek letters to The Times. He had hoped to die in the house of his birth, but at the time of his death, of old age, on 25 July 1991, he was resident in the Acacia House Rest Home, Ashford Road, St Michael's, Tenterden, Kent. He donated his body to medical science.

Matthew Grimley and Sam Brewitt-Taylor

Sources  

A. Vidler, Scenes from a clerical life (1977) · A. Vidler, Twentieth century defenders of the faith (1965) · D. Edwards, ‘Theology under Dr Vidler’, Theology, 68 (Jan 1965), 3–14 · E. James, A life of Bishop John A. T. Robinson: scholar, pastor, prophet (1987) · The Guardian (30 July 1991), 29 · The Times (29 July 1991) · Church Times (2 Aug 1991), 10 · E. Robertson, ‘A tribute to Alec Vidler’, Theology, 92 (Nov 1989), 459–66 · Alec Vidler papers, E. Sussex RO · Ramsey papers, LPL · b. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

E. Sussex RO, papers |  LPL, Michael Ramsey papers


Likenesses  

Elliott & Fry, quarter–plate glass negatives, 1949, NPG, London · Bassano, half–plate film negatives, 1967, NPG, London [see illus.] · film stills, c.1981, Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections, Wheaton, Illinois, USA; repro. in archon.wheaton.edu/?p=digitallibrary/digitalcontent&id=3628 · Elliott & Fry, vintage print, NPG, London · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£100,245: probate, 10 Dec 1991, CGPLA Eng. & Wales