When Richard Chartres appointment as Bishop of London was announced it produced some highly predictable media coverage. The BBC early evening news dispensed with any personal detail of life and ministry preferring to wheel in homosexual and feminist lobbyists to comment on this traditionalist throwback and ending with the woman commentator snarling through gritted teeth the curious and inexplicable protest – “This means that two of the three top jobs in the Church of England are held by men!”.

The commentator was clearly far more outraged than the lobbyists, who have been far from unkindly treated by Chartres in his time at Stepney and were simply putting down some very public markers. Traditionalists, meanwhile, were clearly pleased, but utterly realistic. Their reactions ranged from a Restoration enthusiasm to the more sober assessment that any other candidate would have been much worse. Those who have followed Chartres ministry will be aware that the people amongst whom he has worked retain a deep affection for him and that even those in the structure who are not over-fond of him regard him as a highly intelligent and capable man who stands out amongst his peers. A regular comment from clergy and laity alike is: “he looks, speaks and acts like a real bishop.” As the man who spent nine years at the right hand of Robert Runcie he could not have had a greater opportunity to understand the opportunities and pitfalls of high office.

On a bright, clear winter day with the threat of snow in the air we met in the study at London House. Only a few volumes are on the shelves as the moving in is far from fully completed The sections already in place are an interesting indicator – shelves on the episcopate, Greek history and culture, the Holy Spirit, Gospel commentaries and the origins of the Chartres family and their famous cathedral! And a shelf on the history of the City of London and its churches and distinctive life. On the wall above his desk he has hung the picture of Bishop Juxon, the Laudian protégé whose fairness to all churchmanships made him the obvious candidate for Canterbury at the Restoration. Chartres himself is tall, imposing, slightly thinning and bearded with a manner that is both welcoming and serious and spins into conversation about mission and our common experience of East End ministry as if continuing a conversation, momentarily interrupted, with an old friend. Volumes by “Cosmo” (Bishop of Stepney 1901, Archbishop of York 1908, Canterbury 1928) and Mudie Smith spill onto the table as he teases at the disconnection of men from the Gospel. Why and when did men cut off? When you visit a house as a priest, he recalls, the husband will take one look at you and say, “Oh good evening Vicar, you must want the wife”. Isn’t it true? I remember many baptism visits in Poplar having that response and I used to say, “Why? Isn’t it your baby too?”. Only once did I get the reply, “No it * ! * ! * !well isn’t!”

But Chartres is wrestling with the missing men in the same way Daniel Cozens does in his Walk of 1000 men. Why do Muslim and Jewish men see it as essential to get stuck in and so many Christian men regard faith and morality as women’s work? There is a “loss of potency and guts” in English Christianity – he summarises this with an anatomical term. I proffer the consistent experience of the ordinands I have known that too many theological colleges have an unhappy tendency to emasculate and eviscerate their male candidates in the quest for the new cardinal virtue of “flexibility”.

A diplomatic Chartres agrees that too many are “educated into less usefulness” and is enthusiastic about the development of the London Ministerial Training Scheme. Traditionalists will watch this one with interest and caution, familiar as they are with the abominations of other Diocese MTS schemes. Certainly London is a large diocese with massive resources. If they cannot do it no-one can. Chartres is insistent that London MTS will have a huge emphasis on the spiritual dimension and, what he calls, “a greater sense of rootedness in the corporate prayer of the church “. Common prayer, daily offices – so neglected – not an achievement but a minimum prerequisite. Half the allotted time, I realise with horror, has already gone in a mutual excitement about mission and education. This may be good Christianity but it is bad journalism! “You cut me short whenever you want,” he says. O.K.!

Tell me about yourself. Where did you begin?

“My Mum was from Bow. By one of those curious loops I ended up living in the house of the vicar who married her for the first time. She was widowed three times. My father was an Irish Huguenot. There’s just been a book published on my great uncle, John Chartres called “Mystery Man of the Treaty”. He was a member of Sinn Fein and a Protestant civil servant. He was also undoubtedly a gun runner for Michael Collins.”

These are the perfect genetic qualifications for another job! Did you have any brothers and sisters?

“Stephen was two years younger and had a severe mental handicap. He died in his twenties. He couldn’t walk properly or talk clearly yet he was full of joy and loved music and life. He was a great influence on my life. Any interest my parents might have had in God was killed off by Stephen’s birth but it gave me two great advantages. First it meant I came from the majority i.e. outside the church but second and more important it posed a question every day of my life. What was life about if Stephen was disqualified from the “Glittering Prizes?”. Later on, when I had ordinands, I used to send them to L’ARCHE communities (for the handicapped) so that they could have their emotional deficit restored.”

School? What were you good at?

“I went to Hertford Grammar School and it would have to be drama. I can remember playing two parts particularly. One was the First Tempter in Murder in the Cathedral – Becket’s alter ego and leaning on Augustine’s throne behind him. Years later I found myself really there for the rehearsal for Robert Runcie’s enthronement – it all came rushing back. The second was Dr Marvel, the horse doping fiend from a Pinero farce. After that I always got the bad guys – Pontius Pilate and Nebuchadnezzar.” (I ruefully reflected that I had obviously been in the wrong production. The priest who had been a remarkable Last Tempter to my Becket 25 years ago has just resigned under the measure and, as a member of Forward in Faith I could look forward to the privilege of martyrdom without the distraction of high office.) “Drama is a good way of relating to people without beginning with the church.” (Some Albanians can remember his last outing as Ack Knee, son of the Grand Vizier Hiss Boo in the St Albans municipal panto.) “Also it’s marvellous for rote learning. Educational philosophers who are against this are WRONG! Language learnt reverberates in the inner space and feeds in an almost physical way. I love poetry, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton these are important people in my life. I have a life mask in my working place of Blake and I read copious draughts of him or Burke before sleep as an antidote to the deathless prose of committees and Synod documents.”

A radical and conservative in the same evening?

“Burke is a romantic conservative – not an Adam Smith market man. After the death of Marie Antoinette he commented that the world had fallen into the hands of sophists, economists and calculators. All that matters is what can be counted and measured. We are still there – god is the economy whose temperature is taken daily on the Dow Jones or Hang Sen. It is the triumph of management over vision.”

Isn’t that how the government and the church are trying to go?

“Yes, but this is not a party political point. I don’t believe in that. It is a comment on a social reality.”

Going back to language you’re a great Book of Common Prayer man aren’t you?

“I was converted to Christianity through the Book of Common Prayer. I was eventually ordained according to the Prayer Book rite. My first celebration of the Holy Communion was in the words of 1662. I was married by the Prayer Book. My children were baptised using the Prayer Book. The present Archbishop was generous enough to agree to my request to be consecrated using the Prayer Book. I gratefully conform to the Prayer Book Offices every day and I have left instructions that I am to be buried using the rite of the Book of Common Prayer”

After school?

“I asked my father and he said, “Your grandfather went to Trinity”. So I applied. I was in my final year before he told me he had meant Trinity, Dublin.”

How did you fit in? What did you read?

“History. I was really very gauche – no social ability at all; but people were extraordinarily kind and it was a great liberation. For the first term I assumed that the wash basin was the only bath and was too shy to ask. Then I saw a maths don clutching a vodka bottle and clad only in a towel reeling across the quad. I followed him and there were the bathrooms.” (Hard to think now, but it was about this time that the Conservative Association first lowered its standards and let grammar school boys join!) “Chapel was packed. Harry Williams, with whom I didn’t agree about anything, was intellectually fascinating. Every service was an event!”

And the history?

“I’ve always felt a great connectedness to the past – its reality. Its not nostalgia – I am always looking over the horizon but that history sense is common to Celtic families.” (At this point he launches into a complete remembrance of the Russian rediscovery of the bones of St Seraphim of Sarov, healer and popular saint of the poor.) “While English saints like Wilberforce were involved in social action, Seraphim was in the forest, healing, talking to the bears and being transfigured.” (Chartres was in St Petersburg when his bones emerged from the vaults of the Museum of Atheism.) “The enthusiasm of the people was not superstition but a welling up of that knowledge of the communion of saints and our re-membering the Body of Christ and participation in it. Western man is trapped in his rational calculating faculty. This is very different from Platonic reason. This limited rationality has no first order knowledge, subject to subject. When you are dealing with the communion of saints its a different spiritual faculty, all too often oppressed and hobbled by the mind.” (While acknowledging the astonishing achievement of the age of reason, Chartres foresees the continuing atrophying and atomization of a society suffocating with information and starving for wisdom which is unwinding into chaos. There is a need for “new leadership for the dark times already upon us” in the church and faithful christian communities “which will embody and encode the catholic faith for the future.”)

Is it true that you left Cuddesdon under a cloud, were regarded as outrageously reactionary and told there was no future for you in the C of E?

“Yes. It was the year of the barricades and I arrived in a bowler hat and voted against all “modernizations”. Some of it was genuine belief, some was immaturity. Runcie tolerated eccentrics, others didn’t. I took a year or two out working in Sainsbury’s and then in forestry before completing my training. Runcie and I disagreed (and disagree) about virtually everything, but he had an ability to work with people who didn’t agree with him.”

What about the seemingly endless appointment of chums?

“He spent very little time on appointments and left it mainly to others.”

You have depressed many orthodox recently by saying you are enthusiastic about women priests’ ministry?

“It is a radical discontinuity and a premature decision. We are in danger of simply following cultural patterns. I am not persuaded by the arguments in favour and I have always voted against. But I am en enthusiastic for women’s ministry in the same way I have worked with women Methodist ministers. Clearly the historical arguments of inferiority will not do.”

I never heard that argued. The doctrine of creation, incarnation, headship, scriptural authority, Jesus’ example and early church practice, aren’t they the key areas?

“Yes that is where the debate must take place, in the mean time, both tendencies must flourish.”

And appointments. Are you going to be another conservative who bends over backwards to appoint liberals while liberals appoint their own?

“No. There will be a fair balance in London while I am Bishop.”

And can we expect the appointment of bishops who are not deeply compromised, Romeward bound or bleating on about “terminal care”?


Many speak of you as young, dynamic and a future Canterbury. What do you say?

“For a man touching 50 in business this would be a laughable question. I am committed to London and very positive about it. It is the hub of a huge international communications network, a place of enormous diversity and endless gospel possibilities. A bishop needs to be a missionary figure as well as a pastor and I am committed to the London Missions Action Plan. People talk about London as “a bed of nails” – I think it has the most wonderful opportunities for God.”

Have you ever been tempted by Rome or orthodoxy?

“No. It would be faithless of me to abandon the C of E. No-one would inherit the opportunities. But we mustn’t pine for the old securities. No church will survive the great sifting of the times we are going through. The nation is fragmenting. It has no common songs to sing around the fire. Only the church can tell the story that created the nation and it must speak in words of fire. We must not be the church of the limerick, you know:

There was an old man of Moravia Who didn’t believe in our Saviour So set up instead With him at its head A cult of decorous behaviour”

(There is a passion and presence and authority about Chartres that marks him out. Spend an hour or two in his company and the mixture of intellect, prophecy, vision and intensity leave you in no doubt that his ministry will achieve greatness or disaster. His choice of trusty companions and personal discipline will determine which. Certainly he will be a key figure in the critical years ahead.)

As we get to the door he offers to hold my coat. I politely decline. He insists and, with a dark smile, quotes John Updike: “Why do clergy find it so difficult to minister to one another? In a congress of masseurs nobody turns their back”.

Robbie Low is the Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s.