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Watson, David Christopher Knight (1933–1984), Church of England clergyman, was born at 12 Harley Hill, Catterick Camp, Scotton, Yorkshire, on 7 March 1933, the son of Godfrey Charles Knight Watson, a captain in the Royal Artillery, and his wife, Margaret Sara Winifred, née Simpson (1900–1989). His earliest memories were of the north-west frontier of India, where his father was for a time stationed. The family returned to England in 1937, but his father, a Christian Scientist, went back to India and died in 1943 having refused medical treatment for a lung infection. His mother remarried in 1949. He was educated at Bedford School (1940–46) and then Wellington College (1946–51), where he was head boy and won the prestigious Queen's Medal in 1952. He served in the 3rd regiment of the Royal Horse Artillery in Germany, before going in 1954 to St John's College, Cambridge, where he read for part one of the moral sciences tripos (1956), before graduating in 1957. He was intrigued by ‘alternative’ spiritualities in his teenage years, in particular theosophy and Buddhism, but was not impressed by ‘army religion’ and became an atheist while in the forces.

Watson was converted to Christianity in 1954 through a talk at the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union by the Revd John Collins, and subsequently through reading John Stott's Becoming a Christian (1950). He was nurtured in his new evangelical faith by David Sheppard, who was then preparing for Anglican ordination at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Another early formative influence was the holidays for public schoolboys organized by the Revd E. J. H. Nash. He served on about thirty-five of these ‘Bash camps’ and, like other young Christian leaders of his generation, was instilled with patterns of ministry and conservative evangelical emphases. Sheppard later encouraged him to train for Anglican ministry, and he attended Ridley Hall for two years. He was frustrated by liberal academic theology and in contrast was attracted to the evangelistic style of Billy Graham, who spoke at a university mission in 1955.

In 1959 Watson was ordained as curate at St Mark's, Gillingham, where he was reunited with John Collins and thrived in a Medway dockland parish known for its activism and evangelism. In 1962 he took a second curacy at the Round Church, Cambridge, but found the university town unexciting, and began to explore privately the themes of revival and spiritual renewal. He later described having an experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit (You are my God, 54). At this stage he was unaware of the ‘charismatic renewal’ already under way in the United States and making initial stirrings in the Church of England following an outbreak of ‘manifestations’ of the spirit at St Paul's, Beckenham. Soon afterwards he had a personal experience of ‘speaking in tongues’ and subsequently questioned the ‘cessationist’ orthodoxy (that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit were only for the early church) of many conservative evangelicals. During his curacy in Cambridge he met Elizabeth Anne MacEwan Smith, a nurse, the daughter of Cecil William Smith, office controller. They married in Cambridge on 19 September 1964.

In July 1965 Watson became curate-in-charge at St Cuthbert's, York. The Church Redundancy Commission was already making plans for the future of the building, where the average total Sunday offering amounted to only £2. He introduced a programme of monthly and then weekly Sunday morning family services, including music, dance, and drama. Services were soon regularly full, and within four years of Watson's arrival, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a Sunday service from St Cuthbert's. He believed this growth was the result of committed prayer. Prayer and Bible meetings had been established at St Cuthbert's and in such gatherings (as was the case in other English parishes experiencing ‘renewal’ in the 1960s) charismatic emphases appeared. From 1966 the charisms, such as tongues, prophecy, healing, and ‘words of knowledge’, were also encouraged in Sunday worship. Importantly, however, Watson believed that unity was found in Christ rather than in a form of churchmanship. Throughout his ministry the church was never exclusively charismatic, and when he appointed his first curate in 1973 he deliberately chose a non-charismatic evangelical.

In January 1973, having long outgrown St Cuthbert's, the congregation was given permission to move to St Michael le Belfrey, opposite York Minster. Watson was made vicar later that year. In this prime location the congregation experienced further growth and innovation, becoming influential as a centre for Anglican renewal. From 1973 he led evangelistic guest services at York Minster, which were often full to capacity. During the early 1970s he and his wife were impressed by various expressions of charismatic renewal in the episcopalian congregations in North America, and they played an important role in bringing these influences to England. Following the example of the Church of the Redeemer, Houston, Texas, ‘extended households’ were set up in order to deepen the sense of community in the church and share resources to further lay ministry. Watson placed emphasis on simple living and community-orientated church life. His family led one such household, which shared a common purse. Another influence was the guitar-led worship of the Fisherfolk group, also originally from Houston. St Michael's soon became known for contemporary praise music set in the context of the flexible Series Three service. Similarly, drama, dance, and banners were used more extensively in services, which were noted by the Archbishops' Council on Evangelism when it studied Watson's church in 1977.

These expressions of church life and ministry opened up wide opportunities for lay involvement. Such participation of the laity was encouraged in the renewal movement generally, and Watson was committed to ministry of the ‘Body of Christ’. Midweek ‘area groups’, of which there were about forty by 1979, saw lay members meet for prayer and ministry in homes. Patterns of leadership also relied on the laity; and from the early 1970s the church appointed elders, commissioned by the bishop of Selby, Maurice Maddocks.

Sharing the Christian faith was Watson's primary concern, and he became widely in demand as an evangelist. In 1966 he began to lead university missions, speaking at over sixty during his career. His evangelistic talks were given wider appeal in My God is Real (1970) and In Search of God (1974). His approach was not ‘intellectual’; he believed in the ‘immense power of the simple Gospel of Christ in any company’ (Renewal, Dec/Jan 1968, 5) and invited his listeners to a personal relationship with Christ. However, he was an apologist for the rationality of Christianity and often quoted C. S. Lewis. A gifted communicator, Watson often used references from popular culture and frequently incorporated visual illustrations into his talks.

Watson's theology of evangelism remained strongly conservative evangelical in its core emphases. He discussed sin, judgement, and hell; he preached a substitutionary model of the atonement; and he argued for the historicity of the resurrection. Additionally, he urged non-Christians to consider the cost of committed discipleship. He argued that
The only right and worthy response to God's mercy is practical, involving our bodies and minds; it is total, as we hold nothing back and offer ourselves as a ‘living sacrifice’; and it is purposeful: instead of being passively squeezed into the shapes and standards of the world, we deliberately give our bodies to God, and so let him work within our minds by his Spirit and his Word. (Live a New Life, 1975)
From the mid-1970s he was encouraged by other evangelical leaders to undertake city and area-wide missions, which soon became known as ‘festivals’. There was special emphasis on worship and he spoke at over sixty such events, taking his team of musicians, dancers, and actors to five continents. His approach contrasted with the typical evangelical ‘crusade’.A commitment to healing relations in the church became a central aspect of Watson's ministry. In his earlier years he held strongly anti-Catholic views, but became committed to restoring relationships between protestants and Catholics. After sharing a platform with Roman Catholic renewal leaders at the Fountain Trust international conference at Guildford in 1971 he became convinced of the commonalities between Christians. He had a special concern for Northern Ireland and was a high-profile participant in peace marches, working alongside activists such as Monsignor Michael Buckley and Mairead Corrigan. At a mission in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, in 1977 he declared ‘There are no Roman Catholics in heaven, there are no Anglicans in heaven. There are no Baptists or Presbyterians. Only sinners saved by Jesus Christ on the Cross’ (Saunders and Sansom, 239). His openess to Catholics could provoke angry responses from some protestants. When he suggested at the National Anglican Evangelical Conference of 1977 that the ‘Reformation was one of the greatest tragedies that ever happened to the Church’ because it broke the unity of the body of Christ, he was criticized by some evangelicals.

Watson was particularly committed to the renewal of the Anglican church and the other mainstream denominations. This, he suggested, was the main purpose of the contemporary ‘move’ of the spirit, often citing the prophet Ezekiel's vision of the valley of the dry bones to ground this view biblically. He enjoyed strong relations with the local Anglican hierarchy and in contrast to some evangelicals of the period he was convinced that the only justifiable reason for leaving a denomination was either outright apostasy or persecution. At St Michael le Belfrey, he emphasized renewal as lay involvement in ministry; the practice of the gifts of the spirit; intimate and joyful praise and worship; and the use of the arts. From 1977 he began to run successful pan-denominational ‘renewal weeks’ twice a year at the church, where at each up to 130 church leaders from Britain and abroad experienced the congregation first hand and received teaching and training.

In 1978, in order to accommodate a growing international ministry, Watson was appointed rector of St Michael le Belfrey, which he had made a symbol of charismatic renewal in the Church of England. A painful period followed, as the church experienced internal disunity following a decision to appoint women elders, one of whom was Watson's wife. He developed a strong friendship and rapport with John Wimber, the Californian renewal leader and founder of the Vineyard movement. Watson was decidedly influenced by Wimber's confidence in the power of God to heal and invited him to take meetings at St Michael's. The Californian then had a significant impact on British charismatic Christianity. In 1981 Watson published Discipleship, one of his best-known books, and was in the same year appointed canon provincial of York Minster. The following year he and his family took the decision to move to London, where he intended to further develop both his national and global ministry under the auspices of the Belfrey Trust. He meanwhile published his autobiography, You are my God (1983).

In April 1983 Watson was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer of the colon which shortly after spread to the liver. For a long period he was convinced that God would heal him, as were John Wimber and other Vineyard pastors who visited him at Guy's Hospital, London. For a time the pain subsided and he was able to return to some public engagements. He spoke publicly about his experience of cancer, broadcasting a BBC Radio 4 interview, ‘A case for healing?’, in April 1983 and writing about his experiences in Fear No Evil (1984). He died at his home, 15 Eaton Row, Westminster, on 18 February 1984, and was survived by his wife and their two children, Fiona and Guy. The response from the Christian community to his death was considerable, with the largest memorial services held at York Minster and St Paul's Cathedral.

Watson was a prominent public figure and powerful, effective speaker; yet he was also shy, known for his humility and sometimes sensitive to the criticism of others. As a leader of the charismatic renewal he laid emphasis on the immediacy of the power of God; yet he struggled with chronic asthma and serious bouts of depression throughout his ministry, and was later open about the strains which leadership could put on Christian marriage. He moved comfortably in ‘establishment’ circles; yet for much of his career he lived a simple lifestyle, being known for wearing second-hand Oxfam shoes. Paradoxes were also evident in his ministry and leadership. He was widely respected among charismatics, yet his rejection of the controversial term of a ‘baptism of the Spirit’ and his doctrinal emphases allowed conservative evangelicals to identify with him. Regarded as a gifted and balanced renewal leader, he also avoided alienating senior Anglican leaders. His ministry was celebrated as a synthesis of evangelism, reconciliation, and renewal.

John Maiden


D. Watson, You are my God (1983) · D. Watson, Fear no evil: a personal struggle with cancer (1984) · T. Saunders and H. Sansom, David Watson: a biography (1992) · E. England, ed., David Watson: a portrait by his friends (1985) · Renewal [magazine] (1967–84) · The Times (21 Feb 1984); (28 Feb 1984) · Daily Telegraph (20 Feb 1984) · The Guardian (20 Feb 1984) · Yorkshire Evening Post (20 Feb 1984) · Mattersey Hall, Fountain Trust archive · biographical collection, St John Cam. · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Wealth at death  

under £40,000: probate, 19 April 1984, CGPLA Eng. & Wales