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Webb, Norman Charles (1925–1985)

by Malcolm Brown

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Norman Charles Webb (1925-1985), Methodist clergyman, was born on 11 January 1925 at Royston, Hertfordshire, England, son of Charles Edwin Webb, printer’s compositor, and his wife Nellie, née Brown. Norman attended Letchworth Grammar School. Influenced by his parents’ fundamentalist Methodism, he was received into the church at 17 and became a local preacher and organist. He won an All England Scholarship to enrol for the Natural Science tripos at Peterhouse, Cambridge (BA, 1946). Obliged to do his war service, he opted as an approved alternative to work as a research chemist. He decided to become a candidate for the Methodist ministry and had to serve as a pre-collegiate minister at Colchester (1946-47). He studied theology at Wesley House, Cambridge (MA, 1950), and was ordained in 1951. On 6 August that year in the Salem Methodist Church, Blackpool, he married June Margaret Richardson, a Cambridge graduate and schoolteacher. The couple were stationed in Coventry from 1951 to 1956.

Following his move to a Sheffield circuit in 1956, as well as undertaking pastoral duties, Webb became chaplain at the University of Sheffield. In 1963 he was appointed senior staff secretary of the Student Christian Movement, University of London, ministering to a large student population. John Robinson’s Honest to God (1963) and the writings of Teilhard de Chardin and Paul Tillich influenced his thinking towards secularised theology.

In 1964 Webb was appointed master of Wesley College, University of Sydney. The council, which presided over a staid males-only, alcohol-free college, welcomed his intellectual input. Taking up the post in January 1965, he immediately sensed that Wesley was locked in the past. Convinced that segregation of the sexes was inappropriate for young adults, he declared the college co-educational; the first female students entered in 1969. This outraged traditionalists but proved popular with students. He relaxed the ban on alcohol, providing it in the dining hall on special occasions. For the formal dinner celebrating the college’s fiftieth anniversary in 1969, the menu controversially included brandied strawberries, port and red wine. His hands-off management style, treating students as mature adults and allowing them to regulate their activities, gave rise to fears of licentious behaviour.

Webb believed that the Methodist Church had failed to move with the times and that its theology had not adapted to embrace modern science. In 1967 in talks broadcast on Australian Broadcasting Commission radio, he declared that he did not believe in miracles, that the appeal of Jesus to him was the ‘quality of his normal humanity’ and not the ‘fairytale additions’ that ‘honest and excited men’ had added in ‘the simplicity of their age’. The progressive president-elect of the New South Wales Methodist conference, Rev. Bill Hobbin, commissioned Webb to write a treatise for consideration at that year’s annual conference. In a 70,000-word publication, Work Done, Webb argued that after almost two thousand years of sowing the seeds of Christianity, the church had done its job and should now de-institutionalise. His radical thesis outraged many and it was withdrawn from circulation.

Skilfully using the media, Webb took on social issues such as population control and abortion law reform. An opponent of the Vietnam War, in 1970 he attended moratorium marches and supported students who wanted to defy the National Service Act. He was president (1966-74) of the Sydney University Settlement, after which he became an honorary life president.

Webb’s policies and pronouncements were at odds with the conference’s notion of an evangelical college head upholding traditional Methodist values. The church leaders discovered that only the college council, which maintained its support for Webb, could dismiss the master, but that conference could admonish him as a Methodist clergyman. At the 1970 conference he faced disciplinary charges for ‘his attitudes and actions as they affected his ministry’. A committee reported in March 1971 that ‘certain of the charges’ had been proved. The conference reprimanded him and released a statement that his attention had been drawn to ‘matters to which he must give heed in the future’. It advised him that he must exercise his ministry in accordance with the decisions and standards of the Methodist Church.

Continuing as master, Webb had the backing of the college council until 1976 when it terminated his appointment on a technicality. Of the 193 students in the college, 187 signed a petition opposing his dismissal. Webb felt ostracised by the church: ‘it was made plain that I would not be welcome in any circuit position’ he said later, and in 1977 he returned to England, where at one stage he drove a hire car. His ideas, however, contributed to the liberal theology and social directions adopted by the Uniting Church in Australia, formed in 1977 by the amalgamation of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches. During the 1970s his marriage broke down and he and his wife divorced.

Webb returned to Australia in 1979 and worked as an administrator. Now his theology inclined to panentheism, labelled by some as process theology. In 1982 he made contact with the Uniting Church. He undertook parish and locum work and in February 1985 was appointed minister of Katoomba parish. Survived by his two daughters and son, he died of a ruptured mesenteric aneurysm on 11 October 1985 at Katoomba and was cremated. At the Uniting Church conference that year the retiring New South Wales moderator, Rev. Gordon Dicker, said that the entire church was distressed but comforted by the thought that Webb and the church had been reconciled.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Ward, Men Ahead of Their Time (1996)
  • Methodist Church of Australasia, NSW Conference, Minutes, 1965-76
  • Australian, 20 Mar 1971, p 5, 23 Mar 1971, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Mar 1971, p 1, 24 Mar 1971, p 2, 1 Apr 1971, p 2, 3 Apr 1971, p 11, 16 Oct 1971, p 3, 16 Mar 1972, p 5, 18 Oct 1972, p 1, 20 Oct 1972, p 6, 17 June 1976, p 1, 18 June 1976, p 3, 29 June 1976, p 10, 30 Sept 1976, p 11, 23 Apr 1984, p 7, 5 May 1985, p 3, 14 Oct 1985, p 4
  • Gazette (University of Sydney), Oct 1995, p 16
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Webb, Norman Charles (1925–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/webb-norman-charles-15842/text27041, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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