The Reverend Gibson

Father Gibson was licensed by the Bishop of Southwark as Vicar of All Saints’ on 26th February 1944, having previously served at S. Mark’s, Mitcham. A family man, he said that it was a joy for him and Mrs. Gibson to be there. He very nearly however had no church to call his own! Just twelve days after his licensing there was a ‘hit and run’ raid on the South Wimbledon Area in which a stick of five bombs landed, one of which failed to explode. But the rest of the ‘stick’ destroyed twenty-seven houses, seriously damaged another forty-eight and caused minor damage to three hundred and twenty.  The’ Sultan’ was one casualty and “looked extremely tottery,” and there were rumours that All Saints’ church had itself been blown up and that the curate was lying under the ruins!  “There have been wonderful rumours that our church has been blown up,” said the reverend gentlemen when he appeared alive and well.  “Actually, what happened was that something fell near to the church.  It has not yet been found, though the Royal Engineers are digging after it.  I was the one to discover it in the church garden on Friday morning.  I was in church at the time and, looking through the window saw a small pile of earth.  At first I thought a dog had been scratching there, but when I went out I found that a bomb had fallen near the wall of the church.” This was the one bomb in the ‘stick’ that had failed to explode and thus All Saints’ survives to this day, though a crack in the west wall still betrays the damage done on that night. 

It was Fr. Gibson’s hope that some real evangelistic work that would bear fruit by introducing a number of outsiders to the church.  In his opinion it was the duty of every Communicant and Church person to be an evangelist in his or her small sphere, and that he himself had already made one hundred and forty-one visitations in the parish. He was hopeful that he had made some real contacts and that the church would grow accordingly and prepare itself to give a warm welcome and real spiritual home to the men and women who would some day return from the forces. 

In 1945 the curtain finally came down on the Mission Hall and work became centred on the parish church. Incense had been introduced and a proposal for a 10.00.a.m. Mass on a Sunday morning – beginning on the 1st Sunday in Lent – with the Sung Mass beginning fifteen minutes later than previously – at 11.15.a.m. – was one of the first moves designed to increase the congregation.  Father Gibson was also trying to encourage the younger people to attend the early morning celebration of Holy Communion during the week and had embarked on a comprehensive programme of visiting. On his own admission however, he found this difficult and sought help from the council – asking them to be ‘watchers’ and to let him know of any particular interest in and around the parish such as newcomers, sickness or sorrow.

After the war Father Gibson often spoke out in the local press about the needs of his parish – he fought for the retention of the Post Office in Haydons Road and spoke vehemently about the dangers of increased motor traffic in certain areas surrounding the church. There is also an interesting entry in the service registers for October 16th 1946 where it reads: – ““Requiem Mass for those convicted to be executed this day in Nuremberg and London.” A telling act of forgiveness.

The post war congregations soon declined after an initial resurgence when peace was first declared. Fr. Gibson declared himself “bitterly disappointed with the average Sunday congregations.”  Parishioners were going elsewhere for Baptisms and Weddings and he was finding the work in the parish very hard.  He expressed his need for an assistant priest and women helpers – in fact he had already asked Mother Elizabeth (Supervisor of the Order of S. Elizabeth of Hungary) to send two ‘sisters of mercy’ to work in the parish and to live in a converted flat in the Church House, but this had been met with “no encouragement.” In addition he found the vicarage – with no domestic help available – too large and cumbersome, and too costly to run with its heavy rates and commitments. He only wished it was possible to sell the present vicarage and replace it with a smaller house on the church grounds.

In the seven years to August 1st 1946, there had only been six weddings at All Saints’ which prompted Father Gibson to write to the local press: – “It would be absurd to suggest that in a parish of our size so few have been married in seven years.  For some strange reason they go elsewhere.”  Quoting an old friend – the Vicar of S. Giles Camberwell – Father Gibson continued, “Couples desirous of being married in the Church do not scruple to give false addresses to comply with the residential qualifications and thus enter into the House of God, and upon their married life, with a lie upon their lips.  They might also enter upon personal penal servitude, for this is a penal offence, and it is possible also that their marriage might be regarded as void.”

Two months later he was writing again to the Wimbledon News, in this case criticising the ignorance of Christians themselves.  He wrote: – “Children at school can give correct answers to questions on the climate, exports, population or even religious customs of Timbuctoo, but grown-up Christians are, as a rule, ignorant of the teachings and customs of any part of Christ’s Church to which they do not happen to belong, and rather hazy about the part to which they do!  Anglicans have the crudest ideas as to what Nonconformists teach or deny, and are even more inaccurate when they discuss Roman Catholicism.

Many Wimbledon people, and especially from this parish, go often to Tooting.  If they walked towards Amen Corner they would see the stately church of S. Nicholas, Tooting.  If they went into that church they might find themselves puzzled by its arrangement and perplexed by some of the services.  There are, on the other hand, scores of clergy who would not have the haziest idea of how to put on the vestments or take part in a sung celebration.  Surely the time has come when those who pray for unity should learn how to feel at home when sharing in forms and ceremonies to which they are not accustomed.  We say we believe in a Church that is world-wide – but in actual fact we are lost if out of sight of our own particular church.”

Fr. Gibson’s correspondence to the local press continued into 1947. He wrote concerning mothers that he thought ‘got a raw deal’ and was equally vociferous about smokers writing that – “The whole financial problem of all our missionary societies would be solved if they could receive each year as new income what our smokers have been spending on tobacco.  When our Bishop decided to raise £500,000 for the diocese in the course of the next few years he felt indeed that it was a great appeal, yet he could have more than the money for which he is asking if he could persuade all the people in the diocese to let him have annually during the next few years what they spend on smoking in 2½ days.

The P.C.C. also came in for criticism for “not pulling their weight through irregularity at communion and worship.” Then it was the turn of Messrs. Attlee & Cripps who were chastised for their economic policy: – “Both Mr. Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps are Churchmen – one read the lesson at Margate, the other preached at Birmingham.  Let us hope that both gave a large cheque to help those whom they have impoverished.  Perhaps they would like to exchange stipends for a while.”  Father Gibson went on to point out that there were only 15,000 clergy in 1947 as against 20,000 in 1914, chiefly because the £1 was worth eight shillings and the clergy had received no extra pay!  Indeed, Sir Stafford Cripps’ policies of increasing taxes and forcing a reduction in consumption in an effort to boost exports earned him little popularity – especially amongst the middle classes.  But, even though we find Father Gibson to be a harsh critic, Cripps eventually won respect for the sincerity of his convictions and his tireless efforts for Britain’s recovery.

All Saints’ was always going to be a parish that required great effort from those who ministered to it. There were constant problems with the lack of finance, out of date heating, necessary maintenance and difficulties associated with the social deprivation in the parish as a whole. Late in 1948 Fr. Gibson fell ill. He was admitted to hospital in November and, although he was hopeful of recovery and a return to the parish, he died in S. Luke’s Hospital for the Clergy on the evening of January 6th 1949.

At his funeral service a short tribute was given by his old friend Canon D.F.K. Kennedy Bell who said that Father Gibson had had a very hard five years in the parish.  “Some of you might have done much more than you did to make his ministry easier, and to make his life happier,” he said.  “It is too late to make up to him now, but when a new Vicar comes along, you can make it up to him,” he added. “For over twenty years your late Vicar was my best friend.  He and I differed in almost every subject.  He was an ardent pacifist – I am not.  He was a Socialist – I am not. But, in spite of all our differences, they never spoilt the true and perfect friendship that existed between us.”  In conclusion Canon Kennedy Bell said, “W. A. Gibson was not an easy man to get on with, but neither am I, nor are many of us, but I felt on each of the hundreds of occasions on which I heard him preach that he preached to the honour and glory of his Lord and Master.

Father Gibson is interred in the cemetery in Gap Road.

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