Monsignor Canon William Denning
1907-1980 Died 31 October 1980
The following obituary was written by Monsignor Canon John Jeremiah Curtin:
15 November 1980
Monsignor Canon William Denning, parish priest of Purley for 36 years, who died on October 31st at the age of 73, was a moral theologian and Canonist of distinction, whose death is a matter for widespread deep regret, tempered only by a clear recognition of a well-spent priestly life, and affectionate memories of his character and rugged personal mode of thought.
He trained for the priesthood at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh. After ordination to the priesthood in 1931, he continued his studies at the Gregorian University, Rome, where he obtained his doctorate in theology. A further year abroad was spent attending those lectures which had special interest for him. He was much invigorated by the teaching of two renowned Jesuit professors at that time viz: Vermeersch and Capello. With such preceptors he acquired a rare authority in the disciplines of moral theology and Canon Law, while his insights into the pastoral application of such learning were fostered and encouraged by the late Father Bernard Leeming, S.J.
Many years ago, as junior seminarians, he and I were taught by Father Louis Woodruff, a classical scholar whose interest in world affairs was reputed to end with the Peloponnesian war. Under his guidance we were introduced to one, Rhadamanthus, who earned praise in Plato’s Apology as an exceedingly learned and just Judge. William Denning was a modern Rhadamanthus who could always be relied upon for a balanced judgement. This gift came to him much in the same way as some singers, not always clerical, are born with a sense of perfect pitch. It would be hard to find one who was more courteous to plaintiff, defendant or witness, or who was quicker to grasp the point at issue. Curial officials may inspire respect, though not necessarily affection, but Denning won both. His amusing but never destructive scepticism was provocative. His unfeigned humility, tireless dedication and transparent integrity prompted the affection of both colleagues and friends. It was impossible to be the one without being the other. In brief he belonged to that group of scholars whose learning makes them more aware of their limitations than confidently assured of their superiority.
From 1947 he was Vice-Officialis of the Southwark Diocesan Marriage Tribunal, becoming Officialis in 1953, and a Canon of the Cathedral Chapter. It should be added that he was an early member of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He possessed a treasury of knowledge and understanding which his quiet reserve did nothing to conceal. In the solution of marriage problems the wisdom and experience of the Judge converged with the humanity and concern of the priest. Those who served with him will retain vivid memories of the care with which he studied all cases, and the clarity and precision with which he distilled their essential features for the benefit of his colleagues.
Before appointment as Rector and subsequently Parish Priest of Purley in 1944, ten years were spent on the staff of the diocesan Junior Seminary at Mark Cross. During this time he broke down prevailing fashion in clerical education, and did much to reshape the mathematical ideas of students for the priesthood by making the subject generally intelligible and periodically entertaining.
In the pastoral field at Purley for 36 years his dependability and quiet common sense, a warm-hearted approach and a sympathetic response to their problems endeared him to parishioners. His work as Parish Priest was a conspicuous example of the unspectacular faithful ministry. In 1977 to the gratification of all, he was made a Prelate of Honour by His Holiness Pope Paul VI.
For the last few years he had struggled admirably with restrictive disablement due to a stroke. Throughout this period his indomitable courage and intellectual vigour, together with a shrewd wit and generosity of fresh observation sustained him in unremitting work for the Archdiocese and for his parish right up to the end. He had always faced impending death with a calm and understanding that were the products of an unusual intelligence. May he rest in peace.
[Edited from CLSN 47, December 1980]
Monsignor Canon William Denning:
Officialis of the Southwark
Metropolitan Tribunal; and