A Father and a Friend
Born 4th October, 1933
Ordained Deacon : 1959
Ordained Priest : 1960
Rector of Holsworthy with Hollacombe & Cookbury: 1964– 1974
Team Rector of Heavitree with St Paul’s, Exeter: 1974–1981
Archdeacon of Exeter & Residentiary Canon: 1981–1994
Consecrated as first Bishop of Ebbsfleet: 29th April, 1994
Retired: 31st October, 1998
Died 9th November, 2003
It was our first residential staff meeting, and Bishop Eric was introducing me to the other members. ‘John,’ he said, ‘this is the new Archdeacon of Plymouth.’ The retort was swift and direct. ‘You have a job on sorting out all those guys down there.’ From the look in the eye, I rightly deduced the remark was a challenge, not a commiseration. I was, over the next twenty years, to grow accustomed to such direct and decisive leadership. When we arrived together at York Minster to attend Bishop John Gaisford’s consecration, a few weeks before his own, John surveyed the clergy robing, and said to me, ‘Right, brother. We’ll lead this lot in’, which we duly did, to the amusement of the episcopal candidate just in front of us in the procession. How did it happen? That, of course, is the question. How did it happen that a sixty-year-old archdeacon from the unfashionable south-west should make such an impact as one of the Church of England’s ‘Flying Bishops’?
He had not been everyone’s first choice back in 1994. He had been on General Synod, and made useful contributions, particularly in the financial debates. He was a Church Commissioner. Fellow archdeacons in the south-west knew him as a skilled and shrewd priest. Against this there were hesitations about his theological position; too Anglican, not sufficiently Catholic, thought some. Doubts too as to his age (too old), his establishment links (too conformist), his manner (too brusque) were aired. It is the remarkable fact that within weeks of his consecration all these hesitations evaporated. There was never a view that he was not the right appointment. All felt ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man.’
He was not just a big man in physique but powerful in spirit. Spiritual energy welled up from within. If he did not stride across the southern province like a Colossus, he still drove thousands of miles to preach and teach, to confirm and ordain, to encourage this PCC or that incumbent. The main work, however, in his view, lay in the often protracted and difficult negotiations with the dioceses over issues of appointments, the passing of the resolutions, and pastoral reorganization, and for these matters the resilience, matched with both toughness and diplomatic astuteness, were essential. Again it is a measure of the man that he became accepted as part of most diocesan staff meetings, and that he always held up as a model of relationships his own debt in friendship to the then Bishop of Lichfield, the first to offer him a home in his diocese at the beginning of 1994.
His complete devotion to the task gained people’s affection. He was always the last to leave the bunfight after the service, and he enjoyed vicarage hospitality (no wonder his expenses were kept to a minimum!). The support he gave on the telephone for hours on end to both clergy and wardens, and the pastoral care of many individuals, including one or two who had fallen, if not from grace, certainly from the concern of the wider church – all this he saw as a top priority. All these factors came together in a demonstration of mutual thanksgiving at Bristol Cathedral when he retired from the see of Ebbsfleet in 1998. His legacy had been to give to the Church of England a different model of episcopacy, one that was uncluttered by committees and administration, and that was pastoral and approachable, unpretentious, ‘slim-line’, without fuss or bother.
John Richards was born in 1933 in Reading, where he went to school. His father subsequently gained promotion, and the family moved to Leicester. This break in his schooling did not prevent entry to Cambridge, where he was to read both history and theology. (Both these disciplines were to endure throughout his priestly ministry, for he was never without half a dozen books on the go. They gave him not only an intimate knowledge of Anglican ways, but a perspective in the contemporary struggles.) National service almost resulted in a journey to Suez, and the kitbag was sent ahead of the troops. Hostilities then ceased and he did not go, and he was for ever grieved that his toothbrush was not returned! This writer had not realized – did others? – that he was raised to the rank of bombardier in the Royal Artillery. Bombardier Richards! Had we known this, especially in his archdeacon days, there would have been some knowing looks when we tried to shelter from his inspirational drive.
The decision to serve his title, after training in Ely, at Exeter and, as it turned out, to devote most of his working life to the county of Devon, was in a great part due to Robert Mortimer, then bishop of the diocese, and a notable figure on the bench. The gold mitre that John was one day to wear came from the Mortimer family, and was much treasured by him. John launched himself into parish work, one of his colleagues being Richard Hawkins, another to serve in the diocese throughout his ministry, and presently Bishop of Crediton. Things must have buzzed in those rather heady days of the sixties, and a permanent memorial to his time in the parish was the conversion of a tin hut into the present St Andrew’s church on the south side of the city.
There followed what became a steep learning curve with a first incumbency in rural Devon. For those unacquainted with mid-Devon and north Devon, there is the countryside and there is the deep countryside. Holsworthy and environs definitely fall into the latter category. The farming community that sustained it became John’s focus for ministry and gave him an abiding concern for those who work the land. The years in Heavitree provided a real contrast. One of the largest parishes in the diocese, it had a team of clergy and readers that others envied. On arrival, John also had to cope with the chaplaincy of the main Exeter hospital that was developing into one of Devon’s key providers of hospital care.
The call to the archdeaconry came in 1981 from Bishop Eric Mercer, who needed a tough and resilient archdeacon to fire the episcopal bullets. John relished the opportunity and was given space and encouragement in order to revitalize diocesan structures. He was fortunate in both bishops under whom he served for Bishop Hewlett Thompson, who arrived in 1986, was also generous in giving his staff freedom to develop their gifts in their own spheres. Not once did one of John’s churches in his archdeaconry, over a decade, ever default over parochial share, which so encouraged the other archdeaconries that reserves were actually built up in a period of financial stringency.
He would not wish us to make a saint of the natural man. How he would have enjoyed the final of the Rugby World Cup! We do, however, remember his constant theme in his sermons to us, to aim for holiness, to make our churches centres of excellence. We pray for him with deep gratitude to the Lord, and we pray for Ruth and the family that much love will surround them.
Robin Ellis is a retired priest in the Exeter Diocese.
BISHOP ANDREW BURNHAM writes:
‘Where are you?’ said Bishop John to me when I met him early in his episcopate at some do or other. ‘St Stephen’s House’, I said. ‘Stay there’, he said, and moved on to the next pastoral encounter. Another time I saw him, I said ‘You look cheerful’. ‘I’m paid to look cheerful’, he growled, his eyes as ever twinkling.
His style was to give plenty of advice, mostly good and always in a highly persuasive fashion. It was something of a dialectic approach and worked best perhaps when it was as robustly challenged as it was robustly challenging.
There are two kinds of bishops, those who have and those who have not been archdeacons. Nearly fifteen years an archdeacon, John continued to make many inspiring appointments, the quality of which I continue to admire as I go round. Even in retirement he did not lose interest in who should go where. The word ‘proactive’ might have been invented to describe him.
Altogether I have fond memories and a deep appreciation of the ministry of the first Bishop of Ebbsfleet. He was God’s man at a particular time of crisis in the life of the Church. For his first year of episcopal ministry he covered vast distances and single-handedly worked out what it meant to be a PEV in the Southern Province. Later, after Bishop Michael’s death, he came out of retirement and battled on. He worked to the end. On the Sunday before he died he was down at the Lizard at one of the Ebbsfleet parishes, I learnt, jollying them along. I rather fear that, try as we did to slow him down, we in the Church let him wear himself out. Here was the ‘good soldier of Jesus Christ’. I can almost hear him making his own the admonition in 2 Timothy 4.1–8.
May he rest in peace.
BISHOP DAVID THOMAS writes:
With Bishop John Richards, what you saw was what you got. He was as big in Christian holiness and kindness as in stature; a wise an ‘old bird’ as his aquiline features suggested. One could trust his judgement implicitly.
Our paths crossed at the Glastonbury Pilgrimage Association on the day before John died. I’d set off on a post-flu ‘low’, telling my wife that I’d be more cheerful after being with John. He chaired the council meeting and AGM in his own inimitable fashion. He growled a lot, and several times he put his head in his hands as if completely baffled, though in fact every antenna was very precisely tuned in! He came across to me after the AGM, putting his hands on my shoulders as he greeted me. We chatted briefly and I felt restored, exactly as I’d predicted. John’s amazing ability to affirm and strengthen others was one of the Spirit’s choicest gifts to him.
I pray now that he will rest in peace and rise in glory and that the Lord will comfort all who are grieving for him. At the same time, I give thanks for the friendship and example of a great pastoral bishop.
Fr John C Greatbatch
Parish Priest – St Paul’s Charlestown
On November 11th 1992 I came out of hospital after an operation, a week later one of our suffragan bishops rang and as well as enquiring about my health, asked when I would be leaving the Church of England. With the resignation from the Anglican Church of many of my friends, a wilderness loomed of not knowing what the future was.
An Archdeacon was appointed as a provisional Episcopal Visitor, a name I had never heard of, but in the Diocese of Lichfield we were all summoned to meet him at St James, Wednesbury. As soon as I met him, I felt his warmth, his care and above all his determination that we could stay within the Anglican Church.
His many visits to my parish in Tipton gave me great encouragement; I felt there was someone who cared for me and what I was trying to do. He later became instrumental in my move to Charlestown. After his retirement to the West Country, our friendship grew and as well as being a regular visitor to Charlestown he became a tower of strength to me whenever I had a problem.
There have been two priests in my priesthood who have had a huge influence on me. The first was my training priest, who has now sadly left the Church over the ordination of women; the second was Bishop John, a man I truly respected and loved. It was a great honour for me to have been asked to be a coffin bearer at his Funeral Requiem Mass. He supported me in my priesthood and so I was able to support him on his last journey.
The laity will always be grateful for Bishop John’s ministry because in his teaching and preaching he constantly urged us to remain true to the traditions, disciplines, doctrines, sacraments, ministry and order of the Catholic and Apostolic Church. He encouraged us not to regard ourselves as ‘rebels’ who, if pressurized, would fall into line but as those who were loyal to the faith.
We valued Bishop John’s plain speaking, fearlessness and unwillingness to compromise, yet all this without losing the respect of the ‘other’ integrity. In his wide-ranging pastoral ministry, he cared for rural parishes in their simple style of worship, for those loyal to the Prayer Book as well as for the Catholic parishes. Isolated individuals, too, in parishes with unsympathetic clergy did not escape his deep concern.
Bishop John gave us a new understanding of a bishop’s role because in his ministry, Ignatius of Antioch’s saying ‘Where the bishop is, there is the church’ became a reality. Above all, in the words of the Venerable Bede he was ‘a father, teacher, beloved of Christ’. May Bishop John, who in life guided us towards the Truth be ‘granted in the world to come life everlasting’.