John Richards, Bishop of Ebbsfleet talks to new Directions about his experiences and hopes after a year in office

Just over a year ago the two Johns were consecrated to an office unique in the Church of England – Provincial Episcopal Visitor. At first, humorously, and perhaps mockingly, they were dubbed “flying bishops”. Now it is a common and affectionate shorthand for the two men whose ministry has, in many places, broken the blockade on orthodox parishes and isolated laity and clergy and brought encouragement and hope to a beleaguered community.

This month, New Directions asked Bishop John Richards to reflect on the last fourteen months.

What did he find on his appointment?

“When I came into office the orthodox constituency was very disillusioned and anxious about the future which was entirely understandable. Many of those in authority find it difficult to understand our position. The appointment of a pastor who was able to understand our folk has inevitably been a sense of encouragement to laity and clergy. I want to stress that this is not a personal thing about me or individual bishops nor is it a matter of being able to perform complicated rituals – it is simply the fact that they have someone who shares their theological position and can minister within that understanding as their bishop.”

Have any particular events given you hope for the future?

“Yes. First of all the appointment of David Hope to York has brought joy to the whole constituency. It shows we are going to be taken seriously and will be asked to play a full part in the future.

The second has been the Chrism masses. Our six in the south were full with many, many lay people and clergy numbers varying between 50 and 100. There was a very substantial body of younger clergy throughout and local reports show these numbers to be the tip of the iceberg.”

What things have you learnt as you’ve gone around?

“Well, first of all, it’s perfectly clear to me that if the Church of England loses our constituency it will be deeply impoverished. For example the view that catholics in the Church of England were stuck in some time warp while Rome marched on liturgically is nonsense. I have taken part in a wide variety of worship on my travels adapted to the needs of the area where the gospel is being preached. What they have in common is a dignity and reverence, good music and a sense of the presence of Christ in the blessed sacrament.

It’s noteworthy that some of our laity, tempted to leave, have returned because of impoverished worship elsewhere.

Second – an all-round recognition that the Church of England needs good, objective orthodox teaching of the faith. In diocese after diocese there is great anxiety about Post- Ordination and In-Service training. There is a lack of sound theology and too many fringe subjects. It was heartening to see Forward in Faith in Truro organising an excellent Lent course with speakers of considerable authority. Exeter is doing a July course. We have, countrywide, a good number of first rate theologians in schools and parishes – let’s use them.

Third there is a deep concern about the weakening of the church’s stance on moral teaching, especially sexuality. Evangelical and catholic orthodox are equally troubled. The church needs to recover confidence to demand of its members committed discipleship in every area of their lives. We have to draw a sharp distinction between what is appropriate for a Christian and what the law of the land permits!

What have been the personal highlights for you?

Some marvellous gatherings of the faithful. I’ve been impressed by the devotion, dedication and courage of priests and laity in really tough parishes on the estates and the inner cities. Only that type of worship and spirituality can make an impact there.

How far have you travelled?

About 25,000 miles by car and probably almost as much by train. I’ve been deeply touched by the kindness and hospitality given by priests, their wives and wardens.

How has your wife, Ruth, coped?

My family has tolerated my absences. It’s helped having Bridget, my daughter, as secretary at home.

What difficulties have you encountered?

It has been a new situation for diocesan bishops having an outside bishop on their patch. Some have coped more easily than others. It is increasingly clear that there must be the closest co-operation on vacancies in traditionalist parishes. The patron has a vital role to play and it is hoped that bishops will appoint traditionalist clergy and respect the parish tradition. Obviously the PEVs have a unique experience of orthodox clergy countrywide and can make a significant contribution in suggesting names.

Who can call on you to pastor them?

Anyone! This is most important. Parishes who have the vote have a clear relationship but anyone – priest or lay – who needs us or wants us can call on the PEVs for pastoring and support and advice.

Many are concerned about ordinands and theological colleges – are you?

Yes. It is vital we encourage our ordinands and get them in. I hope the Additional Curates Society will continue to play a part in this.

Too many ordinands, generally, show little understanding of the Church of England but I am hopeful that the Advisory Board of Ministry is beginning to show itself anxious that orthodox candidates are treated fairly.

What things have you found helpful that could be shared with the constituency?

Lots of things. I’ve just been to an excellent mission service in Birmingham with first-rate teaching. I hope that good practice in all our parishes can be networked – is that the word? New Directions can be a big help in this.

What about the new improved Roman Catholic offer to married priests?

Two things really. I’m sure they’re seeking to be generous but: 1. It’s difficult to know how they can finance families. 2. The vast majority of the laity will not go and they need someone to minister to them. If all the orthodox went to Rome – who would tend the sheep?

The law courts last year laid down that Synod can change doctrine and that “as by law established” is not a historical statement but means government can go on altering the church. Isn’t this to be resisted and overturned?

Orthodox catholics have always had a problem with secular courts – this is no different. The church is the Church of God not an institution like Barings which might disappear. In the end God will bring it back to faithfulness.

Will we ever get a third PEV, and will he be younger than you?

Yes it’s been agreed in principle and should be known soon. But it’s not a job for a man in his forties with a family and it’s not a job you can do for years and years. It needs an older man with a bit of experience and clout.

For years we have been told that “there is no one in your constituency of sufficient quality to be in leadership positions”. Is this your experience?

Let me make this perfectly clear. We have a rising generation of the highest calibre, men in their forties who could be bishops tomorrow and do an excellent job. There’s no question about that.

What of the future?

It is important that all of the Church of England welcome this network of traditional evangelical and catholic churches and encourage them to play the fullest part in its life and share in its leadership.