The Bishop of Ebbsfleet
The first in a series of interviews; this month with The Right Revd Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Ebbsfleet
ND New Directions: Now that the dioceses have voted on the Measure and considered the following motions, how do you see the outcome?
Bishop of Ebbsfleet: I think the results of the votes in the dioceses can be read in a number of ways and of course Watch is reading them in one way. I think, however, that’s not the only way to read them. They will, of course, say that in 42 dioceses out of 44 the Measure was passed, and that is the plain fact. However, I think 11 dioceses have passed a Following Motion of one sort or another calling for much more adequate and generous arrangements. Two dioceses defeated the legislation, amongst them the diocese of London which, as we are often reminded, is not only the largest diocese in the Church of England but one of the very few that grows from year to year. So we’ve seen about a quarter of the votes and a quarter of the dioceses record a vote that the present Measure is unsatisfactory. I think that that gives the Archbishops and the House of Bishops enough to work with, to go on saying we’ve not got this right yet, and there is a better way and that the voting in the dioceses does justify more work being done on the legislation.
Almost impossible – over the whole sweep, I think.
Early Music – anything by Victoria;
Modern music – anything by Britten.
Favourite piece of music?
Classical: Victoria Requiem.
Popular: I can’t answer this unless I know that my children are not going to read what I say because whatever I say they’ll think it embarrassing, Beth Rowley is a lovely female singer and Lily Allen has a wonderful voice but her lyrics are far too rude for me to commend.
ND: So how do you see the Synodical process developing to July or possibly November next year?
Bishop: Clearly February is going to be crucial. My understanding is that there are going to be at least two, probably three debates on the issue in February; one a debate on the report of the progress of the legislation through the Diocesan Synods, secondly a debate on the Code of Practice, which of course we haven’t seen yet and we await to see how useful it is, although we know that fundamentally a Code of Practice on its own will not do. But then thirdly, it looks very likely that there will be a debate on the Following Motion that was passed in the diocese of Manchester, which was cast particularly as a Diocesan Synod motion calling for better provision and my understanding is that it is very likely that the Business Committee will put that on the agenda for February. It will be very interesting to see if that gains significant support. If it does, then that will be very persuasive in putting pressure on the House of Bishops to improve the Measure.
I have to say Shakespeare, if that’s not too dull!
If I had to pick only one, simply because there is so much in them – I think I’m going to cheat and say either Bleak House or Little Dorrit.
ND: Do you see the issue coming to the July Synod for the final vote, or might it be pushed on to November?
Bishop: I don’t have any privileged information about that. July has always been the target date and I would have thought that if the Measure can be amended without need to refer back to the dioceses, then July would still be final approval. But I’m sure the November dates are being held in reserve in case the process is delayed.
ND: How have you found your absence from General Synod, where you were such a powerfully articulate voice, how has that affected your contribution to the debate do you think? Would you not rather be there to see the final scenes enacted?
Bishop: I would in many ways… I intend to be in the Gallery, I shall be cheering silently and praying hard and willing on members of the Catholic Group. Iwas on General Synod for eleven years and it’s rather like Stockholm Syndrome, you do get attracted by your captor and however much we might resist the pull of the Synodical system as the Church of England has devised it, there is something about the fray and the heat of the battle which is quite compelling. So I will miss the opportunity to speak in the final crucial debate but there are many excellent speakers, lay and ordained, male and female, in the Catholic Group and I’m sure the arguments will be put very well and it will be for the Synod to turn deaf ears if they are not persuaded by the case that we put.
ND: How have you found your relations with dioceses and bishops since you’ve been consecrated?
Bishop: I have to say that most bishops have been very welcoming, very charming with one or two exceptions. I think there is a great personal warmth and respect for our position but it’s not always translated into an understanding of what we need in terms of the legislation and the provision to flourish. I think there is a bit more of a problem slightly further down, petitioning parishes are sometimes seen as anomalies, difficulties, problems to be resolved but I think where parishes are doing well, are delivering in terms of local engagement and mission, that there is a great willingness in most cases for right to be done by them, and where my parishes are perhaps struggling then I think it’s understandable that hard questions are asked of them, but in that we are really in no different a position from the rest of the Church of England. I think my early relations with bishops and dioceses suggest that we have our destinies in our own hands; if we can grow our parishes and prove that we are irreplaceable in the local context, we will be supported.
Anything by Velázquez.
ND: In the past few months you have become a bishop, you have remained as Principal of Pusey House in Oxford, you have been appointed Chairman of Forward in Faith, and also General Secretary of the Society of the Maintenance of the Faith. How have you, over the past six or seven months, been able to balance and manage those individually rather demanding roles?
Bishop: Well, it’s marvellous having so much to do! Being bishop is the number one priority and I made it very clear when I became Chairman of Forward in Faith that the first call on my time and my energy was to all those who look to the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, whether they are members of Forward in Faith or not. All the PEVs are ex-officio members of the Council of Forward in Faith so I would be attending all the Council meetings anyway, whether or not I am chairman. I’ve long been a very committed member of Forward in Faith. I believe very strongly in the part it has to play so I’m very glad to have a significant role to play, ably supported by a very committed and helpful Executive, and the commitment of Stephen Parkinson particularly as the paid Director is invaluable. Pusey House remains hugely important to me. It’s marvellous to be able to return there as my base when I’m not somewhere else, to have the support of my colleagues and the lively community at Pusey House and to be able to pray in the Chapel and to offer the Mass there when I’m not on duty elsewhere. I think it’s a very fruitful interaction between Pusey House based there at the heart of our origins in the Oxford Movement and the Catholic constituency in the parishes. I think the clergy who look to me like to be able to think of Pusey House as their home and I think in turn members of the core community at the House like feeling that they belong to an institution which has this wider role. So that continues to be a very fruitful point of interaction. As for the Society for the Maintenance of the Faith, it’s also very dear to me. I’ve been involved with it for many years, and, again, I have the support of excellent colleagues on the Council, and I think that work can continue without any difficulty. Of course, I’m not alone amongst bishops in holding office in one or more of the Catholic societies. I might think of the Bishop of Pontefract who is chairman of the ACS and Bishop Martyn Jarrett, Bishop of Beverley, who is on the Council of the Church Union, Bishop Martin Warner, of course, who is Master of the Guardians at Walsingham, Bishop Norman Banks has taken on the Presidency of the Guild of All Souls – I think we share out these portfolios and it’s an important way of maintaining close links between the bishops on the one hand and the Catholic societies on the other.
What programme is unmissable on television?
Have I Got News for You.
What programme is unmissable on radio?
I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.
ND: You did not join those who responded to the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus by joining the Personal Ordinariate. This was a surprise to some. How did you come to your decision?
Bishop: I’ve always made very clear my support for the Ordinariate and my good wishes and blessings go with those who have taken that route. It is a pioneering route and I think we all wait to see how it will develop in the medium term and what its lasting and distinctive contribution to the life of the Catholic Church will be. I think in the end one can only speak slightly piously in terms of vocation, and I feel called to do at the moment what I am doing at the moment. I continue to believe in the witness of the Catholic Movement in the Church of England and, as I’ve said publicly now on a number of occasions, however hopeless the ecumenical task looks at present, it makes it no less important, and it is again a matter of vocation that one persists in bearing witness to that calling to Christian unity within the Church of England, but I think that we are all confronted day by day by the choices and the difficulties of where we are now, and I’m very glad the Ordinariate is there, and I wish it every success.
Who is your favourite historical character?
I suppose I’d be tempted to say Shakespeare again if that’s not too dull
Who is your least favourite historical character?
ND: There has been some very sharp division between those who remain in the Church of England, at least some of them for the time being, and those who went to the Ordinariate and some very unhelpful and rather unpleasant things have been said. What are the relations between the Ordinariate and those who remain at present as you see it and your personal relations, if any, with the members of the Ordinariate?
Bishop: There has been a regrettable drawing of boundaries, perhaps on both sides. Some people who have remained have seen those who have gone as deserting the cause; some of those who have gone now speak in a rather harsher language about Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics than perhaps we have heard for some years. I think what encourages me is that there are many members of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in England and Wales but also I think in Rome, who continue to value the witness that we make to the wider Catholic faith by maintaining our position in the Church of England. I hope that we can all unite around a sense that we can all stand for revealed religion, for the doctrinal, and ethical, and moral truths of the faith and that maintaining that common cause in the face of a liberal and secular society is what really matters rather than going back to a position of casting one another out in terms of who is in the true faith and who is not and, in the words of Thomas More, ‘we will all merrily meet in heaven’.
ND: You touched on it slightly in your answer there but how do you now see relations between what you might call loosely the Anglo-Catholics who remain in the Church of England and the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches?
Bishop: I think that the particular position of Anglo-Catholics is understood by Roman Catholics who are knowledgeable about the history of English Christianity and who know the particular context from which we emerge in England, or perhaps I should say in the British Isles, and I think, again, thoughtful Roman Catholics understand that we have a contribution to make to the presence and to the presentation of Orthodox Christianity – one Roman Catholic said to me that a strong Anglo-Catholic presence helps the Roman Catholic Church in England by reminding people it’s not only Roman Catholics who believe in the sacramental life and the intercession of the saints and the moral and ethical principles on which we stand, it’s also shared by a significant number of Anglicans. So I hope that there will continue to be that mutual respect and that travelling together.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Who is your favourite actor?
I remember seeing Ralph Richardson once, and he was superb.
ND: At the Assembly of Forward in Faith you said that after an initial scepticism about the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda you were now a ‘convert’. Can you tell us how that came about?
Bishop: I have been persuaded that if it’s given a fair wind, and, of course, it must be given a fair wind by the rest of the Church of England and that’s one of the questions to which we don’t yet know the answer, that the Society with its bishops acting collegially could provide the sort of sacramental and structured life that we have always said that we need. It’s very early days, there are many questions as yet unanswered, there is a lot of work to do but I think there is an interesting and potentially fruitful idea emerging here. I did not have a Damascus road moment, but I come on reflection to think that yes, this deserves serious consideration and my support.
What is the last film you saw?
It is called The Help which is a film about the experience of Negro housemaids in the southern United States in the 1950s and 60s before the Civil Rights Movement.
What was the last live music you heard?
A recital of operatic arias at St John’s Smith Square in memory of my deceased former English teacher and opera critic J. B. Steane.
What is your favourite food?
Roast belly of pork.
ND: If you were to be asked to prophesy, where do you see yourself and Forward in Faith and AngloCatholics generally by the end of the year 2012?
Bishop: I hope that we will have assurances of bishops with authority, bishops who are able to lead as Fathers in God, and that that will lead to a renewal in confidence and a renewal in vocations and we will be looking to a substantial rebuilding and renewal of the Catholic witness in our Church, which is something that I think we need not just for the sake of the Church but for the sake of English Christianity. That would be the best outcome and the one for which at the moment we are all continuing to fight. ND
Who is your favourite actress?
Helen Mirren and Kate Winslet.
If not doing what you are doing now, then what?
What is your favourite drink?
Early in the evening, Bombay Sapphire and tonic; over dinner a good Burgundy.
What annoys you most? People who won’t shut up!