The Bridge Interviews
Andrew Wingfield Digby
This month’s interviewee has the unusual distinction of being listed both in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and Crockford’s Clerical Directory. The Reverend Canon Andrew Wingfield Digby, to give him his full title, has played first class cricket, mixed with elite sportsmen and women and worked as vicar of a Church of England parish. A man with skills in many fields, sporting or otherwise, he now lives in Asthall Leigh and incidentally is the third resident of that small village to be interviewed in this magazine.
One of Andrew’s forebears, Sir Everard Digby, was executed for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. Another, Sir John Digby, acquired Sherborne Castle in Dorset from James I after the previous owner, Sir Walter Raleigh, had his head chopped off in 1617. Andrew’s cousins still live there. Andrew’s father was vicar of Sherborne. Andrew lived in the town up to the age of 18 and he, together with his two brothers, attended Sherborne School while his sister went to Sherborne Girls. He explains that his father could not have afforded the fees if his position had not entitled him to a substantial discount. Andrew had a very happy childhood. “I had a very privileged but not particularly wealthy upbringing.”
He was brought up as a Christian but finally committed himself to a Christian life during his gap year while working for David Sheppard, the former England cricketer and later Bishop of Liverpool, at the Mayflower Centre at Canning Town in London. He did not decide immediately to go into the church as at that time he was thinking of a career in journalism, although ministry was at the back of his mind. In the meantime he read history at Keble College, Oxford, and played a lot of cricket. He also met his wife Sue at Oxford. She had grown up at Chastleton near Moreton-in-Marsh where her father, Captain Peter Aizlewood, was a farmer and a well known local figure.
After graduating Andrew worked for two years for Help the Aged while considering what to do, while Sue was training to be a teacher. He finally decided to apply for ordination. He and Sue were married in 1974. They have three children: Anna, who lives in Witney and whose husband works for BMW at Oxford: Mark, who works for brewers AB InBev and lives near Newbury; and Laura, whose husband, Kev, is a vicar in London. They have ten grandchildren ranging in age from 21 years to a few months.
Soon after the wedding Andrew began to study theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, while Sue took a teaching job in the city. He therefore spent two periods totalling six years at Oxford and played cricket every summer, four times winning a blue, the highest award for sport at the university. For many years matches played by Oxford and Cambridge were classed as first class cricket, although that has just ended. “We played six days a week - two three day matches. We played against all the counties and against touring sides including the Australians.” The Combined Universities team drawn from both Oxford and Cambridge, which he also played in, included Vic Marks, Peter Roebuck, Chris Tavaré, Paul Parker and (not least) Imran Khan, now the prime minister of Pakistan. Andrew is modest about his cricketing achievements and says he did not seriously consider turning professional. “I wasn’t quite good enough. I always felt out of my depth. I was offered a contract by Gloucestershire but by then my career was going in a different direction.” (For cricket buffs: he played 39 first class matches taking 96 wickets with his medium fast bowling at an average of 33.87 and had a highest score of 69. He also played in 15 List A matches).
Andrew was ordained in 1977 and was a curate at Christ Church, Cockfosters, and then served as minister in charge at St Paul’s, Hadley Wood, on the northern fringes of London. During this time he became involved in Christians in Sport. This organisation started informally as a forum for Christians engaged in serious sport to meet each other but in 1984 it was formally constituted and Andrew was asked to become its first director. “We moved to Oxford. I became an honorary curate at St Aldate’s Church where Michael Green was the vicar and worked full time for Christians in Sport. Sue got a job teaching in Oxford, and we have been based in Oxfordshire ever since”.
The objective of the organisation is to bring together Christians who take part in and love sport and to encourage them to live out the Christian life as sportspeople as an example and encouragement to their teammates. He points out that it is very challenging for a Christian to be a successful sportsperson since sport by its nature tends towards selfishness. He gives examples of what can be done such as a golf tournament where the players, caddies and coaches may gather together for bible study and prayer before the start. He was part of the chaplaincy team at the Seoul, Sydney and London Olympics during which Christian athletes would meet in the Olympic village each day. He does not agree that Christians are off duty when they play sport. “My ability to bowl an outswinger is as much a gift from God as that of the organist to play during a church service”.
He is often asked whether it is permissible for Christians to play on Sundays. Answer: yes, but you should then have a day of rest at some other time in the week. He is also asked whether you can pray to win. His answer is to pray that your opponent will play as well as they can so that when you win you know you have done well.
In 1991 Andrew was invited by Ted Dexter, the chairman of the selectors, to become chaplain to the England cricket team. “I already knew some of the players. Dexter had played with David Sheppard [both played for Sussex as well as England] and said that his influence on the team had been helpful. I was thrilled but a bit daunted. The team included players such as Gooch, Gatting, Botham, Gower and Lamb. The first time Ted Dexter took me into the changing room Botham was on the physio’s couch. He called out ‘Don’t worry, Wingers, Lamby and I will sing in the choir.’ That broke the ice. I did this for ten years and was able to get to know the team, listen to them and share my faith when appropriate. I once asked Botham how Cathy and the children were. He was amazed and said no one had ever asked him that before. The job attracted some publicity and helped to promote the public perception of Christians in Sport.” He points out how stressful life can be for sportsmen and their wives given the amount of time away from home. Their divorce rate is very high.
Then Ray Illingworth took over from Dexter. “I went to the first day of the first test at Trent Bridge and he was very friendly. The second day I wasn’t there and someone asked ‘Where’s the Rev?’ He said ‘I want no dark glasses, no mobile phones and no vicars in the changing room.’ The next day the headline in the Sun said ‘KNICKERS TO THE VICAR.’ In fact Illingworth called me and told me I was welcome in the changing room any time. In a way it made it much easier for me to work informally and with less publicity. I then did an interview with Ruth Gledhill who was religious affairs correspondent with The Times. She asked me whether I was surprised that Illingworth had dispensed with my services. I replied along the lines that good and bad things happen and life is not always easy. When the story appeared, the sub-editor had put in the headline ‘Chaplain blames the Devil for dismissal.’ ”
Andrew left Christians in Sport in 2002. “I had three children growing up. Sue was headmistress of a school in Oxford and I was away a lot. I also felt that I had been ordained in order to work in a local church.” By the time the vacancy occurred he was an honorary curate at St Andrew’s Church in north Oxford. “The bishop and the outgoing vicar encouraged me to apply for the vacancy.” They moved into the vicarage in 2003. Sue’s school was in the same road as the church and they were near to Sue’s parents.
After Sue’s father died in 2007 they began to think about where they would like to retire. “It had to be within striking distance of Oxford, near a river (Andrew is a keen fisherman), near a good church and we really only thought of the Cotswolds.” They saw their house in Asthall Leigh and fell in love with it. For a time they used it as a bolt hole and for the family, looked after the garden and built up relationships in the village. They moved there full time in 2016 after both of them had retired. For vicars retirement rarely means inactivity and Andrew soon became involved in plans to develop a new 11am service at Swinbrook. There were about 15 regular members of the congregation at that time but about 20 members of Burford Church including Andrew and Sue committed to joining them. “We were about 35 to start with. Within six months we were 60 to 70. Now about 100 people would say it is their church and the car park is jam packed on Sundays.” Andrew led the services together with Alex Ross and more recently with Gerald March, another retired vicar. Over the last few months they have had to grapple with the challenge of streaming services online, something Andrew thinks churches will go on doing after lockdown ceases. The Swinbrook “Thought for the Week” videos (swinbrookat11.org) have been viewed around 200 times each, showing they have reached well beyond the regular church family.
A further responsibility came Andrew’s way when Richard Coombs announced that he was moving to Cheltenham and asked Andrew to take charge of the benefice until the arrival of a new vicar. “It was a great privilege to be responsible for a year, to get to know the benefice better and be part of the staff team.” He is now happy to be able to support the new vicar, Tom Putt.
Cricket has continued to be a big part of Andrew’s life. He has played for a variety of teams including captaining Dorset in the Minor Counties competition, various ecclesiastical teams and currently for Swinbrook, where he sits on the committee. He has written several books and contributed chapters to others. In one book, Team Mates, various cricketers were asked to write about someone they have particularly enjoyed playing with. He chose Richie Parker, his captain at Swinbrook.
As if this were not enough…Andrew and Sue are keen skiers and take part in a ski chaplaincy in Switzerland every year. He is on the committee of the Cotswold Flyfishers Club, and a trustee of the Deo Gloria Trust, a grant-giving charity. He has just finished a three year term as chairman of the Old Sherburnians Association. Sue is a trustee of the NFL Trust, an educational charity, is involved with the Besom in Witney and is chair of trustees of a food bank in Oxford; she is a member of the parochial church council for Asthall Leigh and neighbouring villages. The rest of their time is their own.
Andrew is known as someone who teaches the Bible inan illuminating and entertaining way. Many will remember his Easter sermon in Burford last year when he gutted a trout to illustrate the story of Jesus preparing a fish after his resurrection. He then produced another trout he had prepared earlier and invited the children in the congregation to tuck into it. He explains that he was once given six of the best by a prefect at Sherborne for laughing during house prayers. He later resolved to make the congregation laugh at least once in every sermon. Whether you are looking for someone to preach a sermon, listen to you, catch a fish, bowl an out swinger or make you laugh, you could not do better than Andrew.