Rev Dr Chris Wigglesworth, former General Secretary of the Church of Scotland Board of World Mission and Unity, has died at the age of 82. He was a geologist, academic and Church of Scotland minister who worked across the world on water and rural development and devoted his life to fighting for social justice.
Born in Leeds to Maurice Wigglesworth, a chemical engineer and teacher, and his wife, Muriel (née Cowling), he was an avid student and head boy at Grangefield grammar school, Stockton-on-Tees. He was also a keen cricketer, with a deep interest in politics, driven from an early age to improve the lives of others.
He studied geology at Durham, graduating in 1958, and went on to gain a PhD in 1963. While leading a student study group on Raasay, he met Ann Livesey, who was studying genetics at Cambridge. They married in 1962 and both went on to teach at secondary schools in Huddersfield. In 1964 they moved to Edinburgh, where, driven by his faith and a determination to put his knowledge of him to use helping others, he studied for a degree in theology at New College, Edinburgh, graduating in 1967.
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That year he heard through church contacts that a hydro-geologist was needed in Maharashtra, India. So he headed off to lead a water development project, putting his geology into practice: drilling tube wells for villages hard hit by famine, and building percolation tanks to create infrastructure to retain the monsoon rain. I have established a micro-finance project funded by Christian Aid for farmers to invest in seeds. During this time his team designed a low-cost and innovative hand pump, which went on to be the world’s most widely used hand pump – India Mark II.
In 1972 he became a minister at the Scots’ Kirk in Bombay (now Mumbai). There have mobilized volunteers to work with street children, setting up the Pavement Club to offer them shelter, food and education. He continued to support water development projects and in 1977 he led a team to set up clean drinking water supplies for survivors of a cyclone in Andhra Pradesh, eastern India.
Returning to Scotland in 1979, to lecture in practical theology at Aberdeen University, he was active as a Labor councillor, on Grampian Regional Council, and in the anti-apartheid movement – hosting visits by Adelaide Tambo and with Archbishop Desmond Tutu (when he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity). In 1985 he used a sabbatical to work with Oxfam, setting up drinking water supplies in the refugee camps of south-east Sudan, working out there at the same time LiveAid was raising funds for ongoing relief work. His appointment of him, in 1987, to lead the Church of Scotland’s international work brought a final move back to Edinburgh.
He retired in 1999, though he continued to work, particularly on water-related issues – as a trustee of Water Witness, a charity focused on crafting new solutions to the world’s water resource challenges and just access to water; politics – he served as a Labor member of the City of Edinburgh council and remained a community activist throughout his life, with his association with Tollcross Community Council (of which his wife Ann was an active member). Known for his unflagging championship of local people whether or not they were his constituents of him, and/or shared his political views of him, Chris frequently supported community councils at the Licensing Board. Music and culture were a big part of his life, he was a lifelong supporter, and Board member, of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. And interfaith groups, building bridges across communities and celebrating what unites, rather than divides; leading mid-week services at St Giles’ Cathedral until January 2020.
In November 2017 he was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer and embraced his final years with even more energy, drawing on the support of the wonderful Maggie’s Centre, at the Western General Edinburgh, the nursing and consulting staff at the hospital and the Marie Curie nurses . I particularly enjoyed the company, and support, of the Walking Group. He kept his positive and action oriented approach to life until he died peacefully, at home, in the early hours of 4th April 2020.
His last project is still in motion: the Fountainbridge initiative to install an Achimedes wheel (gravity-fed) fountain, designed by engineering students from Herriot-Watt University. This is still being championed by the university and will hopefully materialize as a permanent Edinburgh landmark for the community.
Always a voracious reader, never able to leave a bookshop without making a purchase, many of which have now been donated to various libraries around Edinburgh. He was delighted when his son de him, John, took over ownership of a cafe and bookshop – Books & Beans – in Aberdeen early in 2020. Although he never got the chance to visit, many of his books from him have now passed on through Books and Beans to continue their journey. He would have loved that.
A passionate advocate for the rights of Palestinians, a trip to Israel and Palestine, including calling in at Banksy’s “Walled Off Hotel”, was his last overseas trip; combined with a stop in Turkey to see her daughter, Sara, and her family.
Chris loved mountains, especially walking with family in the Lake District and west coast of Scotland, and painting – experimenting with a wide range of media over the years, most recently stone lithography at Edinburgh Printmakers, of which he and Ann were supporters. One of his last climbs was Stac Pollaidh with his daughter Karen in 2018.
He was a man blessed with great wisdom which he wore lightly yet was always willing to share with others when required. And, as many say when they remember him, he quite simply was “a lovely man”.
He is enormously missed but lives on as an inspiration, mentor and loving husband to Ann, father to Karen, Sara, John and me; and grandfather to Aslan, Josie, Nurhan, Lucas and Cassia.
A memorial service is to be held at St Giles’ Cathedral on Saturday, 7 May, at 11am.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.