Tributes paid to Canon Carol Wolstenholme OBE

First published on: 25th November 2020

Carol Wolstenholme had a sense of vocation: to serve God in every way she could as a lay person.  Gifted with clear insight, intelligence and wit, she served the people of Denton, her family and very many friends.  She was also highly valued by the people among whom she worked in sections of the Civil Service, for which she was awarded an OBE on retirement in 2006.  But here we commemorate with particular thankfulness, her contributions made over many ways and years to the people of the Diocese of Newcastle. 

Carol was a life-long member of Holy Spirit, Denton, a Reader there for a quarter of a century and chronicler of its history.  Though perhaps arriving at different perceptions of the roles of lay women in the church, she was shaped in the sixties by the spiritual leadership and teaching of Fr. Cook and they sparred happily together until the time of his death last year.  In her teens she was elected President of their branch of the Anglican Young People’s Association and this opened opportunities to experience church life and leadership across a wider section of the Church of England.  Professionally, she rose to become Leadership Development Manager for the Pensions Service and her life-long mission has been to help the Church rediscover in our own time what the church of ‘The Acts’ knew, that everyone is gifted by God in discipleship and for ministry and that all must find their voice and let it sound, unhindered by issues of gender, education, prejudice or precedent.

Bishop Martin Wharton writes:

"Loyal, faithful, devout, always generous with her time, her abilities, and herself.  Carol was utterly trustworthy and dependable. What she promised she always delivered.  She was always fully supportive of the clergy, appropriately respectful, but never overly so: the very best kind of critical friend.  People trusted Carol. She gave them confidence in themselves, in their faith, in the church, in God. We are all the better for having known her and having worked with her. She was gracious and kind."

I arrived in the Diocese in 2001 as Adviser for Continuing Ministerial Development.  Carol and I met quickly as she had helped to set up a work consultancy scheme, providing experienced mentoring for clergy who recognised that fresh skills had to be developed in the ever increasingly complicated and demanding work of parish ministry.  She was kind enough to take me on herself and three times a year she would listen to me talk about the increasing number of roles I was asked to fill.  Encouragement, prioritizing, stalking the elephants: nothing passed her attention and forensic enquiry seasoned with affection and warmth led to a friendship we both valued.  The whole diocese was becoming aware that with decreasing numbers of stipendiary clergy, more financial stringency and fewer church members, fresh resources for ministry had to be uncovered if more folk weren’t to experience breakdown and exhaustion.  The title for a serious year-long training programme was supplied by Carol from her reading of American texts: ‘Leading from the Future’ was born and between 2005 and 2011 was the major opportunity in the diocese for those in leadership roles to review their existing patterns and resources for ministry and explore fresh ones for building resilience and energy for the next phase. 

But what she worked for consistently in the Church was inclusion.  She certainly valued ordaining women for ministry, but above all, she wanted lay Christians to discover and use their voice!  Carol was appointed a Lay Canon of the Cathedral and a member of the Cathedral Council.  As everywhere she took time to listen to people to find out what was going on and how they felt about things.  She was always ready to provide help with HR and strategy issues.  She was appointed Chair of the Diocesan Mission and Pastoral Committee, chairing effectively, keen to emphasise the ‘mission’ part of their role and bringing her particularly ‘lay’ perceptiveness to proposals.  She led a Deanery Development Task Group and became more convinced that the basic unit of mission had to move from parish to deanery.  But to make that meaningful, more lay people needed to grow in confidence, to be comfortable handling issues and feeling able to question and contribute from their own experience.  She and others worked regularly with Area Deans and Lay Chairs to make this possible, and in Bishop’s Council and Bishop’s Staff Team meetings she helped them explore ways of cutting through complex procedures that stifled rather than liberated lay voices. 

Newcastle’s ‘Centre for Life’ was galvanized in October 2014 with a ‘Lay Voices’ conference called for lay people and expressing themselves in song, in discussion and deliberation.  Carol pursued this work at the national level and the ‘Setting God’s People Free’ project sponsored by General Synod is a significant development in stimulating engagement, discipleship and action at local level.

For some years, Carol embodied our link with the Diocese of Winchester.  Peter Rouch, until recently Archdeacon of Bournemouth has written:

"It feels as if the whole thing has become warmer, more relational, more open. We have joined each other in General Synod and in our own diocesan processes and decisions, not as some organised link activity, but because to be part of what each other is doing feels part of who we are.  I have loved this change, and I have loved Carol whose character and energy have been at the heart of it. Always Carol has been just who she is. There has been no sense that she needs to present or conceal anything of herself and her diocese. Carol has I think drawn forth a matching response from those of us who have been living and ministering in Winchester. We have met and spent time together not as representatives of two different things/dioceses/whatever, but as people pretty much about the same life journey but at different ends of the country."

Carol was elected Lay Chair of the Diocesan Synod in 2015.  This put her into the most significant role for a lay person in the local structure and gave an entry into every discussion, consultation and sphere where strategy was determined.  To this she brought her whole lifetime’s experience of Gospel and vocation and made her voice and those of other lay people heard.  This role involved attending Deanery Synods and having regular meetings with Lay Chairs from other dioceses who celebrate her for friendly warmth and straight talking.  Many have written on hearing the news of her death and perhaps David Wilson, Lay Chair of Leicester can speak on their behalf:

"Very sad news indeed. In my experience, Carol was a cup half full person who always saw potential for good even in the most challenging situations. There was a refreshing honesty and openness about her, along with a sharp wit and a generous heart. Her wisdom, kindness and good heartedness will be greatly missed by us all."

The strength of her convictions led Carol to stand for election to General Synod in 2008 as a diocesan representative and re-elected twice since.  She was always prepared to speak on more occasions than called but when she was, her soft Geordie tones left their mark.  In a debate about future financial resourcing of dioceses she had no qualms in speaking up for Newcastle with the reminder that ‘Shy bairns get nowt!’.  Her HR expertise was particularly recognised by Synod and she was elected by them onto two significant committees: the ‘Remuneration and Conditions of Service Committee’, that makes recommendations about pay and pensions for stipendiary clergy and regulates conditions of service.  The other, the ‘Clergy Discipline Committee’ monitors the exercise of discipline and highlights and encourages best practice.  She frequently attended ‘Faith in Research’ conferences and as one Synod staff member commented, ‘She was absolutely committed to basing our mission strategies on sound facts rather than anecdotes and she had a good “nose” for distinguishing sound, complex, research from presentational hype.’

Bishop Christine writes:

"Carol has been such a significant part of our diocesan life that it is hard to imagine things without her. She brought humour, warmth, skill and wisdom to everything she did, and she challenged us to have a rich and biblical understanding of the life of the people of God, lay and ordained working together for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Carol saw the issues currently facing the Church and was passionate about the possibilities of God for our society, and the part the Church could play in this. She saw her own role not just as a diocesan officer but principally as a follower of Jesus, which was very apparent through the ways in which she looked at the issues of the Church and the world through the lenses of faith, and through her commitment to hospitality and to the welfare of others. We have lost a person of huge significance, and I know that I have lost a true friend."

Every learning session that Carol led ended with a period of reflection.  She’d draw a marker line down the centre of a page of flipchart paper and write two sets of initials in the columns: WWW – ‘What went well’ and EBI – ‘Even better if’  It’s not that she was never satisfied, only that there were always more needs to meet if tasks and the people undertaking them were to progress.  No doubt on the day of judgment she will receive feedback and will listen and learn from what she hears!  But for us now, we can simply be thankful that she has walked alongside us, befriending, enabling, supporting and encouraging us in our mutual building of God’s Kingdom in our own time.   

By Colin Gough with help from many other friends and colleagues

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